Red, the colour of prosperity for indigenous Ulikan rice farmers in the Philippines


It is 6.00 in the Pasil River Valley of Kalinga Province in the Philippine Cordillera. Lucious green mountains dotted with rice fields extend as far as the eye can see. Lita Caniw, 72, is headed to work at her six parcels of land in the Fummag Rice Terraces. Throughout her fields, Lita grows a number of traditional varieties of rice, including Chong-ak, Chaykot, Ifuwan, Waray and a unique red coloured, non-sticky, aromatic long grain rice called Ulikan.

Ulikan red rice is an heirloom variety of the species Oryza sativa Indica that is cultivated by women farmers in the elevated rice terraces, 500 to 2 000 metres above sea level. It is high yielding – between 2.2-3.8 tonnes per hectare – with a higher-than-average number of rice grains per flower cluster, and is resistant to pests and disease. The variety has a wonderful earthy aroma when cooked, with a mild flavour.

Owing to its versatility and adaptability, Ulikan red rice has become a popular source of food for the barangay (a Filipino name for villages) of Pasil. It is traditionally served with dried legumes, mungo beans and wild-foraged river greens.

"Rice in the Philippine Cordillera represents life, culture and identity. It is the first crop to be planted before all of the other crops. It is the first food families prepare before cooking other foods," says Lita. When traveling to other places, the Ipasilians (meaning native to Pasil) are recognized by the kind of rice they eat. They say that when their children go to the city to study at university, the neighbours smell their Ulikan red rice cooking and say, "They are from Pasil. Their rice is delicious and aromatic."

"I have been working here in the rice terraces since I was 8 years old when I interrupted my schooling to help maintain the family rice fields," says Lita. At the age of 15, she married a farmer, Mr Pablo Caniw, and together the couple had nine children – eight boys and one girl. Once the children finished elementary school, they, too, began helping their parents grow and maintain the rice fields.

Lita's ancestors and their ancestors before them grew Ulikan red rice, since ancient times. Legend has it that when the great leader Likan of the Taguibong tribes went missing after a hunt, the Ulikan red rice variety grew from his remains. The tribe brought the seeds home and planted them in remembrance of their leader. It was said that the colour red was a sign from Likan that he was happy that his descendants had honoured him. In fact, the name "Ulikan" means that Likan will live on, as long as the rice does.

To this day, the rice is cultivated using indigenous traditional farming practices, beginning with preparing the seedbeds and laying out the panicles. Meanwhile, farmers prepare the fields with a first plowing that is followed by a second plowing after a couple of weeks, once the dikes have been repaired and plastered.

Elders practice traditional rituals during the different phases of cultivation. During the sowing, the elder farmers will undertake a sissiwa (or ritual) by placing knotted weeds in the dike corner to prevent pests from eating the seeds. Another ritual is practiced during transplanting so that the rice planted will grow to be robust. Other rituals yet are done for a healthy rice crop and a good harvest.

The women in these communities are the primary source of traditional knowledge about seed selection and preservation. They are therefore key to maintaining the full diversity of over 30 varieties of heirloom rice, all of which are perfectly adapted to the local environment.

There are approximately 500 Ulikan red rice farmers - 80 percent of whom are women - growing the heirloom variety along the mountain slopes of the Pasil River Valley. They have come together to form five rice farmer associations, which have organized themselves into a federation in 2006. When a farmer from these associations wants to sell some rice, the buyer that is employed by the Pasil Municipality, buys the Ulikan rice directly from the farmer. Once the buyer has completed the quality assurance controls, the rice is then passed to the processor, the Kalinga Heirloom Product.

Still, traditional heirloom rice varieties like Ulikan Red Rice are at risk of disappearing. Farmers are tempted to change to commercial varieties, and younger generations are leaving the area in search of work, abandoning the high elevation rice terraces and this unique native variety.

In 2019, Ulikan red rice obtained the official Mountain Partnership Product (MPP) label. Created by the Mountain Partnership together with Slow Food International, the MPP initiative is a certification and labelling scheme based on environmentally and ethically sound value chain approaches. It provides technical and financial support to small-holder mountain producers from developing countries to create enterprises, enhance their marketing skills and boost their livelihoods by improving the value chains of mountain products.

Before Ulikan Red rice joined the MPP initiative, it was bartered by the farmers and sold on the market as an ordinary rice. Since receiving the MPP narrative label – which tells the story of the mountain product, enabling consumers better understand the rice's origins and cultivation, processing and preservation methods, nutritional value and role in local culture – its image has been propelled to new markets.

Farmers have seen a 5 percent increase in sales of Ulikan red rice since its launch at the World Food Expo in Manila in August 2019 with the support of Slow Food International. Lita and the other farmers are using the money to pay farm workers to help them in their fields as well as to pay for their children's education expenses. More farmers have become interested in growing Ulikan red rice, which is why the Agriculture Office of the Local Pasil Government Unit has begun allotting some of its fund to buy Ulikan red rice seeds as starter seeds for farmers who do not already have the variety.

"Growing different heirloom rice varieties is important. It allows me to feed my large family as well as earn extra income by selling the excess rice or bartering it for other necessities. It is also an important food for certain rituals – like giving it as a gift to newlyweds as a sign of prosperity and food security," adds Lita.

Growing a diversity of rice varieties is also important to Lita and the other farmers because it can improve their resilience to climate change and variables in the environment as well as provide protection against local pests. Crop genetic diversity is essential to minimizing crop loss and reducing risks related to dependency on limited cash crops. Agro-biodiversity is an excellent coping mechanism for dealing with environmental stresses, changes in soil conditions, major random catastrophes, and incidences of plant diseases.

Thanks to the initiatives of the Mountain Partnership together with Slow Food International and the rice farmers, Ulikan red rice will likely continue to be grown for generations to come.

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Photo from the Pasil Slow Food Community Facebook

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