Recent Discussions on Cultural Landscapes in the Philippines

Mts. Iglit-Baco is a cultural landscape that has been shaped by centuries of human activity by the Tau-Buid and Buhid Mangyan communities. Copyright: Bojer Capati

The grasslands at the base of Mts. Iglit-Baco has been shaped by centuries of human activity and tamaraw (native buffalo) grazing. Copyright: Bojer Capati.

The world contains a vast variety of landscapes that represent a myriad of regions, cultures, and different approaches of man’s adaptation to the natural world. Since 1992, these particular landscapes were termed as ‘cultural landscapes’, recognised by UNESCO to be the combined works of nature and man. These places give a glimpse of the evolution of settlements and societies over a period of time, driven by the physical constraints and opportunities under their specific natural environments, and crafted by economic, social and cultural forces (WHC, 2012).  In most cases, cultural landscapes reflect techniques of sustainable land–use that are specific to the environments they are situated in (ISCCL, nd).  They also often provide spiritual connections with nature and are integrated to the biological diversity of the region (ibid). As a junction between cultural and natural heritage, tangible and intangible heritage, this complex idea questions the traditional divide between seemingly different spheres of knowledge on resource management, international law and planning policy. 

The deferral of the nomination of the Pimachiowin Akin in Canada at the 37th session of the World Heritage Committee in Phnom Penh has reinforced the inquiry of holistically thinking about sites that have interlinking cultural and natural values (UNESCO WHC-14/38.COM/9B, 2014; Caballero, 2015).  Efforts are being made by ICOMOS and IUCN in “connecting the practice” and bridging the divide between culture and nature (UNESCO WHC-14/38.COM/9B, 2014). A collaborative project involving institutions like the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), the German Bundesamt für Naturschutz (BfN) IUCN and ICOMOS is currently being done to strengthen this important link (IUCN, 2014). Part of the findings of the inquiry are found in the recently published World Heritage Review No. 75 which focused on special culture and nature linkages.   The World Heritage Center highlighted two learning points in the recent collaborative thinking process (Rao, 2015). First, is that there is recognition that tourist visitation in cultural sites impacts their natural settings and that natural sites have cultural values. Second, is that there is a new emphasis for collaboration efforts between World Heritage and protected areas in applying comprehensive landscape conservation strategies.



The Philippines is an island-nation, which has a long and continuing relationship with the land and sea. Its evidence is found in examples like the Rice Terraces of the Cordilleras, which is one of the most prominent living cultural landscapes in the UNESCO World Heritage List.  This organically formed landscape holds traditional knowledge on the optimal use of water resources and ancient methods of high altitude sustainable farming technologies (Nozawa et al, 2008). The seemingly simple terrace technology demonstrates the ancient Ifugao people’s deep understanding of their natural environment including rain patterns, soil types, water resources and native vegetation, which they have fully utilized for their agro-forestry system  (Agbisit, 2015). Because of more than 2000 years of evolution, it has also played a key role in the conservation of the surrounding forests and biodiversity of flora and fauna  (ibid). Augusto Villalon (2005) identified the site as significantly symbolic because it was built voluntarily without the use of forced labour, combining ingenious engineering, architecture and environmental management, which are still sustainable even up to this day.

The Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras use ancient knowledge on terrace construction demonstrating the Ifugao people’s deep understanding of their natural environment. Copyright: Bojer Capati

The Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras use ancient knowledge on terrace construction demonstrating the Ifugao people’s deep understanding of their natural environment. Copyright: Bojer Capati

Other examples of cultural landscapes can be found in different parts of the country, like the organically formed landscape of the Batanes archipelago and the associative landscape of the Mayon Volcano, which are both in the World Heritage Tentative List (WHC, 2015). There are many other examples of cultural landscapes in the Philippines, which reinforce the necessity for deeper discussions that holistically look at safeguarding these sites and promoting their sustainable use.  The topics of scholarly work in some of cultural landscapes will be discussed in the next section.

In the conference at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the USA, four Philippine case studies were presented which discussed sites of local significance. The conference was entitled, “Cultural Landscapes & Heritage Values: Embracing Change in the Management of Place” and it highlighted cultural landscapes as a critical subject of contemporary heritage policy and practice.  The discussion identified the importance of discourse on the evolving understanding of cultural landscape resources, which need to be identified, valued and managed (UMass, 2015).  There were four main themes that were covered in the conference namely, (1) Multi-Cultural Landscapes: Issues of Social Justice and Power; (2) Authenticity and Integrity vs. Change in Living Places; (3) Tangible and Intangible Heritage in Cultural Landscapes; and (4) Sustainability in Cultural Landscape Management (ibid).  The Philippine case studies discussed ideas about settlement mapping, policy evolution and its effects to the use of traditional materials, urban built form analysis, and the relationship between indigenous people and agro-forestry management.  During another conference in 2013 entitled, “Meaning and Aesthetics of Asian Cultural Landscapes”, Susan Aquino-Ong presented the importance of large heritage trees in four separate cities. The conference was organized by the Asian Cultural Landscapes Association (ACLA) and was held at the Seoul National University in South Korea.



Spatial Mapping

Protecting the essential character of cultural landscapes start from understanding the heritage values and physical character that are unique to these places. Spatial mapping serves as a critical first step in providing baseline data for future development projects that are sensitive to the historic character of sites.  In the study of Cunanan and Nadal (2015), they have looked into the built form of plaza complexes in the province of Pampanga. The researchers have done a built-form analysis, which identified the cultural elements of Kapampangan town centers in six municipalities. By mapping infrastructure design, architectural styles, spatial elements and landscape features, patterns were identified and typologies were formed defining the character of Kapampangan Town Centers.  Cunanan and Nadal hope that the tool can be used to evaluate future modifications that may affect the genius loci of the Kapampangan town cores.

The Cathedral of San Fernando, Pampanga as see from the municipal hall. Copyright: Bojer Capati.

The Cathedral of San Fernando, Pampanga as see from the municipal hall. Copyright: Bojer Capati.

In another study, Nadal and Navarra (2015) evaluated the culture-nature adaptation of different households at the Batad Rice Terraces in the Cordilleras. Eight typologies were mapped, highlighting different household characters and community values. The researchers concluded that the community’s way of life was grounded on cultivation and shelter security. The community understood the mountain environment’s changing character and they have tried to find ways of integrating development trends without altering the most important heritage values inherited from their elders.

In 2004, Ignacio documented the unique housing types of the Batanes Archipelago, located at the Northern tip of the Philippines. Unlike any other architecture found in the country, low-slung, strong, stone Ivatan architecture responds to its severe environment (Villalon, 2005). Ignacio (2004) identified 11 housing types that have evolved from wood and thatch construction into stone, lime, wood and thatch archetype, which show adaptations to topography, earthquakes, and typhoons.  The building construction was also influenced by the availability of materials, technologies available and colonisers influenced that reached the remote islands (ibid).  A management plan, which contained a complete set of GIS maps of the entire area  containing detailed inventory of the natural, cultural, archaeological and architectural areas was produced in 2004 (Villalon, 2005).

Importance of Heritage Trees

There is increasing literature in the importance of heritage trees as cultural and natural asset in several cities in Asia (Caballero & Pereira Roders, 2014). Designating outstanding historical trees as heritage in the cities of Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Singapore reflect the environmental value of trees and their importance to communities, both as cultural and natural heritage assets (Jim, 2005). For the case of heritage trees in the Philippines, Aquino-Ong (2013) studied the species of Albizia saman (Raintree), which is a locally familiar and old tree species, which are abundant in most urban landscapes in the Philippines. The study focused on the intangible aspects of the heritage tree in four cities – Quezon City, Legazpi City, Cebu City and Davao City, wherein each city belonged to a specific climatic region.  The researcher observed that aside from providing ecological benefits and moderating microclimate temperatures in the area, large heritage trees served as a great social equalizer, wherein a broad range of people, regardless of social class rest under and seek refuge during the hottest time of summer.

Community Issues and Change Agents

Recognising that change is part of the continuous evolution of cultural landscapes, contributing to the social, economic and environmental goals of human development is being mainstreamed in the protection of heritage sites. However, conflicts arise when the needs of present-day communities directly or indirectly damage their natural environments and disregarding long-held practices of their forebears. In the study of Capati (2015) about the Mountains of Iglit-Baco National Park (MIBNP), the landscape has been shaped by centuries of human activity by the Tau-Buid and Buhid Mangyan communities. These indigenous groups practice ‘kaingin’ (slash-and-burn agriculture) inside the rugged terrains of the park. Over the centuries, a resilient ecosystem thrived in such an environment forming specially adapted species. The research highlighted that in recent years, the ecosystem of MIBNP became fragile due to changes in climate, indigenous culture, fire ecology, and human development. Capati believes that the site’s conservation requires mitigating climate change, integrating indigenous agro-forestry practices with new scientific techniques, preserving Mangyan culture, conserving biodiversity, and encouraging community participation. He suggests that the success of its continued existence could only be achieved through genuine cooperation and governance among a variety of stakeholders, bridging cultural differences between indigenous communities and other external stakeholders.

Capati's interview with the Tau-Buid tribe leader in Sitio Tamisan. Copyright: Bojer Capati

Capati’s interview with the Tau-Buid tribe leader, Fausto Novelozo in Sitio Tamisan. Copyright: Bojer Capati.

In the study of Navarra and Belga-Casono (2015) at the Batad Rice Terraces, the researchers found out that materials of traditional houses have changed from local thatch to galvanized iron roofing. The local thatch Imperata cylindrica, was a grass that was commonly found along the adjacent slopes of the rice terraces. The shift to non-traditional roofing materials was attributed to changes in policy regarding slash-and-burn agriculture and prohibition of indigenous practices of land clearing. The policy-change led to the shift in the ecological character of several landscapes and eventually reducing the areas of grassland in the region. The researchers believe that the decreased areas of harvesting made the material more expensive to purchase than other non-traditional roofing materials.

Traditional house of the Ifugao. Copyright: Bojer Capati

Traditional house of the Ifugao. Copyright: Bojer Capati

Agbisit (2015) documented that the Philippine National Commission for UNESCO advocates several strategies to preserve the Cordillera rice terraces. The National Commission believes that solutions are grounded on multi-faceted partnerships with stakeholders including the national government, local government units, international organizations, private sector, non-government organizations and local community groups (Agbisit, 2015).  The continuous transmission of traditional knowledge is crucial to the site’s sustainability and it can be shared through formal and informal means (ibid). Effective management plans, land use guidelines, integrated tourism management plans and environmental codes developed with the community are also envisioned by the National Commission to strengthen protection strategies to preserve the rice terraces.

ICOMOS PH NCCA talk Cultural Landscape

ICOMOS Philippines Heritage Talk Series on Cultural Landscapes. Copyright: ICOMOS Philippines / Mapee Singson


The different topics mentioned above barely scratch the surface of issues and variety of cultural landscapes in the Philippines. Continuous documentation, development of innovative methodologies and formulation of a variety of research foci are needed to provide layered solutions to improve the sustainability of Philippine cultural landscapes. Landscape architects, in collaboration with other experts in the field of architecture, biodiversity conservation, natural resource management, history, sociology, community engagement, and heritage management need to work together with a variety of stakeholders to provide inclusive and well thought of solutions, amidst rapid changes in society. Spatial mapping is a fundamental step where landscape architects can contribute their expertise in protecting sites. Natural resources like heritage trees need to be seen as part of a greater urban resource and traditional practices like slash-and-burn farming need to be carefully considered as part of traditional systems that ecosystems have adapted over the centuries. In all of these efforts, local communities need to be in the heart of the discussions, for they are people who will be most affected by changes in policies and management strategies for areas where they live.

It is important to document these topics and share them through publications and conferences to bring the issues to a broader audience of expertise. This will allow possible collaborations with others who encounter similar situations and provide opportunities to understand different ways of thinking. The presentation of Capati and Aquino-Ong in Manila at an event organised by ICOMOS Philippines and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) is a good sign of growing interest and scholarly discourse about cultural landscapes in the Philippines.

From 11 to 13 September 2015, ACLA will hold its 4th International Symposium on “Agricultural Landscapes of Asia: Learning, Preserving and Redefining” at Bali, Indonesia. Each year, the association reviews existing cultural landscapes, sharing ideas and experiences and finding solutions for landscape planning and conversation that fits into the Asian culture and perspective (Asia Academy, 2015). ICOMOS will also hold the International Committee on Cultural Landscapes (ISCCL) Annual Meeting and Symposium at Jeju Island, South Korea on 1-6 November 2015. This year’s symposium theme is “Re-thinking Lifescape: Linking Landscape to Everyday Life”, which will look into the values of familiar and everyday landscapes as a background for living (IFLA, 2015). These events will provide opportunities for cultural landscape practitioners to synergise their work and hopefully, Philippine case studies will also be presented.

More information on the work of IFLA on Cultural Landscapes can be found in this link:


About the Author:
Gabriel Caballero

Gabriel Caballero

About the Photographer: Bojer Capati finished his Masters degree in Geography (Urban and Regional Planning) in Peking University, China and he specialises on National Park Planning and World Heritage Studies. He is currently a member of ICOMOS Philippines and  continues to engage in conservation projects in the Philippines, particularly in the province of Mindoro and the Mountains of Iglit-Baco National Park. He can be contacted through his email at


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