The search for fireflies in Ifugao rice terraces

Posted by watchmen
February 7, 2024


By Dennis Gorecho

The film “Firefly,” which won best film in the 2023 Metro Manila Film Festival, depicts the sad state of these blinking bugs — they are fast disappearing.

Directed by Zig Dulay, the film is set in 1999 as narrated from the perspective of an adult Tonton (Dingdong Dantes) who reminisces about his childhood. A 10-year-old Tonton (Euwenn Mikaell) goes on a search for the “Island of Fireflies,” a mystical island he learned from his single mother Elay (Alessandra de Rossi) during bedtime stories. He develops a talent for drawing through the night-time stories of a firefly, which saves a butterfly from a vicious beast.

We are usually mesmerized by fireflies as they begin to glow in yellow, greenish yellow or orange hues during the witching hours of dusk. Lovely little creatures, glittering, sparkling, throwing fragments of light in the dark night skies.

Also known as “lightning bugs,” fireflies emit a bioluminescent glow from their light-emitting organs which are found in their abdomen.

Different species blink for different lengths of time, like the dots and dashes of the Morse code. And like the Morse code, the flashes are used to communicate, sometimes as a warning to predators they are toxic, and sometimes to catch the attention of a desired mate.

A unique courtship quirk, the flashing patterns are used to attract a mate where the males usually fly above in search of a female, and when a female is interested, she flashes a light that draws the male to her.

Unfortunately, fireflies are slowly disappearing. The most serious threat is habitat destruction as many forests and grasslands are converted to residential, industrial, agricultural, and commercial uses. Suitable habitat has also been eroded due to more drought-like conditions caused by climate change.

Also, too much artificial light interferes with fireflies’ mating rituals.

The last time I saw many fireflies was during one of my visits to the Batad Rice Terraces in Banaue, Ifugao.

The Batad Rice Terraces is part of five Unesco World Heritage sites located in Ifugao, which also include Bangaan Rice Terraces, Mayoyao Rice Terraces, Nagacadan Rice Terraces, and Hungduan Rice Terraces.

The Unesco website noted: “The fruit of knowledge handed down from one generation to the next, and the expression of sacred traditions and a delicate social balance, they have helped to create a landscape of great beauty that expresses the harmony between humankind and the environment.”

The Ifugao complex of stone or mud walls and the careful carving of the natural contours of hills and mountains combine to make terraced pond fields, coupled with the development of intricate irrigation systems, harvesting water from the forests of the mountain tops, and an elaborate farming system.

Batad is a tiny, remote village in Banaue where the panoramic view of the rice terraces resemble an enormous amphitheater. The Batad terraces are considered the most well-preserved and the best among all rice terraces. Visitors trek along steep mountain trails and rocky or muddy terrain.

The first time I visited Batad was in the 1990s when there was no electricity and our source of light at night was petromax.

In his 1946 study “Mythology of the Ifugaos,” historian Roy Barton identified “Tayaban” as one of the death deities that feasted on men’s souls. They revealed themselves to the world in the form of tiny, flying monsters covered with shiny scales, so that by night they look like fireflies.

“Batad” is a 2004 Cinemalaya film about a boy who wants more from life than what his small village can offer. While his father pursues the mission of repairing the rice terraces of adjoining Ifugao villages, he is obsessed with owning a pair of rubber shoes as he takes all odd jobs and ultimately becomes a tour guide. Upon possessing the long-desired rubber shoes, he attempts to leave his Ifugao roots and chase big city dreams.

The film depicts one of the causes for the deterioration of the terraces as identified by Unesco: declining interest among the Ifugao youth to work on the land or turning away from farming and looking for higher-paying occupations elsewhere.

Rural-to-urban migration processes limit the necessary agricultural workforce to maintain the extensive area of terraces.

Unesco stressed that pride of place and culture, including the long- term commitment of its indigenous Ifugao stakeholders, shall ensure the sustainability and conservation of this living cultural landscape over time.

May the fireflies continue dazzling the night with magical flashes of light.



“Peyups” is the moniker of University of the Philippines.



Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, e-mail, or call 0917-5025808 or 0908-8665786./WDJ

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