The Holok: An Indigenous Pest Control System in Ifugao

Pest management in the Cordillera came from extensive practical and traditional knowledge developed over years of observing natural processes. Called Holok, it entails comprehensive understanding of the entire rice production system and makes use of more than 20 indigenous plants.

Northern Dispatch (Nordis)
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Part 1: Rice, Pests and Ifugao Gods

Pests plaguing the rice terraces is a major concern in the Cordillera region. Since pesticide spray is unfamiliar in the area, farmers rely on indigenous pest management systems that their ancestors taught them. The most significant techniques include synchronized transplanting, field sanitation and seed selection.

The most complex and exemplary pest control system is believed to be the holok in Hingyon, Ifugao. Holok involves the collection and processing of a variety of plants known only to selected members of the community. What makes it more complicated is the ritual involved in its preparation, which the farmers believe “transubstantiated” the plants into pesticides.

The holok mixture is not sprayed on the rice plants. Instead, a handful of the mixture is placed along strategic areas in the levees. Amazingly, as testified by all the farmers in the locality, insects in the rice fields fall to the ground and die a day or two after application.

Despite the holok’s known extraordinary feat in the Ifugao rice world, little effort is exerted in seeking scientific basis even with the increase in scientific knowledge and available government resources. Obviously, scientific endeavors are biased towards modern agriculture that promotes the use of chemical pesticides for pest control.


The holok is practiced in the barangays (villages) of O-ong, Cababuyan and Mompolia, all in Hingyon, Ifugao. They are located roughly 12 to 20 kms northeast of the capital town of Lagawe, Ifugao. Some of the boble (settlements) could be reached by vehicular transport while others are accessible only through hiking.

The holok region has over a hundred sitios (sub-villages), some of which are a mere few meters apart. Settlement areas are usually characterized by small clusters of residences, granaries and occasional sari-sari (variety) stores. These areas are mostly found on elevated ground and are close to the rice fields. Villagers said settlement sites were chosen for their proximity to trails and water sources, better passage of air and sound (to make it easier to hear the village crier), and better defensive positions. They also said settlements on higher grounds also facilitate the easier flow of human and animal waste to fertilize the rice fields.

The main source of livelihood in the area is tending the land: the rice fields (payoh), swiddens (habal), and privately-owned forested areas (muyong). All households in the community engage in farming, regardless of whether these are of rich (kadangyan), middle (uduh-udol), or poor (nawotwot) class backgrounds. Households are involved in the farming cycle as owner cultivators, tenants (makiliyak), or wage laborers (bumuklah). The produce from the swidden farms and the livestock and poultry are mainly for home use. Occasionally, these are sold to generate cash to buy basic consumer goods like salt, sugar, lard, coffee and kerosene, among others.

Rice terraces cover most of the land. Almost all gently sloping hollows between hills have been carved into rice terraces. The hollows are preferred for terracing because they act as natural catchments for water, topsoil, and humus run-off from the mountains.

The rice varieties planted are classified into the “tinawon” (traditional variety) and the exotic variety or “irik.” The “tinawon” varieties includes donaal, hinglow, imbangor, imbu-ukan, Inguhad, inlammuhan, madduli, imbanig, and the glutinous types such as ingumalingon, ulluy, ingiwih, binoggon, and imbalikwadang (black rice). The “irik” variety includes mantika, ihapoh, and oklad.

The rice cropping pattern determines labor in the community. Time for other work is made available only when tasks in the rice fields are relatively less intensive. Most often, men leave the community to search for jobs in the mines, vegetable farms, and town centers. This leaves the women, children and elderly to deal with the labor required in the farms and homes.

Controlling the rice pests

Rice pests perennially plague the rice crop in Hingyon. The most common pests are army worms (Pseudaletia unipuncta Haworth) goldenkuhol(edible snail), and rats. Informants relayed that army worms are the most damaging and they inflict severe losses on the rice crop even before they are detected. The larvae feed on the parts of the plants which are above the ground. Usually, they eat all parts of the leaves except the midribs. The worms appear sporadically and suddenly in immense numbers. Frequently, they also disappear suddenly.

Army worms figured prominently in the discovery of the holok. The old generations of farmers, through the use of traditional knowledge and power of traditional prayer, used a pesticide created from the combined mass of more than 20 plants. The system has been proven effective by more than seven generations. In recent years, few farmers have tried spraying pesticides to kill army worms. The practice has not gained widespread support due to cost and safety measures.

Holok is a general Ifugao term for grass and other small vegetation. In Hingyon, it also refers to a distinctive pest management system that uses the various parts of more than 20 plants to produce a pesticide against army worms and other rice pests. The system, as traditionally practiced, was part of the hongan di pageh, the system of Ifugao rituals on rice culture.

When exactly the holok was discovered is unknown. However, villagers in Mompolia were able to trace the holok back to the time of Nalidong, some seven generations ago. By their estimates, that would have been around the 1860s.

Based on oral literature, Nalidong inherited the technology from his forebears. But he is best known because he successfully used the holok on other crops and without the benefit of the baki or rituals invoking the aid of the spirits of dead ancestors and the gods. Due to his achievement, people believed that Nalidong had certain gifts given to him by the gods.

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