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Vol. V,    No. 26      August 7- 13, 2005      Quezon City, Philippines











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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)

Posted by Bulatlat

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 region

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) golden kuhol (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.

Holok ritual

There are three key persons in the holok tradition. The first person is the Bumhat. The bumhat is a member of a clan to which the gods have entrusted the technology. Only those of the bloodline of Nalidong can become bumhat. Historically, it is only the bumhat and some of his kin who know the names of the needed plants. It is also a popular belief that only the plants cut by the bumhat and his kin will be effective.

The second person is the mombaki. The mombaki or traditional priest performs the baki (ritual) for the holok. There are no lineage requirements for mombaki. They learn their craft through apprenticeship and maintain their integrity through the diligent observation of vows.

The third person is the Tumunak. The tumunak is believed to be chosen by the gods to guide the people to bountiful rice harvests. He initiates the various phases of the rice production cycle. People do not sow rice seed, transplant rice seedlings, or harvest rice until the tumunak has began to do so.

The holok is usually performed during April and May when the rice crop begins to bear fruit and is attacked by army worms. People who saw signs of an army worm attack immediately inform the tumunak. The tumunak notifies the rice field owners to prepare for a holok. The rice field owners meet and agree upon a date for the holok. Each owner contributes a chicken or even several chickens for the ritual. Owners of wider rice fields usually give greater contribution.

The various activities for the holok take three days. The ritual is performed furtively at night to prevent the attendance of cynics and to ensure that the people are already confined in their homes. During the afternoon of the first day, the bumhat, his kin, and several volunteers leave the village surreptitiously to gather the needed plants. Their departure is unannounced to avoid negative comments from cynics. There is a strong belief, which remains to this day, that cynical comments lead to a failure of the holok. Since the required plants grew in different areas of the municipality, several gathering teams are formed. It is important that each team has a member of the clan of the bumhat to cut the plants. Other team members are not necessarily relative of the bumhat, just volunteers to help carry the load.

A few hours after the departure of the gathering teams, village criers announce a tongoh or holiday for the next day. During the tongoh, no one is allowed to work or even pass through the rice fields. It is believed that the presence of people in the fields dissipate the power of the holok.

By about one o’clock in the morning, the gathering teams return with their loads. They bring the plants to the puntunakan (rice granary) of the tumunak where the mombaki and other interested individuals wait. People from other villages, especially from those that do not have the technology of the holok, bring donations of chickens for a share of the pesticide.

The mombaki begins the ritual by calling upon and offering sacrifices to the spirits of the dead bumhat and mombaki especially those who had exemplary achievements. These spirits are considered appeased and able to intercede with the gods only if a favorable sign is read from the bile sac of the sacrificed chicken. The number of chickens to be sacrificed varies.

The mombaki next calls upon and offers sacrifices to the various gods and earth spirits. A chicken each is offered to: Liddom, a god in the Skyworld; Yumogyog, a god in the Underworlds; Gah-idoh, a red bird considered an omen; the pinading or spirits residing in trees, terraces, rocks, and various bodies of water; Kidol, the god of thunder; and Mana’haot, the sun.

The best chicken of the lot is offered to Liddom. Only roosters could be offered to Kidol. Except for the chicken offered to the Pinading, all sacrificed chickers are not eaten. All carcasses are tied together by the foot and hung from the kuling or beam of the alang until they rotted away.

After the required sacrifices and prayers, the people begin chopping the plants brought by the gathering teams. Anybody is allowed to help in the task. There are no special chopping tools required. The people use ordinary knives and machetes.

The chopped mixture is placed in a mortar in preparation for pounding. The mombaki performs another ritual, casts a pestle into the mortar and collapses to the ground to symbolize the power of the holok. As the mombaki feigns death, the people shout in unison that the bigeh or worms have died. The people take turns pounding. The smell of the holok is claimed to be so overpowering that no one could pound for more than a few minutes. Aside from its smell, the mixture itself is not harmful to humans or animals. Those who handled the pounded mass put betel nut into their mouths with unwashed hands and yet suffered no ill effects.

At about two o’clock in the morning, the meat of the chicken offered to the Pinading is cooked and its broth is sprinkled by the mombaki over the pounded holok. After the blessing, the mombaki and bumhat pick volunteers to distribute the mixture. Each volunteer is prohibited from working, eating or bathing for a day after he has helped in the distribution. He is required to stay at home and is allowed occasional sips of rice wine.

Distribution of the holok is timed to end before daybreak. From daybreak to sunset is time of the tongoh. Violators of the tongoh are fined the estimated number of chickens required for a repeat of the ritual.

The holok is distributed primarily in the infested areas. Prophylactic doses are also put around uninfected rice fields to prevent the spread of the army worms. A handful of the holok is put on a cut section of a banana trunk and secured to the dike of the rice fields with stakes. Each handful of the holok is enough to protect rice fields within a 100 meter radius. The area of placement is often chosen because it affords free passage of air in all directions. The heat of the sun allegedly increases the power of the holok since it cause greater vaporization of the mixture. On the other hand, water spoils the holok and causes it to lose power.

A day after the tongoh, the volunteers visit the rice fields to assess the affectivity of the holok. If the holok is successful, the army worms either drop dead or creep to the tips of the rice leaves and shrivel. If there were no observable signs of success, the tumunak is informed of the situation for a repeat of the ritual. There are instances when the holok fails, but these are always attributed to the presence or comments of cynics.

The holok is left in the rice fields until all the army worms die. Nordis/ Posted by Bulatlat

Part 2:  Contemporary Holok Practice




© 2004 Bulatlat  Alipato Publications

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