BANAUE, Philippines (Reuters) - As the Philippines grapples with its worst food crisis in years, many farmers in its cradle of rice cultivation are abandoning farming for more lucrative trades.
Lambuyong Burnag, a 70-year old tribal farmer, now poses for tourists' pictures in his multi-colored loincloth and plumed head-dress with the postcard-perfect Ifugao rice terraces in the northern Philippines as a scenic backdrop.
Instead of cultivating his own rice on the small patch of land he inherited, he uses the payment he receives from tourists to buy cheap rice distributed by the government to poor communities.
"We can't really depend on our small farms to give us better lives in the future," the betel-chewing Burnag told Reuters while waiting for the next group of tourists to take his picture.
Burnag is too old to climb the narrow and steep stone-walled terraced paddies that appear to be giant stairways on the slopes of the Cordillera mountains. But even the youngsters in his village are abandoning rice cultivation. It's back-breaking work that requires squatting for hours on end in insect-ridden, flooded paddy fields.
Even though rice prices are high at the moment, farmers' profits are low due to the high cost of fertilizer and the low prices farmers still receive for their crops from millers and other middlemen who often pocket most of the profits.
"Our children's children have other things in mind. They're no longer interested in farming because our rice paddies are not producing enough even for our own consumption. We still have to buy rice from the low lands."
The Philippine's 2,000-year-old rice terraces in the Coridellera mountains are recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. But they are falling into disuse and disrepair as farmers leave for more lucrative trades.
Rice prices in the Philippines have soared in recent months in response to a global surge, but farmers say they have not benefited. At the rice terraces, where productivity is low and cultivation has to be done by hand, there is little incentive to stay.
Raymond Bahatan, head of Ifugao's agriculture office, said local rice supplies have never been enough in the hilly province because farmers traditionally harvest only once a year.
Farmers in the plains produced two to three crops each year, allowing them to sell excess produce in the local market.
"Our terraces are producing only 2.5 tonnes per hectare," he said, adding it was way below an average 3.8-4.2 metric tons harvested in most lowland rice farms.
"But, that's only half of the problem. Our rice terraces are also declining at an alarming rate. We are told about 25-30 percent are gone due to neglect, abandonment and other uses."
Some of the farmers were shifting from rice to higher value crops, such as vegetables, tubers and coffee, but many had abandoned their farms to find work in big cities. Lodging houses, food and other retail shops have also encroached into farm land.
Alarmed by its inability to feed its people and the prospect of being squeezed of food supplies, the Philippine government has ordered a halt to the conversion of farmland to other uses.
But it can do little to stem people migrating to the cities and leaving their lands fallow.
"It's really sad because most of our teenagers are dreaming of much easier and higher-paying jobs in cities or abroad," said Raffy Menen, leader of a farmers' cooperative in the rice terraces.
He said most high school students in his village were no longer familiar with the traditional rice farming techniques practiced by their ancestors for more than 2,000 years.
"It's a difficult job. Everything is done manually because we don't have animals or equipment to plow our small fields. These young people want jobs in hotels and restaurants in the town."
Ifugao Governor Teodoro Baguilat said government intervention was needed to save the rice terraces, not only as a tourist attraction but to provide a livelihood to farmers.
"We could only keep these farmers in the rice terraces if we could assure them of better economic returns for their hard work," Baguilat told Reuters in an interview.
"We must make sure that they could produce more from their rice fields and that they could directly benefit from tourism."
The government is promoting eco-tourism tours and is asking for expert help to improve productivity.
With the help of farmers' cooperatives, it is also actively marketing the local "tinawon" rice variety overseas, tapping into its status as organic produce, cultivated without fertilizers or pesticides.
"It's an heirloom rice," Menen said, asking visitors to sample the sweet-smelling sticky grain.
"We don't have enough supply for ourselves, but we wanted to preserve our ancient identity and culture by getting the interest of our younger generation to stay with the rice terraces. We just don't want to be remembered in old postcards and snapshots."
Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Megan Goldin