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Occupy The Rice Fields
Friday, 7 February 2014

Bali verdant rice terraces are an ancient and sacred landscape. After about 1200 years of continuous cultivation they are now in jeopardy from the twin threats of development and environmental degradation. ironically, Bali�s traditional agriculture is the cause of its own destruction. The very people who come to admire the classic rice terraces often stay to build houses and hotels on them, taking limited agricultural land out of production forever.

“The development of Bali’s rice fields is a big, complex, emotional issue,” says Pande Putu, a young artist and environmental activist from Kintamani. “There are huge social impacts on the families that sell their land. The money is soon gone, and thefarmers have no other skills. They are under a lot of stress after the money from the land sale is spent; with no money and no land, they struggle hard to make ends meet. “Before, there was not much friction or jealousy in Balinese society. Now, it’s very competitive. Those who don’t want to sell are conflicted. Families are split -— the elders want to keep the land, the young people often want to sell.”

Pande Putu and two other artists created their installation piece NOT FOR SALE in a rice field in Jungjungan north of Ubud in February 2011. “People don’t speak up or complain in Balinese culture, so the sign was considered really brani (brave) for the local people,” he observes. “They were , surprised that we did it. We expected   some negative feedback, but apart from  complaints from a government official to the land owner it has nothing but support.”

He was surprised at the strong response to the installation. Most of the locals like it, as do the tourists. Its picture has appeared Hello Bali, Kompas and Radar Bali. The artists had originally intended to bum the installation after three  months, but it’s has become an icon. They’re happy that it met their goal of   raising awareness about the land issue.

“It was just a statement, but if more people — farmers, their kids, those of us who love Ubud — sit down together and bring our voices together, change may happen. We need more people to be concerned, and brave enough to say something.

“This is a time of great conflict over land. Rice fields are the heart of Ubud. lf we sell our hearts, we will just be machines.”

Pande Putu harnesses the power of social media to raise awareness of social issues with about 3,000 mostly rural young Balinese on FaceBook. “The young people are starting to become aware of the land issue, they are starting to talk about it. Young Balinese use FaceBook alot. There’s conflict in the young generation too. They like working in tourism but some of them want to keep the land as welI.” His posts make statements about stopping the tour buses and the exploitation of Ubud, and the ripple effect of FaceBook spreads the word ever further.

A Cree proverb is posted on his bilingual website

After all the trees have been out down

After all the rivers have poisoned

After all the fish have been caught

It is then that money cannot be eaten He also uses his influence to encourage young Balinese to stay in school, and creates projects to enhance their self confidence and help them value their culture and traditions. These are small, heartfelt projects that connect the young people with their heritage in the subak. In the rice helds of Junjungan the children become tourists in their own banjar — fishing, hunting dragon flies, flying kites and other traditional activities that are falling by the wayside as young people are seduced by modern lifestyles. He wants to make a video about the voice of the farmers, their day- to-day lives, the changes in Ubud and the impacts of tourism.

The subject of Bali’s disappearing rice helds is also a growing concern for scholars. For decades, Dr Stephen Lansing has made an intense study of the history, culture and organization of Bali’s traditional rice production system. Professor of Anthropology and Adjunct Professor, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona, Steve has not only produced many books, papers and documentaries on the subject but has immersed himself deeply in Bali’s soul — its subak system.”A subak is an area where all the farmers share water from the same source,” he explains. “Bali’s subaks are very old; information about Bali’s subak system has been recorded for over a thousand years.”

The crater lake at Mount Batur has always been considered a sacred mandala of Dewi Danu, the Goddess of the Lake. From ancient times, delegations of priests and farmers from each subak would come to the lake to collect holy water to take back to their villages, and share irrigation schedules that would ensure each subak would have enough water. This synchronized harvest system not only distributed the water fairly, but had the added advantage of providing effective pest management. Because all the fields were planted and harvested together and the farmers knew the pest migration patterns, they flooded their fields at the same time to starve the insects and rats.

This system required a high level of cooperation between distant subaks. Steve explores these complex relationships in his fascinating book ‘Priests and Programmers’ (available at Ganesha bookshop) which compares contemporary computer models of the ancient systems with traditional practices.

The island‘s vast and complex irrigation system was documented in detail. Lontar inscriptions dating from the 9th century refer to irrigation tunnels kilometers long cut through volcanic stone to bring water to remote subaks. Some of these tunnels, known since the 12th century, are still functioning today and tunnels are still being excavated using traditional techniques.

The development of wet-rice agriculture was fostered by an abundance of water and fertile soil, and this fertility of the land has long been evoked as an explanation for Bali’s prodigious yields. Still, even the most fertile fields would have been exhausted after hundreds of years of constantuse had it not been for Balinese farmers’ ability to replenish the nutrients of the soil. Traditional fertilizers rely primarily on ash decaying organic matter and cow manure. The irrigation waters of the crater lakes are naturally rich in mineral nutrients. The farmers also followed a cropping system where dry and wet crops were rotated with a fallow season.

This highly interdependent system worked perfectly until the so—called Green Revolution that started in the 1960s mandated that all farmers had to plant the newly introduced hybrid rice for higher yields. Ignoring traditional temple planting schedules, the new system decreed that crops be planted continually using artificial fertilizers and pesticides. As a result, Bali’s once—fertile rice terraces have lost their topsoil, local fauna and fertility. A recent trend back to traditional cultivation techniques is ironically resisted by farmers who believe that rice can’t be grown without. When asked how their grandfathers farmed, they look blank.

Apart from the fertility issue, rice fields are disappearing at warp speed under an alarming number of villas and hotels. Governor Pastika’s gallant efforts to enforce existing laws and harness the greed officials who want a big piece of the very lucrative development pie are meeting resistance in every regency.

“Who are we, as foreigners, to tell people not to sell their land?” asks Stephen. “Most kids these days don’t want to be farmers. Foreigners are largely the cause of the high rate of conversion, and the irrigation water is diverted to serve their water distribution. “ The subak systems are collapsing; farmers are no longer planting in synchronicity. lt’s a wonder the subak system has survived so far. This is not a big island.” lt’s a small, fragile island of small, family-owned, traditional rice farms in the 21st century. What will be the tipping point? Putu Pande’s family owns 35 are of sawah and — believe me—— that rice field is not for sales.

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