Bali The Ecology Of The Rice Fields

Bali’s steeply terraced rice fields represent a meeting of man and nature, which both provides the island with its daily sustenance and creates foremal patterns of astonishing beauty and variety. These irrigated terraces allow two crops of rice to be planted each year, with water from the mountains being directed to each individual rice field by an intricate network of channels and aqueducts.

Subak Councils

These man-made waterways are maintained and regulated by local cooperative organisations called subak. Each mini-watershed has its own subak council, made up of neighbouring farmers,and they are responsible for the equable distribution of water to all the irrigated rice fields within their purview. Each subak council has its own temple, situated in the middle of rice fields, where major ceremonies of the rice cycle are held. The temple of UlunDanau, on Lake Beratan, is identified as the ‘mother’ temple of all the subala systems on the island.

‘New’ versus Traditional Strains of Rice

Padi Bali, the traditional variety of rice cultivated in Bali,is much larger than other types of rice, growing to a height of almost 1.5 metres. In the 1970s, however, faced with Bali’s rapidly rising population, local farmers were encouraged to plant ‘new’ strains of rice, first developed in the Philippines,which were high—yield—ing, faster-growing and more resistant to disease and insects. The success of these new rice strains have reversed Bali’s agricultural economy from an annual shortfall in the 1970s to a surplus production that allows the net export of several tens of thousands of tons of rice each year

Rice and Ritual

Ritual plays a key role in the cultivation of rice in Bali, each stage in the agricultural cycle being underpinned by ritual prescriptions and prohibitions. As in many parts of Southeast Asia, there is a general association between the fertility of rice and that of women—the ripening panicles of rice are said to be ‘pregnant’ (beling) and the most important deity associated with the cultivation of rice is the goddess Dewi Sri. Images of the latter, constructed from plaited rice stalks, are everywhere in the rice fields at harvest time and can also be seen attached to rice barns. The most lavish ceremony in the rice cycle is the ngusabanini ritual, which is held at the subak temple, either just before or after the rice harvest. It is in effect, a thanksgiving festival dedicated to the rice goddess Dewi Sri and involves the preparation of sumptuous offerings of food which are presented to the deity in recognition of her beneficence.

The Rice Cycle

The rice cycle begins with the breaking up of the dry ground and leftover stubble from the previous season. The field is then hoed and filled with 5 to 10 centimetres of water before being ploughed. Meanwhile, the rice seed is broadcast by hand in a specially prepared seed bed or nursery. After germination, the young rice plants are allowed to grow for three to four weeks before being transplanted to the rice field. When re-planting the seedlings, the space left between individual plants is critical. Closely spaced plants restrict the growth of weeds, but if the interval is too small, then the growth of rice plants themselves may be affected. Some plant species other than rice—for example, kangkung (lpomoeaaquatica)—are actively encouraged to grow in the rice field since they may be eaten as vegetables. Fish are also a good thing—they feed on algae and other weeds, converting these into fertiliser which further enhances the growth of rice.

The Rice Harvest

The rice crop takes roughly 120 days to reach maturity (padi Bali requires a month or so longer) and is harvested by hand. The newer strains of rice are simply thresbed on the spot but padi Bali is tied·into beautiful round bales before being taken back to the rice barn where it is ceremoniously received. Back in the rice fields, the stubble and leftover straw is torched, returning valuable minerals to the soil for the next season’s crop.

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