As hectare after hectare of productive farmland is lost to housing and hotels each year in Bali, one community is bucking the trend, making a promise to conserve their traditionally irrigated subak rice farms.
Residents of the villages of Bunutan and Tanggayuda, just north of Ubud, are undertaking a pilot project with the Bali Rice Field Conservation Foundation (Yayasan Konservasi Sawah Bali) to dedicate more than 117 productive acres exclusively to rice for the long term.
The owners of the 135 farms in the program will receive regular subsidies from Sawah Bali for signing agreements not to turn their land into building plots, ensuring that the centuries-long practice of subak farming will continue — despite development.
According to Sawah Bali founder Phyllis Kaplan, all the members of Subak Malung, which comprises the two villages, have signed up. The subak was chosen for the pilot due to its proximity to Ubud.
“As these villages are so close to Ubud there is an extreme threat of them being sold off [for non-agricultural development]. They are also very traditional villages that have already gone partially organic,” says Kaplan.
Heritage: “This land has been in our family from the mid-18th century, so this is my children’s heritage,” one elderly farmer says.
“The land-use tool that Sawah Bali will introduce is one utilized successfully for over 40 years in the US to conserve farms. Sawah Bali will replicate the Vermont Land Trust concept to keep the working landscape productive with best-use practices for managing threatened natural resources with competing purposes,” Kaplan said in a press release. “By conserving the farmland and subak, water use will be prioritized for subak, sawah, food production, security and [sacred activities].”
Sawah Bali is currently well funded and has technical partners in land conservation, fund-raising and soil rehabilitation.
Kaplan adds that technical assistance will be given to promote 100 percent organic farming and to plant heritage rice and other value-added crops to increase farm viability.
“Whenever in the future farmers have problems, we have technical assistance for them so they can consult with the appropriate person to address issues, either collectively or as individual farmers,” says Kaplan of the project that she hopes will become a model for the 1,500 or so subak across Bali.
Kaplan says that while many across Bali want to continue farming, market pressures lead them to give up their traditional livelihoods.
Stressors include hefty land tax increases in areas near tourist destinations such as Ubud, diminishing income for farmers, the threat to water access when rice fields are interspersed with buildings and youth who are leaving the field to find work elsewhere.
Looking ahead: A future custodian of Bali’s rice growing traditions celebrates the Nyung Sung ceremony over the now protected fields.
It is not too late to halt the destruction of the Balinese agricultural way of life, according to Wayan Rachman, a resident of the village and a “conductor of land conservation” for Sawah Bali.
Wayan says the island is at a tipping point for land conversions, a problem exacerbated by declining incomes and land tax increases due to escalating property values.
“Bali is facing great pressure from tourism. One area of this is the need of investors to build more villas. As a result, farmland, wherever suitable for hotels, villas or restaurants, becomes a target [for conversion]. This not only affects rice fields, but the heritage we have been passing down for centuries,” says Wayan.
While farmland loss is an environmental issue, agriculture is at the center of Balinese religion, culture and heritage, as expressed in the concept of Tri Hita Karana — people, the lands and the gods — and the balance this implies.
Wayan continues. “These transformations of rice farms have brought about an imbalance to this spiritual concept — a concept that suits the Balinese really well. Also, from an economic point of view, there is an interdependence between the land and the people: The land gives food, so we have an obligation to take care of that land by working our rice field.”
The head of Subak Malung, Nyoman Wardika, says the key to a healthy agricultural sector is the harvest.
Offerings: The Nyung Sung altar on the edge of 117 acres of protected fields is laden with offerings to the gods for a bountiful rice harvest.
“We need to increase farming practices and gain technical skills on farming. We need to find ways that we can increase our yields. This is critical, because over time our yields have been declining, while farming costs are very high,” Wardika says. “We believe this project will help us increase our yields through education and technical skills. Every farmer in our subak organization is 100 percent behind this project.”
One farmer, Ketut Pendak, says he is deeply grateful that the village is getting help to preserve its traditional farming lifestyles.
“I am very happy to be a member of this project. Our agricultural culture is not only about income, but is also related to our religious ceremonies. Every Balinese ceremony has rice as offerings, so it is vital we do not lose this land of rice production,” says Pendak, looking out over a green swathe of maturing rice.
Another farmer, Made Anggit, 62, is looking forward to keeping the traditions of the village alive. “I have kids and grandkids and I want to keep the land for them — to go down generation to generation, just like it was for me.
“This land has been in our family from the mid-18th century, so this is my children’s heritage. Selling our land would be like selling your mother.”
For more information, visit sawahbali.org.
Obligation: “The land gives food,” one farmer says. “So we have an obligation to take care of that land by working our rice fields.”
— Images J.B.Djwan
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