The Rice Terraces of Jatiluwih

The second part of the day, after visiting the temple on Lake Bratan, could not be better. After having lunch in a restaurant overlooking Buyan Lake, we head towards Jatilawih. It is also here that I realize that the Balinese must be as withdrawn as the Thai... my driver, smiling and friendly did not tell me about our next visit, at most that we will see some rice fields... very vague as a suggestion.

On the way, I ask him to stop and photograph the rice fields I see in the distance... he always answers me with a smile that where we are going they are much more beautiful. I still don't know where he's taking me....

The last few kilometres before our arrival, we cross some villages from another time, with very small roads, very simple people, very poor, living in their own little world.

The last hills crossed, I finally discover the place that the driver hadn't described to me... a whole green region with only rice fields as far as the eye can see. Quite incredible, surprising, of unparalleled splendour. I am amazed by the beauty of this place recently listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site!

  Bali's rice terraces

The rice terraces, a true trademark of the Balinese landscape, characterize any stay or trip on the island. Nestled in the terrestrial heart of this island paradise, Jatiluwih is now the site that has just become part of the legend: recently inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List, its famous rice fields forming a beautiful natural amphitheatre are a perfect example of how Balinese subak people work, these irrigation and water management systems that are fiercely anchored in the deepest part of Balinese culture. Nowhere else is culture and agriculture so intrinsically linked than here. This inscription and international recognition are worth a fine label and will certainly prevent the superb natural site from seeing its landscape soiled in the coming years by the construction of hotels, villas or even giant chicken coops... Passed under the spotlights, these famous sawah (irrigated rice fields) are also, obviously, inseparable from the subak and affiliated temples.

Some of them over a thousand years old, about a thousand subak, or hydraulic and village associations, now make up the Balinese social, religious and agricultural landscape. All rice farmers are members of their respective subak, which is integrated into the banjar of their village or neighbourhood. The vital function of each subak is to manage the hydraulic network so fundamental in rice cultivation and therefore also to distribute equitably the quantities of water needed, according to needs and land. The system is ingenious and in principle totally democratic. But the evolution of recent decades has profoundly changed the land and agricultural situation: the Balinese population is no longer homogeneous and the distribution of plots such as water, without even focusing on uncomplicated speculation and the recurrent problem of the sale of land and even rice fields, are disrupting the old ways of working and living. Despite these radical transformations, many Balinese villages are still living in the age of subak and rice production. But the time for a stay has certainly begun.

The subak effectively exempts the "water right" and manages all concerns or conflicts directly related to irrigation. Its role is to maintain and preserve this precious heritage as well as possible by ensuring that farmers take good care of the land. Subak is about a coherent and comprehensive ecological system, inseparable from collective work and democratic management. The Hindu religion also interfered and Dewi Sri, Vishnu's devoted wife and goddess of rice, appeared at almost every end of the plot. While rice cultivation dominates, a host of other activities surround traditional rice cultivation: for example, duck breeding is coupled with rice work, and ducks "clean" effectively and naturally fertilize irrigated or flooded rice fields, in the plain or on terraces.

Of course, water is the key element here. Buffaloes and cows are sometimes summoned, with or without a peacock placed at the back, reserved spaces are provided for young rice shoots. Because rice is planted and replanted, once the plants are deemed good to be moved to the large rice field... When the harvest arrives, all local forces are involved... but it is increasingly observed that it is agricultural workers, from Java and Lombok, who do this work, with local youth preferring to do less arduous work, such as taking care of tourists... The latter, Concerned about the ingenuity of Balinese rice farmers and the complex organization of subak, can also visit the Tabanan region and ask the "Subak Museum", whose visit is essential only for agricultural enthusiasts, it is a pity that the current challenges and concerns - small areas or water problems - are not mentioned. Ancient history, as reported on the lontar leaves that can be seen in the museum, holds that the first Balinese subak date back at least to the 14th century, and probably well before that date.

Citing the work of Sukarto Atmodjo, Stephen Lansing mentions the term subak on an inscription from 1071. But other research (such as that of Nyoman S. Pendit or Goris) dates the known origin of the subak to the 7th or 6th century AD. In a 1996 study, the exact number of subak recorded was 1193. In twenty years, this number has fallen sharply in view of land pressure and speculation that has been going on for a long time... Moreover, with the end of storage since the early 1970s, the typical rice granaries (lumbung), with their beautiful shape of warheads, are definitively in the past; only the tourist hotel industry - the Puri Lumbung in Munduk, for example - is still interested, and in its own way, in this very original architecture.

Since 1969, with the so-called "Green Revolution", not always very pink, a more productive rice variety has been introduced throughout Indonesia, more resistant and growing faster, often offering the inhabitants an additional harvest in the year. But each advance has its price: so this variety of rice also needs more fertilizer and water, and worse, various and varied but always harmful pesticides. Pesticides are responsible, among other things, for the impoverishment or even destruction of the ecosystem, and in particular for the depopulation of frogs, toads and eels that until then populated the world of rice fields and other adjacent channels. In 1967, just arrived in business, the young dictator Suharto went so far as to forbid Balinese farmers to plant their traditional rice: rice development requires force, so to speak...
Secondly, agricultural industrialisation and rationalisation require that, if this famous "new rice" ultimately proves to be more economically profitable, it loses a lot of taste and nutritional quality. Sometimes called "miracle rice", whether it is good or bad, it will however allow the country to feed its inhabitants, which is not insignificant either! But in business, whether tourism or agriculture, profitability has become the key word of the main stakeholders. Abuses abound, as do pesticides that ruin farmers who are forced to produce more to survive. It is a well-known capitalist pirouette... In addition, focusing on modernity at all costs, the experts largely underestimated the effectiveness of the traditional subak system, for example for water management or insect control. Then, with the 1980s, the beginning of a notable lack of interest in subak against the backdrop of the rise of individualism and the incessant search for profitability. Gradually, however, some farmers replant traditional rice, but more often than not, it is agricultural workers (from Bali, but also from Java, Lombok, etc.) who come to replace the young local people who have left for the city or the beaches to target other lives. Since the 1990s, and especially after 1998, the subak have regained some of their nobility and, despite the desertion of the countryside, they are now recognized as an essential and legitimate part of Balinese cultural and natural heritage. One of the crucial problems today concerns the young Balinese who, anxious for some to return to the land, no longer have at all the knowledge or obviously the skills of their parents or grandparents...

Nowadays, 90% of Balinese rice production comes from this new rice, which is a little controversial but so profitable, and in times of sustainable crisis (with poverty constantly increasing despite supposed tourist revenues...), the population cannot afford to buy rice, traditional or old, more expensive but of better quality... This high standing rice (a stem that can reach 1.5 meters) and locally appreciated generally only allows to produce one annual crop. Thus, all Balinese rice farmers now live more and more from "derived" agricultural products: the multicoloured market gardens and even more so the gigantic modern chicken coops that occupy all the space in the landscape... A thinning however extends over this vast Balinese agricultural world: the organic fashion (organic, as we say here) is on the way to make more and more followers, consumers from elsewhere and producers from here, it is good for economic morale but prices also increase as a result.

As a result of dense and rapid urbanization, in the entire Denpasar area, only 37 subak remained in 2007, and more recently around Klungkung, an eastern region that is much less urbanized, subak are disappearing at high speed, according to the observations of a local Balinese friend. In an extensive study on subak, Nyoman Sutawan points out that the number of inhabitants in Bali is constantly increasing while at the same time the number of subak continues to fall, which is becoming increasingly worrying, particularly for the future of local agriculture. However, the recognized quality, including internationally, of subak, is not new, nor is it the sudden interest shown by Unesco and the Indonesian authorities, which are more or less economically interested in the potential tourist gains. In 1983, following a US mission to the United States (General Accounting Office of the United States), North American experts noted that the subak represented the most ingenious water management and use structures of all the ones they had visited during their study.

Degung Santikarma's testimony, published in the late Balinese cultural magazine Latitudes, traces a bygone era, when rice farming dictated the local economic and social order. It is not only the sweetness of life that disappears, as the author regrets, but also entire sections of Balinese heritage. This was before UNESCO became involved in the affairs of the island's farmers. In this text, Degung Santikarma already deplored that "the most beautiful rice fields cannot escape real estate developers. They are being converted into shopping malls, luxury hotels and golf courses, which are increasingly demanding more water, drying out rice fields and, ironically, destroying the landscapes that tourists come to admire. That's all said and done.
Led by a pekaseh, head of the hydraulic cooperative (subak), the structure that is being built around the subak includes dozens of local men, who meet regularly to resolve concerns about land, water, calendar, rituals too, since the cycle of ceremonies depends closely on rice cultivation. Each subak has its own temple and, while walking in the rice fields, you can easily see the small temples (called bedugul) that majestically throne at the end of each plot. Anchored in rural areas, the subak (and their leaders) have always known a certain autonomy, distrusting both the political universe and the new economic fields in the making... Today, many subak die of an artificial death that is not beautiful: they are, in order to survive, forced to regroup, not to mention the intrusion of pollution - plastic bags blocking irrigation canals, for example - which sometimes thwarts all the best agricultural calendars in the world... Degung Santikarma believes that, torn apart by transformations that often exceed them, Balinese must now choose: "to continue to sell off their land to the first tourist to come, or to maintain a millenary heritage of subtle water management, Bali's most sacred resource".
We observe that in the Jatiluwih and Wongayagede sector, some rice farmers continue to favour the cultivation of traditional rice, which is longer and whose plants are taller... some say that it is also better for photos, and in addition this rice looks like the rural scenes of the old Balinese or Western paintings that can be admired in museums: thus, tourism and the heritage that goes with it will be the saviors of good traditional rice? At the moment, due to an alarming demography and visitors who need to be well fed, Bali no longer even produces enough rice for its own consumption....

Since the end of June 2012, the subak have been internationally recognized, all within a Hindu-Balinese framework that can only reinforce the pride of the indigenous people. Indeed, UNESCO has definitively recognized and inscribed, according to official terminology, "the cultural landscapes of the province of Bali: the subak system as a manifestation of the philosophy of the Tri Hita Karana". For its part, UNESCO decided to date the origin of the subak to the 9th century, and the latter are precisely presented by the UN organization as "democratic and egalitarian agricultural practices that have enabled the Balinese to become the most prolific rice producers in the archipelago despite the fact that they have to feed a very dense population". It should be noted that, in addition to the famous rice terraces of Jatiluwih, the inscription also concerns the royal water palace of Pura Taman Ayun and, more generally, the philosophy underlying the subak, namely the Tri Hita Karana, whose thinking aims to harmonize the spiritual, human and natural worlds. It was therefore at the end of a hard 12-year battle that the Balinese subak were finally registered, with a validation made public in Saint Petersburg on 29 June 2012, on UNESCO's precious World Heritage List. What is exactly on the list is the Bali Cultural Subak Landscape (or BCSL, for those who are close to it), which consists of organizing traditional subak in close connection with local Balinese philosophy. The BCSL includes 14 different subak from the Penebel region (including the Jatiluwih site), the three mountain lakes (Bratan, Buyan and Tamblingan), as well as the following sites: Taman Ayun temple, Pekerisan river, Gunung Kawi temple, Mengening temple, Tirta Empul site and basins, Suluban three subak, and finally the famous Ulan Batur temple overlooking Lake Bratan. In total, these many sites cover an area of 7000 hectares. They are now joining forces in the name of heritage to become the very official Bali Cultural Subak Landscape (BCSL), listed in the UNESCO catalogue. The Indonesian press has reported this moment of regional and national glory well and, from Kompas to Bali Post, the tone is proud and optimistic: While nature is omnipresent and to be preserved, the articles also show that the number of visitors is already rising, as is the amount of tourism revenue to come... As for the Jakarta Post of 27 June 2012, on the eve of the apotheosis, it mentions an awareness-raising operation, if not an educational promotion, during which 200 students from all over Indonesia participated in an information programme, endorsed by UNESCO, on the history, place and functioning of the subak in Bali. But the bet was already won.

Sometimes, this kind of international recognition leads to strange initiatives: the village of Penebel (Tabanan region), near the Jatiluwih rice fields, has been selected for the Miss World 2013 competition. And, the Prefect of Tabanan is not afraid of ridicule when he says that the place has been chosen "because we are very much appreciated for our environment". Certainly, there is no doubt about it, but what does this have to do with the election of Miss World?

In an enlightening article, Stephen Lansing J., Yunus Arbi and Wiwik Dharmiasih analysed the entire history of this nomination, and the efforts of the Indonesian authorities, to be included on the famous World Heritage List. The authors conclude what Unesco will also remember, that is, that the ingenious subak system is a practical and functional expression and representation of the Balinese philosophy of the Tri Hita Karana. In this sense, this nomination and registration is welcome both for the indigenous people and for visitors from the Balinese countryside, who are keen to better understand this territory. The risk, and it is no less, consists in seeing - for some Balinese, Javanese or foreign predators - only fruitful business in a tourist setting behind this beautiful recognition of local know-how and a no less beautiful social and even political reality, characterized by the subak and the local philosophy that underlies them. That would be a real shame. And most importantly, damaging. At the moment, in early autumn 2012, official entrance tickets (15,000 rupiahs, or less than one and a half euros per person; the fare is expected to increase soon) are being issued to access the Jatiluwih site, and "tourism and heritage development" work is only just beginning. For what fate? It's hard to predict.

But it is legitimate to worry about a certain folklore not only of culture but also of local agriculture: to see this, all you have to do is go to Pujung, a locality north of Ubud, to admire (and tread) too famous but very pretty rice fields transformed into a tourist attraction, with its concrete paths and its shops that overflow onto nature, here well damaged. This brief escapade of Ubud, which is similar to a kind of dubious health walk, fully satisfies the Asian newlyweds who came to unite in the land of the gods or even hordes of Western tourists who did not wish to leave Bali without taking a quick jump into the green of the rice fields. The problem is that the situation is turning red, and if the rice field is a real star it has also become a simple showcase. This scenario is definitely not desirable for Jatiluwih. There is no evidence so far that UNESCO (with the local authorities in charge of heritage management) is really able to protect the site from such abuses, and from many others that may soon emerge....

Whether the modernity of tourism will prevail over Balinese philosophy and rice fields or whether, on the contrary, it is the culture-agriculture couple that will succeed, by its strength and tenacity, and we can only hope for the Balinese, in controlling the flow of money and arrivals that will flow. Cost as it may cost, or in a piecemeal way, it's still and always a hell of a water story. Normal, we are in Bali....

Franck Michel