Challenges to Balinese Subaks

While walking through the rice fields of Indonesia, I noticed that it felt oddly similar to being in farmland in the US. In both places, people have transformed the landscape beyond natural recognition to fit human needs. The Balinese created a system of water canals that have sustainably grown rice and other crops for thousands of years, but it is now being threatened by a combination of factors. After hearing subak farmers and Professor Wiwik Dharmiasih speak about the subaks, I came to the realization that, despite their very different histories, the subaks and American farming face the same problems.

A major threat to the subak system is the degradation of soil and loss of paddy ecology. American farmers are also dealing with a similar problem. To increase soil fertility, American farmers apply chemical fertilizers and pesticides that come with a host of new problems. Farmers in the subak system started using chemical fertilizers in the 1970’s after the Green Revolution when they switched from using Balinese rice to new rice. New rice can be harvested after three months of cultivation, unlike Balinese rice, which takes up to six months to harvest. A push to grow more food to supply a growing population was the main reason for these changes. American farmers also felt the pressure to increase their yield and changed their system to industrial agriculture dominated by monocultural methods for corn, soybeans and wheat. The Balinese have not transitioned into large scale industrial farming because it is not possible with the terraced landscape, but they still often face the problems associated with pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, which flow down the system of irrigation if used by farmers upstream.

Another problem facing the subak system is the low income of rice farmers. The younger generation is increasingly deciding against becoming farmers. This is happening as well in the US. In both countries, the average age of farmers is increasing and the next generation knows there is little money in farming. In Bali, young people want the more profitable jobs in the tourist industry.

Commercial development and land conversion are the final problems that the subak system must overcome. Farmers can make more money from selling their land to a commercial developer than from rice farming. American farmers are having the same dilemma over whether to keep their farm that gives them little steady income or sell the land to some commercial developer for a large lump sum.

As Professor Dharmiasih put it in her presentation, farming needs to be made “sexy” again. The younger generation needs the desire to farm. However, that still does not solve the problem of the unprofitability of farming compared to the high profitability of land development. Subsidies are paid to farmers in the US, but it is simply not enough. The Balinese see farming the subaks as the poor man’s job. However, in Indonesia the subaks are also seen as cultural heritage, which is starting to change peoples’ minds about farming. Unfortunately in the US farming does not have the same deep roots. In July 2012, several subaks were added as a World Heritage site to protect them from being developed. UNESCO has been working with the farmers to ensure that their land will only be used for subak farming. There are programs similar to this in the US, such as in Maryland, where a farmer can sell his development rights to the state.
Even though both the Balinese and American systems of agriculture are on opposite sides of the world, they each share the same problems. The two different world views can teach each other an immense amount of knowledge that will hopefully improve both systems for generations to come.

-Jessica Rupprecht


Photo Credit: L. Ahlman

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