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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Temples in Bali: A Symbol of Life and Faith

As we walked down 268 winding steps at the Gunung Kawi Temple we couldn’t help but admire the beauty of the landscape and location. For most Western thinkers the location could seem like a simple landmark of beauty, but for the Balinese every aspect of this sacred place has a meaning and a purpose.

Photo Credit: N Garg

Taking the steps down to the Gunung Kawi Temple.

Balinese Hinduism is all about balance, every positive has a negative and it is important to understand that neither can exist without the other. Similarly, there is a paradise and a hell. It is said that in ancient Bali, paradise was easy to find while you had to work to get to hell, one day God heard the people talking about the simplicity of finding paradise, and moved paradise to a hidden place. This is symbolized in the location of any Balinese Temple. The temples are always located in a hard to reach location to symbolize the notion that people need to “work hard to get the good”. This is only the beginning of the symbolism integrated into these sacred places.

As we visited the different subak systems it became evident that religion and faith was integral to their success. Every rice farm has its own temple, every subak system has another temple, and then there are multiple higher levels, representing different aspects of the subak, for a collection of subaks. While the purpose and level of each temple varies, the structure and layout of the temples is uniform. The architecture is symbolic of a human, split into three distinct parts: the head, the center, and the feet. The feet represent the open part of the temple, this is the area where people are free to socialize and eat.

photo cred: N. Garg

People bathing in the holy water.

The center is where you prepare to enter the head; in this area people can be seen bathing in holy water. Lastly, the head is where the deities sit, to enter this area you must free your mind of any ill notions and abide by a set of rules.

For example, before entering the head of the temple, people should wear a sarong. The sarong shows respect and presents humans in a beautiful way to the Gods. In addition, many people can be seen wearing a small sash around their waist so that it covers up the naval. The naval is considered to be a source of anger and jealousy and when you enter a temple you need to have clear and calm aura, thus the sash is worn to limit the negative energy. Women are also asked to tie their hair back. Open hair is a sign of someone who is wild and beastlike, by tying your hair back you are showing that your wildness is tamed and in control.

Students Neda Movahed and Matthew Popkin pose in the "foot" of the temple after properly tying their sarongs

Students Neda Movahed and Matthew Popkin pose in the “foot” of the temple after properly tying their sarongs

As you prepare to enter the head you will see a series of intricately carved statues that represent guards that protect the deities residing in the head. While these intricate statues can be seen outside the head of the temple, inside you will not find detailed carvings and statues. The Balinese believe that the deities are already sitting in the temple and therefore there doesn’t need to be a physical statue of the deity but just a symbol of their presence. Also, in older temples the entrance to the head of the temple is often low to symbolize the need for people to bow before entering the home of these deities.

As we walked through the head we saw small baskets made from leaves. These little baskets are handmade to hold the daily offerings to be presented to the deities; each basket is hand woven using banana or coconut leaves. Inside the base of the basket you will find a small piece of a betel leaf, which represents the three central Gods in Balinese Hinduism: Brahma, Visnu, and Siva. The center of the basket is filled with flowers and at times rice. Rice represents life in Balinese Hinduism.

The head of the this subak system and our guide receive offerings of holy water and rice before we proceed through to the "head" of the temple.

The head of the this subak system and our guide, Wiwik, receive offerings of holy water and rice before we proceed through to the “head” of the temple.

Rice is also placed on the forehead to represent a third eye to thank the gods for the rice and life. After praying, the Balinese will additionally place rice on their forehead, their chest, and eat three grains. This represents the notion that you will live with a clean mind, soul, and always speak kindly.

After walking through the subaks and talking with the locals about the importance of faith and the essential role God plays in this farming system, it was amazing to walk through these serene locations and understand what these temples truly mean to the Balinese and understand the importance of all the small nuances of the temple which could easily be misunderstood.

Source of Holy water at the Pura Tirtha Temple. Legend says there is large black fish that swims here that is only visible to the priest, if an average person sees this fish his or her wish will be granted

Source of Holy water at the Pura Tirtha Temple. Legend says there is large black fish that swims here that is only visible to the priest, if an average person sees this fish his or her wish will be granted

-Namrata Garg

Photo Credits: Namrata Garg

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Subaks and Game Theory

All terraces in a subak are connected to one canal and therefore have one source of water to share. Water can be redirected easily by putting blocks in entrances to some fields and opening others. The blockings and openings and amounts of time given for the distribution are all decided upon by voting that must conclude with a unanimous decision. It would be easy for a farmer to redirect the water without being noticed by the other farmers briefly by placing a stone barrier in the way.

Cheating the unanimous decisions is so rare that when asked about the problem of cheating, Professor Wyan Windia, our guide and mentor in our first subak, had a difficult time directly answering the question. So, why is cheating the system so extremely rare?

Professor Wayan tells us that the gods are always watching the farmers. Even if they are not caught by other farmers, bad karma comes if anyone goes against the decision of the group. However, this same reasoning is not enough to prevent cheating elsewhere–Faith is not enough to explain the complete trust found in this system.

As it turns out, behavior within in subaks can be informed using game theory. The game has been played for centuries with families of the same farmers, so it is repetitive. Farmers live together and know each other, so cheating is always known. If one farmer is constantly cheating, others in the Subak can completely cut off the water supply, even exiling them from the community.

Since all farmers have incentives to cooperate, there is very little reason to cheat. However, in the larger scale community of all connected subaks, chemical fertilization has resulted in a significant problem.

Recently, there has been a push to have rice terrace farmers go back to organic farming. In order to be considered organic, the rice cannot be exposed to chemical fertilization. The problem arises because the farther the water is from the mountain, the more likely it is that a subak upstream has used chemical fertilizer, and that chemical fertilizer runs into all subaks downstream. Farmers farther down the stream are far less likely to cooperate in this game because they have imperfect information about the use of chemical fertilizer upstream.

In order to incentivise organic farming downstream, the farmers must all have access to information to see whether or not subaks upstream are using chemical fertilizers. In this sequential game, each subak must cooperate without any cheaters, or else farmers downstream have no reason to cooperate. This entire system is far more difficult to regulate and manage than the individual subaks. Hopefully it will be possible to build trust between all subaks so that organic farming will be possible both upstream and downstream.

Alice Goldberg

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Lodtundah subak

IMG_4393 IMG_4361(Photo: L. Ahlman)

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The Harmony of the Subak System

The downpour that began in the early hours of the morning continued as we climbed out of the vans to explore Lodtunduh subak. The subak system is a water distribution method that has been used in Bali for thousands of years. Our group walked down a narrow mud path stopping in spurts to discuss the canal running alongside us. We then proceeded to explore the subak on foot, walking single file down grass pathways separating the rice paddies. We navigated the slippery trails and arrived back at the compound to further discuss the intricacies of the subak organization.

The Lodtunduh subak has 60 active farmers. All of the decisions made regarding the inner workings of the subak require unanimous consent. This means that the 60 farmers gather in the small cement room that we all huddled into, to make decisions regarding water distribution for each farmer. If one farmer requests additional water for their area of land, the subak as a whole decides whether this request will be granted. The Balinese refer to this water transfer as ‘borrowing,’ but this term differs from the American understanding of borrowing, which involves incurring debt. When a member of the subak requests water, the council deliberates, and the request is typically granted. However, the farmer who has been granted the additional water does not then owe the subak any debt. Rather, the transfer builds social capital between the farmers. The farmer who has received additional water will then offer the same help to a fellow subak member.

This exchange led many people in the class to ask about the formal structure in place to keep people from cheating the system. For instance–what is there to stop one farmer from diverting additional water to their land without telling the other subak members? This question puzzled Professor Wyndia and illustrated a fundamental difference in the thinking of Americans and Indonesians. The subak members were confused as to why someone would choose to cheat when they could get what they needed simply by asking. As a class we were thinking about the subak as a profit driven farming technique rather then a lifestyle focused relationships and harmony.

The subak system demonstrates harmony between man and man, man and nature and man and g-d. The council of subak members, who deliberate to reach a mutually acceptable consensus, illustrates the relationship between men. The relationship between man and nature is illustrated by the care and attention that each farmer accords to his land and water. The relationship between man and g-d is highlighted in the importance of the temple and the religious rituals of the farmers. The sustainability of the subak system makes it an attractive example for study and replication in other contexts. One barrier to implementing a subak-like structure in the US is the exclusion of religion from all aspects of public life. For a subak-like structure to function in the US the religious aspect of the subak would need to be substituted with another equally powerful force. One suggestion offered as a substitute was patriotism. Rather then relying on the emotional pull of the g-ds, relying on patriotism to inspire people to join a subak structure could be an interesting experiment. 

-Valerie Caplan

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On the Road to Bali

Team Indonesia leaves today. More soon!

(Photo: TH)

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About This Course

PUAF 689I: Social-Ecological Systems, Environmental Policy, and Sustainable Development in Indonesia, 2014. 

Professor and Director: Tom Hilde. Assistant Directors: Lindsay Ahlman and Matt Regan. University of Maryland School of Public Policy.

The winter-session Indonesia program is a graduate-level environmental and international development policy course. In this course, students focus on the complex systemic interconnections of decentralization policy; poverty reduction; environmentally destructive agricultural and extractive industry practices, particularly those leading to deforestation; governance and implementation of new environmental policies; Indonesia’s role in climate change (emissions due particularly to deforestation and burning) and the mitigation and adaptation policies Indonesia seeks to formulate and implement. A central assumption of the course is that it is necessary to think systemically about the problems we’re trying to resolve. That is, complexity is a feature of environmental-development problems such that it’s no longer possible to address one problem (e.g. deforestation) without addressing others (e.g. decentralization/transmigration, climate change mitigation, etc.). Conventional institutional arrangements, practices, models, and policies sometimes present obstacles towards fresh thinking about how to develop more just, democratic, and environmentally sound policies. We consider the Balinese subak system and Acehnese Panglima Laot marine management system as resilient indigenous complex adaptive systems that provide alternative concepts, norms, and practices to help rethink sustainable development and adaptive institutions and practices.

The course runs for three weeks and centers on three main destinations: Bali, North Sumatra/Aceh, and West Java.

We hike in the stunning Gunung Leuser rainforest of Sumatra, enjoy the biodiverse coral reefs of Pulau Weh off the coast of Aceh, visit the temples of Bali, navigate Jakarta, and engage in discussions with researchers and officials at CIFOR, the National Council on Climate Change (DNPI), AMAN (indigenous peoples’ organization), WALHI (Friends of the Earth Indonesia), Sawit Watch, the Orangutan Health Project, the Ford Foundation, the Bogor Institute of AgricultureBirdlife International Indonesia, the Green School in Bali, Udayana University, the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, the Ministry of Finance, the Presidential Working Unit for Supervision and Management of Development (UKP4), and the office of the President of the Republic of Indonesia, among others.

We’ll be posting in a couple of weeks from Indonesia.

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