On a grain and a prayer

On a grain and a prayer

By Melinda Chickering | Photography by Glenn Chickering

RICE MAY be the most important food on earth. About half the human race or 3.5 billion people, get 20 per- cent or more of their calories from rice each day. Rice is central to traditional Balinese culture and daily life. It’s an important part of offerings, blessings and ceremonies as well as the daily diet. The Balinese people’s relation- ship with rice manifests every facet of the Tri Hita Karana philosophy, emphasising harmony between man and nature, his fellow man and the divine. They express their appreciation of rice through offerings and the honouring of Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice. A day without rice is a like a day without eating. Most Balinese people will not ask, “Have you eaten today?” but rather “Have you eaten rice today?”.

The magnificent terraced rice paddy landscapes we see today are about a thousand years old. The subak irrigation system sources its water from the island’s volcanic lakes that weave through the landscape in a sophisticated series of canals and locks, shared collectively by farmers. Each subak area works together to create schedules around planting, fallow periods, pest control and water allocation. But traditional rice cultivation is increasingly under threat. The success of the island’s tourist economy has put a strain on the land, due to rising demand for water and food.

Bali welcomes twice its total population in tourist arrivals annually. The current model of development that focuses on feeding the seemingly insatiable appetite of tourists, expats and visitors is transforming the landscape. Approximately 1,000 hectares a year are converted from agricultural use–such as rice paddies–to commercial  use, such as hotels, villas, restaurants and tourist services.

Wet paddy rice cultivation and tourism are both highly water-dependant and in direct competition for this pre- cious resource. Severe water shortages are predicted as early as 2015. Local food security is also threatened. Increasingly, food is imported for both tourists and locals. Rice is the staple of the Balinese diet and integral to traditional culture. As the rice paddies lose in their competition with tourism, they are gradually disappearing.

Not all influences from outside are detrimental to Bali’s rice culture, however, and some are trying preserve it. Ubud-based NGO Sawah Bali is using a new approach in partnership with Yayasan IDEP. By using an American conservation approach, which places permanent restrictions on land use, the NGO hopes it will help conserve agricultural land. Though tourists love the rice paddies, farmers receive  no direct financial benefit from tourists walking around and taking pictures of them. In fact, farmers pay for tourism’s success in the form of higher property taxes, which are based on the income their lands could reap if used in tourism or villa development. Farmers thus face overwhelming economic incentives to sell the land to developers. In the ‘land trust model’, real estate appraisers evaluate cultivated land to help provide a baseline for negotiating payments to farmers. Farmers then receive annual payments in exchange for their promise not to develop. They maintain the right to sell or lease the land, so long as it isn’t developed for non-agricultural use.  Land use restriction then remain in place in perpetuity.

Mount Agung Photograph by Glenn Chickering

“Sawah Bali and the Balinese are working together to form a hybrid model of the land trust concept,” explains Phyllis Kaplan, founder of Sawah Bali. “This new mod- el’s purpose is to integrate all of the Balinese values of religion, culture and law to formulate the island’s first comprehensive land conservation program.”

“Rice is predominant in the Balinese culture,” Kaplan continues. “The sawah and subak are intertwined with its heritage, religion and even law.” Sawah Bali currently operates a pilot project in Kedewatan on the outskirts  of Ubud, an area with highly prized real estate and thus endangered rice cultivation.

The smooth texture and pure appearance of white rice is preferred by most locals because it is a symbol of wealth. But white rice contains much lower levels of micronutrients due to chemical-intensive farming methods. What little nutritional content the grain has, as well as most of the fibre content, is removed. A better alternative is organic heritage rice, which is brown or red. It is both more nutritious and more expensive than its white cousin, so farmers can eat a healthier diet and earn more per unit for their harvest. In the traditional organic cultivation method, subaks use flooding and fallow periods to control pests, so they do not need pesticides. Instead of chemicals, farmers use organic fertiliser made from cow manure. Slow Food Bali recently organised a tour, lunch and meeting with farmers in Jatiluwih to learn about red heritage rice cultivated  there and hear farmers’ concerns. Some farmers mentioned their desire to open simple homes-tays that would welcome the influx of tourists to their area, which is now recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. The local institutions that will conserve this living heritage–the culture, food and landscape–are still being developed.  It remains to be seen how many tourists will visit, what exact impact they will have, and how much farmers will benefit. Whether supported by selling rice or beautiful green views, will the farming communities of Bali still be growing rice a millennium from now?

“If more people would choose red rice over the modern, commercial variety,” said Simon Jongenotter, chef at The Silent Retreat near Jatiluwih. “It would be an immense contribution to the health of Bali.”

What you can do:

1) Don’t build your dream villa in the rice paddies.If you do build consider renovating an existing struc- ture or building close to a town. If purchasing prop- erty choose unproductive (non-agricultural) land.

2) Resist the temptation to build a pool, which uses pre- cious water and loses a lot to evaporation. Be sure your current pool has plenty of shade trees around it.

3) Mitigate your water usage in every way you can. For example, install low-flow toilets and faucets, and meter your water usage to build awareness of how much you use.

4) Eat heritage rice. It’s local, healthy, delicious, reason- ably inexpensive and supports farmers.

5) Join Slow Food Bali and learn more about sustain- able, local food, including rice.

6) Plant seeds, grow food, eat locally. Rice paddies Photograph by Glenn Chickering



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