The World Through Music and Culture

Subak, the Traditional Balinese Irrigation System in Jeopardy

Women working in a rice field in Bali. (Photo by Maria Bakkalapulo)

Words by Maria Bakkalapulo (Twitter @mbakkalapulo)

Original story on KQED, San Francisco.

Subak, the traditional Balinese irrigation system built over 500 years ago, is critical to Bali’s traditional rice-growing culture. Subak allows each farmer to get a share of water for his fields.  The Hindu faith of the Balinese helps to enforce the irrigation system. Today, the Balinese are now trying to find a balance between a boom in development  and their traditional way of life. Maria Bakkalapulo reports from a rehearsal of “Subak,” a play written by Balinese dramatist Putu Satria Kusuma (Poo-too Sat-ree-ah Koo-soo-ma) that looks how the Balinese are struggling in this time of rapid growth. 

TRANSCRIPT: (click on the above link for the voices, music and sounds from on-location.)

Maria:(on-location commentary) I am at playwright Putu’s home for the rehearsal of Subak. The opening scene takes place in the rice fields. We have men in farmer’s hats. Women doing offerings and a very long blue hose that is meant to represent the water that nourishes the subak.

In this scene, farmers try in vain to till the barren land represented by the concrete floor ground. With the tourists back after the 2002 nightclub bombings… and foreign investment at record levels, the fertile rice terraces are rapidly becoming idyllic backdrops for dream villas and high-end resort hotels. Putu sees the century’s old farming culture in jeopardy at the hands of modernity:

Putu:I wrote this play for the subak itself. Because I started to worry that it will disappear. Aside from it being the traditional system, we give respect to the Hindu Goddess Sri. She represents rice and prosperity in our faith.

Who else is going to give respect to the Goddess Sri if there are no more farmers? It is also an important symbol of our social element, the agrarian part ofBali. I want people to think. They need to start making a plan of how they will protect the land and our culture.

Maria: The farmers struggle and fail with the water company, represented by a large man who now controls the water hose. Throughout the play the farmers groan and ask in a chorus of frustration:”What are we going to harvest? What are we going to eat?”

Professor I Gede Pitana from theUdayanaUniversityin Denpasar has written extensively about the contemporary development of the subak:

GEDE: Actually, there are a lot of problems. First, land conversion from agricultural land to nonagricultural land. Housing, shopping, hotel, villa, etc. It is reducing all the time. And, second, labor transformations of labor in Bali. From agriculture to tourism.

MARIA ASKS:Does the government require the water to flow properly?

GEDE ANSWERS: By theory, we have a building code in Bali.We have a lot of rules, but no one works well. When the canals are blocked, the downstream rice fields are blocked, encouraging people to sell their land. “We got no water and production.” A golf course is more productive than agriculture.

Maria: Acres of pristine rice fields – only 15 minutes from the popular KutaBeach-are now being replaced by luxury villas catering to the large influx of expats visiting and makingBalihome. On one short access road, a dozen of these homes are being built simultaneously. Nyoman has lived her for 35 years.

Nyoman: The government cannot stop building the villas. The farmers are selling their land for development and profit. It is not so good. If the farmer keeps selling the land, the money can be spent quickly. If they keep the land, you cannot lose.

Maria:On the other hand, these new neighbors are bringing in a lot of much needed business to this local community. Nyoman opened up a warung, or a small food stall, at the end of the access road one year ago.

Nyoman2: For me, it is good. I have this business now and am making money. For some it is good. Their sons and daughters can work in the villas. Can work with the tourism.

Maria:46-year-old Nigel Aimes came to Bali from theEngland12 years on a three month back pack trip and never left. He invested in land way before the boom. Sitting at his popular beach restaurant, he says the area has been transformed:

Nigel:I built my first house 6 years ago. It was in the middle of nowhere. No one would visit us. The last 12 months, things have gone ballistic with resort complexes.

Maria: It is an irresistible situation for everyone. Many Balinese sell their land for more than they would imagine making in a lifetime. It is a dangerous situation in the long run. Professor Gede Pitana:

Gede: We have to have development. We have to redefine development to increase the well being of the people. Build where it is suitable. Don’t convert the fertile land for nonagricultural purposes.

Maria: As a gamelan echoes through Putu’s neighborhood after the rehearsal, he fears the subak will end up suffering the most. His script emphasizes this sentiment:

Putu: “Subak, do you still exist. Still, but only the hoe. Subak, do you still exist? Only the sign. Only in the museum. Subak do you still exist? Yes, that’s what they say.”

END

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