Friday, July 11, 2014

Subak: Rice Farming in Bali

A lot of Asians -- myself included -- won’t feel full without eating rice thanks to being brought up with the typical Asian diet of eating rice at least twice a day. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m addicted, but I certainly can’t picture my life without it. Last year in an effort to better my nutrition value, I’ve started adding grains, seeds and beans such as chia seeds, barley, soaked mung beans, etc. to make multi-grain rice. While I’m pretty much used to eating it without noticeable difference, once in a while I like to cook the pure unadulterated stuff. There’s this inexplicably satisfying feeling I get digging into a steaming bowl of fluffy white rice that multi-grain rice simply can’t give.

Indonesia is white rice country, and Bali is no exception. One of tourist favourite photo-op locations in Bali is at Tegalalang's multi-tiered rice terraces. The terraces were constructed as such due to the unique Balinese irrigation system called subak whereby water is distributed over a series of canals employing an egalitarian practice based on the Balinese Hinduism concept of Tri hita Karana. Sadly subak is slowly disappearing. One effort to slow down this rate was the Indonesian government's request and subsequently UNESCO’s award of the world heritage listing for the subak system. The listing allows the Balinese to obtain advice and financial assistance from UNESCO.

The Balinese farmers themselves are conflicted about the heritage listing. Having subak recognised brings in more tourists and money to the island, but rarely does that cash benefit the farmers. It mostly goes to the tour operators, hotels, villas, etc. The other effect of tourism is real estate development. With more and more tourists arriving, the rice fields are rapidly in danger of being converted to hotels and villas to service said tourists.

While we vacationed in Ubud, we stayed in a private villa overlooking lush green rice paddies filled with pregnant rice plants, some are ready for harvest. Its location at the edge of working rice paddies was the top feature of this villa. The villa encouraged tourists to talk to the farmers and it also delivered small tours for patrons not comfortable approaching the farmers themselves. Although I do like the fact it’s promoting a conversation with the farmers, the fees gained for the tours are not exactly going to the farmers.

The rice fields outside our villa didn’t have the distinct subak look, there are layers of terraces though not as many as ones you see in postcards. But it is a working rice fields, not there merely for the sake of tourists. The first morning of our stay, we were hanging out by our private pool and whiled away our time observing a group of (female) farmers harvesting rice plants with a sickle. The next morning the newly harvested rice were fed into a threshing machine. Meanwhile a flock of ducks had been let loose in the now empty rice paddy.

Ketut (from the cooking class) explained to me during our rice paddy visit that ducks are taken to the harvested field to feed on the padi (unmilled rice) that has fallen on the ground during the harvest. Back in the rice field near the villa, I talked to a farmer with a white shirt and a huge smile. He explained that not only do they rear ducks for their eggs, but also for their meat. He waits for them to lay 60 eggs before the ducks are sold in the market. I spent many mornings and afternoons watching those ducks roamed about freely, quacking away, diving into the mud and carrying on. There's no wonder the bebek betutu I have had in Bali are so delicious, lean but flavourful.

As with subak, it’s a complex problem with no easy solution. I can’t honestly say I didn’t contribute to the problem by vacationing there. Fortunately the tide is slowly turning, in an attempt to slow this suburbanisation at least one Ubud community has agreed to enrol in a program -- founded by a New Yorker -- to conserve the use of their land for agricultural purposes despite pressures from real estate development.

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