Friday, December 23

Income To Which No Tears Are Attached

A study says that Bali needs at least 516,000 hectares of productive land to feed its population. The island has only 325,000 hectares of fertile land. According to WHO standards, Bali can only sustain a population of about 1 million; 1.6 million would be 'tolerable'; the actual population is 3.32 million. On top, 2.5 million tourists visit every year.

The island's water supply is 4.7 million cubic meters per year, while 5.4 million cubic meters are used annually. The major lakes are falling, in some cases the water level goes down a foot a year. Water levels are trending down in a majority of Bali's rivers, and deep wells are being bored to make up for the loss of surface water. Of course, as ground water is pumped out, sea water from all around the island seeps in. Farmers in south Denpasar can no longer grow crops in the brackish soil, they sell their land to developers building one tourist enclave after another. Bali now has 50,000 hotel rooms; and the hotels have successfully resisted any meaningful water tax.

For a thousand years, Bali had its own traditional pulsed system of irrigation, called the subak. The subak system -- built around water temples whence allocation of water is made by a priest -- is famous among anthropologists and agronomists for its engineering, its social structure, and the guiding hand of religion.

As Bali's 400 rivers and streams issue from the central highland catchment areas, they dig deep channels in the volcanic rock. For a thousand years, farmers have cut tunnels through the rock to feed water into aqueducts, from where bamboo piping carries the water to the top of terraced rice fields. Gravity does the rest, the water flows down from terrace to terrace till it comes to down to the level of the beaches. Sluices or gates on dams are opened or closed to create pulsing -- inundating the seedlings when desired, drying them out when needed. Irrigation tunnels are precision-engineered through rock, running for kilometers at a time, to accurate delivery at the top of the fields; the oldest has inscribed on its walls AD 944 as the year of construction.

Anthropologists have enduringly viewed the rise of central state power as tied to the administration of irrigation. Karl Marx believed that "the prime necessity of an economical and common use of water .... necessitated in the Orient ... the centralizing power of government." When Engels asked him for substantiation, he replied that an "intact example" was Bali.

When the Dutch colonized Bali, they felt that control over irrigation was one of the powers they should inherit from the Balinese royal houses. They also felt that the island should be run profitably. One popular idea in the Netherlands was for the colonial government to own an opium import monopoly, by which it could sell "juice" to the natives at handsome profit, and use some of that profit to run the island.

Opium had been traditionally traded in Bali by the Bugis from Sulawesi, and also the Chinese. The merchants paid a duty to the local rajas who ruled each district in Bali. Around the 1890s, annual agricultural tax revenue in any one raja's domains did not amount to much more than 15,000 dutch guilders (each guilder or dutch florin was about 10 grams of silver.) In comparison, opium revenue for the island was close to 1,000,000 guilders.

The Dutch decided to take control, abolishing independent opium sales, forcing people to buy only from them, in Bali as in Java. The rajas who revolted were mown down with guns.

Henri Hubert van Kol, a Dutch parliamentarian, visited Bali in 1902 with the goal, alongside travel, of reporting back to the Dutch government how to administer the island better. The promotion of opium, by the time van Kol arrived, had done even more damage to the Dutch East Indies than the wars that ended in colonization. He wrote:

On Java alone, 16 million guilders are obtained from 150,000 Chinese and Javanese who could spend that money on better things than poppy juice. The native becomes poorer, and brings his jewelry, clothes and tools to be pawned. He pawns his land and would rather commit a crime than work ...

Most of the addicts were modest users, but under the monopoly opium was more expensive -- when the income of a family was scarcely 100 guilders a year, the total revenue stated by van Kol indicates that most of the users spent their entire income on opium.

H.H. van Kol lobbied strenuously to abolish the opium monopoly and develop tax revenues more along the traditional lines of agricultural land and water taxes, so that the economy of Bali could be based on "income to which no tears are attached."

Eventually his argument prevailed; but when the Dutch colonial state tried to take control of the systems of agriculture, they found to their consternation that the kings enjoyed no power over irrigation.

The princes of Bali had diffuse, overlapping kingdoms whose boundaries were entangled and disputed. Most of the kingdoms straddled watersheds and there was little possibility of controlling water upstream in one watershed without inviting retribution in another. Confounding conventional and Marxist theories, it turned out that the water was actually controlled by temples, not kings.

A subak consists of all the rice terraces irrigated from a single dam. The dams are stacked one below the other down the river canyons. From the dam, a single canal system, usually of a few kilometers' length, carries diverted water to the subak, often with the aid of overhead aqueducts or tunnels.

Individual farmers whose fields are irrigated by a subak form a congregation that then becomes affiliated with the activities of the particular water temple.

The water temple -- pura -- is headed by a Hindu priest, who draws up a calendar of water use -- when the planting season starts, which subak draws water when, and how the pulses of water flow out. Water interacts with the soil in fields as part of a complex agri-biology -- the pulsed cycles impact soil pH, temperature, nutrient circulation, aerobic conditions, micro-organism growth, pest-drowning, weed suppression etc. -- the pura calendar accounts for all these aspects. The system is fragile, even a day's disorder in water-flow will damage a farmer's crop.

Pura congregation-members prepare offerings to the gods, repair and decorate temples, clear small field canals, mend dykes and make repairs to water channels. The head priest of Pura Er Jeruk explained the system to American anthropologist Stephen Lansing thus:

There are 14 subaks all of which meet together as one here. They meet at the Temple Er Jeruk. Every decision, every rule concerning planting seasons and so forth, is always discussed here. Then, after meeting here, decisions are carried down to each subak. The subaks each call all their members together: "In accord with the meeting we held at the Temple Er Jeruk, we must fix our planting dates, beginning on day one through day ten."

For example, first subak Sango plants, then subak Somi, beginning from day ten to day twenty ...

Heeding van Kol's advice, the Dutch had tried to convert Bali into a plantation economy -- a colonial dependency with roads, railways, shipping etc., designed to support the conversion of a subsistence agriculture into cash crops. Of the process of creating this colonial dependency, Lansing writes in The Three Worlds of Bali :

The classical states of Bali were not merely conquered but obliterated: the people killed, the libraries burned, the palaces reduced to rubble. It is all the more remarkable, then, that the cultural and institutional life of Bali. Balinese civilization, in fact was able to survive...The real roots of this civilization lay elsewhere, in intertwining networks of thousands of temples where the power of the myths was guarded, nurtured, studied ...

While the Dutch destroyed what part of Bali they could see -- by abolishing the monarchy and radically remaking the visible culture, the temples tucked away in the paddies endured. Lansing notes that the Dutch did not understand the decentralized system of irrigation, nor the importance of water temples in agricultural production, and they abandoned any attempts to intervene in water management solely allowing the ancient system to transpire. They did install an irrigation bureaucracy, which consisted of collecting rice taxes, performing land surveys, and building irrigation works, yet they remained clueless as to the vital role of water temples in both agriculture and social organization.

Lansing states:

Because the Dutch model of irrigation vastly underestimated the complexity of the sociobiophysical systems involved in rice production, water temples and bureaucracies coexisted without creating technical problems in irrigation control. Most Balinese rice terraces continued to produce two crops per year, as they had before the arrival of the Dutch.

After Indonesia became independent, the new state continued on a path of development based on the bureaucratic capitalism, as designed by the colonizers. This resulted in a disastrous attempt at a Green Revolution.

The Bali Irrigation Project was launched in 1979 by the Asian Development Bank in order to improve the performance of irrigation systems while disregarding the practical role of the pura. All of the new changes contradicted the traditional water management based on ritual and religious cycles. Lansing writes:

The Green Revolution approach assumed that agriculture was a purely technical process and that production would be optimized if everyone planted high-yielding varieties of rice as often as they could. In contrast, Balinese temple priests and farmers argued that the water temples were necessary to coordinate cropping patterns so that there would be enough irrigation water for everyone and to reduce pests by coordinating fallow periods.

If farmers on adjacent fields synchronize their cropping patterns to create a uniform fallow period over a sufficiently large area, rice pests are temporarily deprived of their habitat and their populations can be sharply reduced. Field studies indicate that synchronized harvest/fallow patterns result in pest losses of around 1%, compared to losses upwards of 50% during continual cropping as imposed by the Green Revolution's "Massive Guidance."

While the first few years brought greater harvest, Massive Guidance quickly led to ecological collapse. The lack of crop rotation and natural harvest/fallow cycles resulted in less productive fields. As the pests could not be controlled by fallow fields interrupting their breeding cycles, massive use of pesticides was pushed onto the farmers. The new pesticides killed the good insects that used to eat the bad ones.

Balinese farmers began pressing the government for a return to irrigation scheduling by the pura, but were taken to task for their religious doggedness and 'conservatism.' In 1983, the US National Science Foundation sponsored Lansing to examine the role of water temples in Balinese irrigation management. Lansing subsequently tried to convey to development officials that the rituals of the water temples were a historically successful system of ecological management that should not be ignored. The Asian Development Bank wrote back:

We do not fully share the expressed concerns of Mr. Lansing. Certainly there is a direct relationship between large areas of fallow land for a considerable period and the population of pests. However, pest control programs carried out efficiently and effectively will control the pest population and allow growing of rice year-round if adequate water resources are available as is done, for example, in certain areas of Central and East Java where farmers grow three rice crops per annum. It should be noted, that there is no development without affecting traditional systems or customs. Everybody can criticize and damage a project, but only a few people can overcome those difficult problems and make the project viable.

In 1987, Lansing collaborated with a computer simulation expert, James Kremer, to calculate the effects of various crop management scenarios. Their model, using historical rainfall data, concluded that the traditional water temple system was far more effective than the government's policy. Around 1991 Jakarta started to back down; development agencies are now encouraging Balinese rice farmers to return to the system that had served them well for over a thousand years. The farmers are inching back to making $600 per year from their rice crops, i.e. subsisting on the iconic $2/day.

In the meantime, of course, tourists have discovered Bali; as mentioned the island now gets 2.5 million visitors a year and boasts of 50,000 hotel rooms. Tourism is the new opium. In the 1990s Australian college-students discovered the drunken-bikini-scene in Kuta, and more recently Liz Gilbert has opened the eyes of American single-white-females to Ubud. Rice farmers are selling out of their land, foreigners are moving in to build "Bali style" bungalows.

Outside Goa Gajah, as we draw into the parking lot an elderly parking attendant waves to Ida Bagus. "My uncle," he explains, "my mother's brother."

"If this were India," I tease him, "you would have hid from your elder that cigarette you are smoking."

"I know," says Ida Bagus. "He is always telling me to quit. My uncle's side is very .... hmm ... holy ... they used to be water-temple priests."

An article in the Sydney Morning Herald titled "Bali skirts the fine line between selling body and soul" says:

We decide over lunch that she's almost certainly a Bulgarian hooker, this girl with the blonde mullet, the full-body tan and the iPod tucked fetchingly into her G-string. With the dreamy-jerky movements of a Sim she dances alone at the centre of the beach-shack restaurant, directing her Mona Lisa smile at the dreadlocked Aussie surfers.

As her toasted pelvis rotates mesmerically, two things strike me. First, that she gives new meaning to the term Bali belly. Second, that as livings go, Bulgarian hooker probably still beats 50-kilogram top-of-the-head load-bearer for $2 a day, like the mother of the taxi driver who brought us to this out-of-the-way Balinese beach ...

"Bali style'', now a sort of global soft porn for design heads. You know the look. Dark satiny timber, broad eaves, simple planes, glancing daylight, walled courts, infinity pools, gauzy hangings, luscious views and frangipani evenings strewn with tiny lights. Far grander than Bali-colloquial, Bali style has shades of Japanese serenity, Polynesian sensuality and cool Moorish seclusion. It does for Bali architecture what Paul Simon did for Zulu music; enriching and teasing it open for Western tastes without diminishing its power.

But this very lusciousness, with its enormous drawing power, is part of the problem. Already, while tourists pad around endless azure pools on emerald lawns fringed with luxuriant tropical planting, Bali beyond the touro-strip is parched and brown.

Locals say it hasn't rained for a year. The lovely golden cattle sit emaciated on picked-bare dirt. Groundwater is depleted, rivers dry or polluted, and lakes seven metres down. Water comes by tanker over roads that are more pothole than asphalt, and then by head - yet the big hotels strenuously oppose any increase in the water tax.

For the moment, Bali continues to rotate its pelvis and smile seductively at its fat white guests. But does it, in quiet moments, wonder at what point hospitality becomes prostitution?

Below, a walk in the rice fields.


Post a Comment

<< Home