On June 29, the 36th meeting of the UNESCO Cultural Heritage Committee at St. Petersburg, Russia, reached a vital decision for Indonesia: the official recognition of Bali's Subak landscape as a world cultural heritage. Subak is seen to reflect a philosophy specific to Bali: the harmony between divinity, humanity and nature. The St. Petersburg achievement was a culmination of 12 years of hard work. Tempo English reports from Bali on the efforts that led to this victory, and more importantly, its impact on local farmers.
THE landscape in Jatiluwih village, Tabanan, has graced hundreds of postcards: green, terraced paddy fields undulating downhill with rows of crops displaying reddish rice grains. In several corners there are pelinggih where farmers usually put bowls of offerings.
The area, located some 30 kilometers from Denpasar, the capital of Bali province, is almost untouched by development. There are no hotels or resorts. When Tempo visited the village two weeks ago, farmers were harvesting paddy with ani-ani palm-held reaping knives a traditional tool already rarely used in other regions in Bali.
What they grow is brown rice. "That's the crop grown by our ancestors," said Gede Susila, 35, one of the farmers. The agriculture here is recorded in the palm-leaf chronicle of Bali around 1150 AD. It's the atmosphere of one site of subak, which on June 29 was established as a world cultural heritage in the cultural landscape category. Subak is a farmers' organization for efficient and just management of water sources and irrigation. Each subak operates with written rules called awig-awig.
Subak areas vary considerably. As an illustration, Jatiluwih village has six subak with six water springs, covering 25-90-hectare areas and involving 30 to 319 people. All over Bali there are around 82,000 hectares of paddy fields with about 2,700 subak.
However, subak is not an ordinary organization of farmers. "There are five functions of subak: the fair distribution of water, maintenance of irrigation channels, mobilization of members for mutual assistance, settlement of conflict between farmers and arrangement of rituals," said I Wayan Windia, an Agriculture School professor of Udayana University.
What makes it special is that the subak system is designed on the basis of principles of life of Balinese society, Tri Hita Karana. According to this belief, prosperity and virtue can only be achieved when there are harmonious relationships between men and God (Parhyangan), between fellow humans (Pawongan), and between men and nature (Palemahan).
They believe that the water flowing through irrigation networks is granted by the lake goddess, Dewi Danu. Harmonious relationships with the goddess and other gods safeguarding the fertility of their soil should also be maintained through prayers. Therefore, each process of paddy cultivation from planting to harvesting is always preceded by a ritual.
Subak members are also connected by pura (temple) networks. The smallest is bedugul, located on the land plot of a farmer. There are subak temples, for farmers from the same subak; Ulun Swi temples, for farmers from several subak; and the largest pura situated in the upstream area. Farmers contribute small portions of their harvests annually, when rituals are held at temples. "The unique feature of subak lies in the rituals. It's only found in Bali," noted Windia.
Temple rituals also have their practical function. For instance, in the major ritual, "Water Opening", dozens of subak adjust their irrigation schedules so that no paddy fields will be short of water.
Subak is democratic in nature. All decisions must be discussed at subak meetings. Such meetings decide on diverse things like the varieties to be grown and subak leaders, called pekaseh.
Pekaseh receive no honorarium and occupy the post for five years. But during the term of office they are entitled to work on the communal paddy fields in the downstream subak area. "In this way, they can be aware of any problem in the upstream area," Windia pointed out.
Irrigation channels are built according to Bali's hilly topography. "Farmers don't want to destroy the soil contour," added Windia. The water for subak members is divided on the basis of the paddy field area. For instance, Subak Gunungsari, a subak in Jatiluwih village, gets eight centimeters of water per hectare of its paddy field. "Eight centimeters mean the width of the water entry gate of the main irrigation channel," said I Wayan Kuasa, Pekaseh of Subak Gunungsari.
The water division in the subak system is quite unique. One water channel gate must not irrigate two paddy fields of different owners. "So after water flows into somebody's paddy field, it will flow out again to the main irrigation channel. The term is one inlet and one outlet," explained Windia. But subak members can also "borrow" water from others in times of need. How? The water flow is temporarily diverted to the other members.
Is there any dishonest practice? "It has never been found here. But we will impose a fine, if any (is exposed)," assured Kuasa.
According to Windia, the borrowing system makes trickery rarely happen. Moreover, its sanction is tough enough. "The water channel can be shut off for a while," he said. It is the implementation of Tri Hita Karana in subak that leads to the very typical subak landscape of Bali. "Compared to the other cultures of Bali, subak is older and it is the basis of our culture," said I Ketut Suastika, Bali's Provincial Culture Office head.
This concept has finally made subak acceptable as world heritage to UNESCO. "It's considered to have an outstanding universal value," said Yunus Arbi, the head of the Physical Cultural Heritage Section, Directorate of Internalization of Values and Cultural Diplomacy at the Ministry of Education and Culture.
Nonetheless, proposing subak as world cultural heritage was not easy. "The government filed its proposal as early as 2000. Yet at the time, the proposal was still fragmentarily submitted," said Yunus. The several sites they proposed were the river basin of Pakerisan, Gianyar and Subak Jatiluwih, Tabanan.
"We are still stuck on our previous experience proposing sites such as the Borobudur Temple or Sangiran," said the man who handled the application from the start.
Whereas UNESCO defined cultural landscape as the entire span of nature, reflecting the relationships between humans and their natural environment. "Only at that moment did we think of unifying the various sites in Bali representing the subak concept," said Yunus.
The government made another proposal in 2003 until finally it was discussed in Quebec in 2008. It was again suspended. The session asked for an expansion of the sites' limits to meet the range covered by the subak system. "The sites should indicate close relationships between temples, paddy fields and the village," said Yunus. "The forest zone in the subak upstream area, the locations of paddy field water springs, should be included in the proposal, so that the conservation of water sources is maintained," added Yunus.
The government along with some experts among others Windia conducted more research. They eventually agreed to determine four sites seen as most representing the subak system of Bali, named the "Bali Cultural Landscape": Pura Ulun Danu Batur; Lake Batur, the main temple for the whole subak; the subak landscape of the Pakerisan river basin; the subak landscape of Catur Angga Batukaru, both having the most preserved networks of paddy fields, temples and forests in Bali; and the royal water temple, Pura Taman Ayun. Their total area is 19,519.90 hectares with five buffer zones covering more than 1,400 hectares.
Apart from proving that the sites have significant cultural, historical, artistic or scientific values, the government also had to ascertain that they could control the water supply for subak. "We had to include calculations of water flow rates into the subak irrigation. It's hard to control because between water sources and subak there are often hotels or golf courses," said Wiendu Nurhayati, Deputy Minister for Culture. But in 2011, after the fulfillment of various requirements, subak could at last be recommended as world cultural heritage.
Since the 1980s, the total area that subak systems cover has drastically declined. "It has annually decreased by about 800 hectares," said Suastika. The cause? It is the booming tourism business plus the mushrooming trade and settlements. "We shouldn't just imagine beautiful things. We're also demanded to be able to preserve it," Suastika said.
To this end, Wiendu estimated the government would need at least around Rp5 billion to draw up a conservation master plan. "This master plan will determine what programs need to be undertaken for the management of subak," she said. "For example, after a study, a special program is required to maintain the quality of conduits and water flow rates." .
In addition, a guideline will be needed. "It's a kind of dos and don'ts for stakeholders. It takes another Rp5-10 billion," said Wiendu. For instance, there should be sign boards, prohibitions to move water taps at will and to change the shape of conduits. And it is important to consolidate cooperation between ministries. "For example, for continued water supply, forests must be conserved. For this purpose we have to cooperate with the Forestry Ministry," said Wiendu.
What about the farmers' reaction? "I'm proud because we have been recognized by the world," said Grace M. Tarjoto, a farmer. But they still hope to overcome a host of problems in the subak system. "We hope the irrigation system can be improved," said Ketut Sudiarta, 46, a farmer in Jatiluwih. "We use wood and sacks of earth to distribute water, so that in the dry season the rate of the water flow to paddy fields is low," Kuasa said.
They also hope for an exemption from tax on land. "Agricultural produce is not much, it's not even enough to meet our needs," said Grace. Windia shared this view. "Tax on land and buildings is valued on the basis of locations rather than production, so that it rises annually. It's unfair," he said. Water supply is also frequently absorbed by hotels, golf courses and other tourism facilities.
Wiendu promised that the government would help. "There will be attempts to strengthen water control nodes," she said. Farmers will also receive incentives. For instance, they are obliged to preserve subak, but they will be given special plots for homestay businesses. "So they can be rewarded for their hard work," added Wiendu. "If this system runs smoothly, it will hopefully become a model for subak management across Bali."
No. 46/12, July 10, 2012
A temple near a paddy field in Denpasar, Bali.