Oct 07 2011

Ubud Writers and Readers Festival: The Cycle of Rice


Today’s session at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival called ‘The Cycle of Rice‘ was about living simply, consuming less and sharing more, and how it all related to rice farming in Bali.

Rice farming in Bali -- it's pretty, but it ain't easy.

Rice farming in Bali -- it's pretty, but it ain't easy.

The panel’s host, Gouri Mirpuri the author of Eco-Heroes of Indonesia, introduced the panelist Steve Lansing by saying, “You can’t talk about rice and Bali without talking about Steve Lansing.”

“He’s the rockstar of rice,” Jan Reynolds, another panelist and the author of Cycle of Life, a Story of Sustainable Farming.

Steve Lansing is an anthropologist and the author of five books, one of which, Perfect Order: Recognizing Complexity in Bali was called a seminal work by both of the other panelists, who seemed a bit star-struck to be seated next to him. Bali is the only place, Steve joked, that a guy who writes books about rice is famous.

I had the great pleasure of meeting Steve last night, and interrupting him soon after to request that he try and dumb down his vocabulary so that I could understand it.

In the coming week, Steve will be meeting with UNESCO to create a world heritage cultural landscape site in Bali. The underground waterways and irrigation canals in Bali are over 1,000 years old and governed by an ancient system of democratic negotiation between the farmers to share the water resources.

Finding ways to create ecologically-friendly tourism in Bali that actually benefits the locals (unlike Angkor Wat, Steve pointed out) is crucial.

Other well-intentioned attempts to increase the farmer’s revenue has actually harmed them, like planting new, fast-growing rice varieties that ended up being out of sync with the traditional irrigation systems, and causing serious harm to the environment.

Another panelist, Kirk Johnson, is the Director of the Bali Field School at the University of Guam, and the author of From Classrooms to Rice Field: Cultivating Connections through Field Studies in Bali, Indonesia.

Kirk brings groups of students from Guam to Bali to learn about the culture and rice farming. The students are inspired by how the Balinese value and retain their culture and learn from the challenges that Bali faces in the face of modernity.

The two biggest challenges facing rice farming in Bali are chemical pesticides and tax issues that raise the taxes of neighbouring farmers when any farmer sells in order to build a villa on their property. This causes a domino effect — the taxes rise on the farmer’s neighbours who then decide to sell as well, and more valuable rice farmland is lost.

Even the smallest offering costs something

Even the smallest offering costs something (photo Adam @ SitDownDisco)

The panel also talked about the function of ceremony in Balinese culture. The Balinese spend a huge amount of time and money on various ceremonies (including ones related to rice farming) but these ceremonies have allowed them to maintain and preserve their culture in the face of modernity.

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