Balinese Rice Farming

After one missed flight and a night of running around Bangkok to try and recover lost baggage I have finally arrived in Bali, Indonesia.  Even though this is my first time to this islands’ tropical shores, it already occupies a special place in my heart for multiple reasons. IMG_8672_FotorNot only does it have strong ancestral ties to Hawaii (a place and culture that is also quite important to me, and a fact recently discovered through DNA tracing), but it is also a place that has been visited by both my grandmother and father when they embarked on separate global voyages of their own.  After landing in Denpasar, the islands only airport, Geeky Greeky and I headed inland towards Ubud, the yoga/raw food capital of the island. The first thing you will notice upon arriving to Bali is its smell. The air hangs heavy with the fragrant scent of flowers and incense sticks which decorate everything from the middle of the streets to the front of cars. There’s another smell too, a musty scent that fills your nose and clings to your skin and cloths… the humid smell of the jungle. Bali-e1424812453545Although we drove to Ubud under the cover of darkness due to our late flight, you could still see the outline of long vines and huge waxy jungle leaves climbing up the trunks of the banyan trees on the side of the road as the cars headlights passed them by.  Our drive took a little over an hour and we reached our air b&b weary, hungry, and in great need of a hot shower. Even though we were excited to be done with the day and curl up in bed, we immediately rented a motorbike (as is our style) as we were impatient to explore Ubud and find a yummy bite to eat. The town’s center was made up of a collection of small stone streets lined with organic cafes and raw food restaurants with names like; Raw Ubud and The Green Bar. Mix that with the unending amount of yoga and Pilates studios that could be found all throughout the town and you have a Berkeley mums paradise. After a meal of Tempe curry and fresh fruit juices we headed back home to catch up on some rest and prepare ourselves for the next days adventures.  

While we wanted to explore more of the town itself we were also excited to see what lay on its outskirts.  So late the next afternoon we drove in the opposite direction of Ubud and into a land of jungle and terraced rice paddies. IMG_8763_FotorThe emerald green plants that sat partly submerged in water formed a breathtaking view that was only made better by the reflection of the setting sun that turned the water a fiery red and the plants a light gold.  Terrace upon terrace stretched to meet the horizon on one side and if you turned your head to the other you could see the dark purplish outline of Bali’s famous volcano in the distance standing tall behind the green fields.  I hadn’t quite realized how big the rice industry was in Bali until I saw the extent of its rice fields, and while Bali may not be the world’s largest rice producer (Indonesia is in the top five however) it does manage to produce roughly 79.2 million tons of rice a year.  

Balinese rice cultivation dates back almost 2,000 years, while their current irrigation method goes back about 1,000 years. imagesRice is the staple food in the Balinese diet and holds cultural and religious importance as well as being a crucial carb source for the population.  In fact rice is such an essential part of the Balinese diet that the word for rice, “nasi” is also the word for meal. In Bali three kinds of rice are grown; red rice, black rice (really blackberry/purple in color), and white sticky glutinous rice.  There is a fourth kind of rice that cannot be found in Bali, yellow rice, and the Balinese have an old legend that explains why. The legend says that god intended to give the Balinese all of these different kinds of rice but there was a problem with the delivery. IMG_8737_FotorSiwa, one of the Balinese gods, sent a bird to deliver the rice to the Balinese people but along the way the bird ate most of the yellow rice, only leaving a little bit in its beak.  The bird then planted this little bit if yellow rice under the eaves of its home and it grew into turmeric (or Kunyit in Balinese). This is why yellow rice does not grow in Bali, however the Balinese people make yellow rice by mixing white rice with turmeric. Yellow rice isn’t normally eaten by the Balinese but instead is used in certain kinds of ceremonies such as the Kunigan ceremony or the end of Balinese Christmas.

The traditional strain of rice that grows throughout Bali is a white rice called Padi Bali.  However, modern day technologies have introduced a new strain of rice to Bali and much of East Asia that produces a higher yield and is much more resilient towards pests and diseases.  This strain is known as “Miracle” Rice or “New” Rice. Miracle rice, a semi dwarf rice variety called IR8, is a genetic modified cross breed that was bred using a rice variety called Peta (a variety particularly resistant to pests and diseases) and a short Tawainese variety called Deegeoweegen.   UnknownWhile Padi Bali takes 210 days to grow (the length of the Balinese year) Miracle Rice only takes 4 months. This newly genetically engineered creation was introduced to Bali after it decided to stop importing rice (Indonesia was forced to import about 1 million tons of rice a year in the 1950’s due to political and economic instability) and decided to become self-sufficient in 1965.  However, to fulfill this dream the Indonesian people had to come up with a more efficient way to produce rice to feed its growing population that would reach 200 million in the mid 1980’s. Miracle Rice was introduced to Bali by its creators from the International Rice Research Institution in the Philippines, and was massively grown between 1970-1979. Due to Miracle Rice’s high yield the rice production in Bali increased by 43% in this time period, giving the 70’s in Bali the label; The Green Revolution. IMG_8849_FotorBy 1980 Indonesia as a whole was able to export a few hundred tons of rice and was still able to have ample crop left to feed its population. However, there was a down side to Miracle Rice as well. The wholesale adoption of Miracle Rice in Southeast Asia as a whole has led to a rice monoculture which has made crops more vulnerable to pests and diseases as well as more dependent on pesticides. Many anti-GMO activists believe that Miracle Rice is a prime example of the problems that can arise from genetically engineering plants or other organisms and directly introducing those altered species into a natural ecosystem.  

Rice is an incredibly unique crop that must be planted, grown, and harvested in very specific ways.  Before planting, farmers must flood their fields and then bring cows into plough the wet soil. Tractors are sometimes used for this job but farmers find them to be too disruptive to the one of a kind ecosystems that are found within the rice paddies and opt to use cattle for they do a more precise job.  Once the paddies have been ploughed they are fertilized, often using fertilizers that farmers have created themselves, and are finally prepared for the planting. IMG_8646_FotorRice planting is a painstaking, backbreaking process that must be done by hand due to the fragility of the rice stalk and seed. This process takes several days and usually the whole family gets involved. Once the seeds are planted and the yellowy green shoots begin to appear farmers must keep a watchful eye on their crop for birds flock into the fields to pick at the seeds that sit partly submerged in water.  This is the most dangerous time for the rice and also the most damaging time for the farmers for much of their crops can be wiped out if the appropriate measures are not taken. To scare of these feathery pests farmers construct scarecrows, set up kites, wind chimes, and bamboo bird-scarers and even stand for hours on end in the middle of the paddies yelling and scaring the critters away. After two months of this the rice is tall and green and almost ready to harvest, however, the rice isn’t fully matured until the green stems turn, this is the telltale sign that harvest time has come to the paddies. IMG_8528_FotorOnce harvested, which takes another couple days of back breaking work, the fields are either burned or flooded to rid the paddies of the excess stalks that stick uselessly out of the earth. Once these stalks are cleared the paddies are ready for their next planting.  However the paddies themselves are used for far more than just growing rice. Rice paddies produce a lot of protein for the Balinese people in the form of eels, frogs, fish, and insects. Balinese kids can be seen running through the paddies hunting dragonfly which, once caught, they skewer and roast. Yuuummmmmmy, what a tasty snack. Fish are also released in the paddies during the field flooding and are sometime left to roam during the growing of the rice in order to rid the paddies of unwanted insects and excess grain. Farmers even use their paddies as a roaming grown for their ducks, which also help rid the paddies of pests and unwanted visitors

What I found most interesting about the Balinese connection with rice was that its not only about food.  Rice also plays a critical cultural and religious role in Bali in everyday life. The rice plant itself is considered to be divine and is actually seen to be an animated female being that is highly respected.  Many ceremonies within Balinese culture include rice and there are even ceremonies for each stage of rice planting, growing, and harvesting. Rice farmers hold ceremonies and provide offerings during the water opening (field flooding), rice field preparation, rice transplanting, growth, first appearance, flowering, and harvesting. IMG_8716_FotorNow that’s a lot of ceremonies, and they are done multiple times a year.  The upstream corner of the rice field is considered sacred. Here offerings are made to Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice. During harvest time a sacred image of Dewi Sri herself is made from the rice that grew closest to that very spot. This statue is then carried to the rice barn and is given offerings in thanks for her protecting the farmers harvest. Dewi Sri, both a female and male however predominantly female, is also the goddess of fertility, the protectoress of the rice fields, and guardian of the rice barn.  Everyday she is prayed to and after leaving temple the Balinese people place rice on their foreheads, similar to a bindi, to show that they have thanked her that day and already been to temple.

One of the most unique parts of Balinese rice farming is their irrigation system.  This system is controlled by Subaks, or pathways that connect each paddy to the water temple or local water source.  Rice farmers must cooperate with each other in social units in order for these Subaks to connect properly and flow smoothly.  The water flows through the Subaks by use of gravity, hence the reason why most rice farms are terraced. The Subaks purpose is to optimize water sharing and through fallow periods (periods when the land is left un-ploughed, unplanted, and uncultivated) which are specifically coordinated, reduce pests.  The water temples to which each Subak leads are where all fresh water for an area is stored. Water temples set cropping patterns and irrigation schedules for their designated area and are holy places where all farmers go to pray and give thanks for their crop yield.

Today Bali continues to produce rice in the same way it has for thousands of years and they’re getting great results.  Miracle rice is still grown but work has been done to educate farmers on the importance of switching up the rice variety that they grow and to not grow the same kind of rice in the same paddies for multiple seasons in a row. IMG_8550_FotorI am still amazed by the amount of religious dedication put into the simple act of growing rice. The fact that the Balinese have been able to maintain these practices and traditions is an incredible feat that many other cultures around the world still struggle with.  I hope to one day witness these rice ceremonies in person to get a better idea of their purpose and back story but for now I guess I’ll just have to satisfy my curiosity with a little research and seeing what I can see by walking through these picturesque paddies.

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