An article by Bill Dalton, Bali Advertiser.

The cultivation of rice, the cooking of rice, the safeguarding of rice and the honoring of the forces that are responsible for rice dominate the life of the Balinese. Rice is the central dish of every meal and dictates the richly layered lifestyle, culture and religion of the island.

Tropical grasslands are nutritionally poor for raising cattle, which are also vulnerable to a wide range of diseases that make the animals sick. Raising animals is a poor option compared to rice growing because rice can sustain a higher population density than livestock. One hectare of rice and other food crops can produce around 10 million calories but if used for daily pasture the same amount of land would deliver only 1.7 million calories. Balinese farmers instead convert the food that the animal would eat directly into sustenance.

The subak is a communal association consisting of growers, tenants and sharecroppers who work adjacent rice field holdings. In existence in Bali since at least A.D. 896, when the earliest written records were recorded on lontar palm manuscripts, there are today around 1,500 subak, each with several hundred members and each covering a different slice of the island’s pie-shaped watersheds.

The subak system is among the 26 new sites inscribed on UNESCO World Heritage List in 2012. These irrigation cooperatives are entirely necessary because of Bali’s climate and mountainous terrain. The island’s long well defined dry season from April to October leaves the farmer no choice but to irrigate, even though Bali’s mountainous nature makes it very difficult. Bali is extremely volcanic; its soft mountain rock lacerated by the 162 rivers and streams that cut deep valleys and gorges.

Water is crucial in the growing of rice. The only way to organize the distribution of water fairly is to link all rice growing communities into an elaborate social system controlled by community water management and irrigation organizations. Since a farmer is unable to build and maintain elaborate irrigation works alone, only through cooperation with neighbors have the Balinese become famed as Indonesia’s most efficient rice-growers.

The entire system is intensely collaborative, both in coordinating planting and allocating water to avoid, for example, upstream–downstream conflicts. Since an upstream farmer has a distinct physical advantage over a downstream farmer, he has no incentive to release water in a cooperative way for his downhill neighbor. The subak sees that he does.

Since the island’s terrain makes the irrigation dams and wide channels impossible, water is carried from field to field by an elaborate system of bamboo pipes, aqueducts, canals, culverts and temporary weirs. Water needs high on the ridges sometimes require tunnels 2-3 km long cut through solid rock hillsides, some dug 8-9 centuries ago.

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