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UN considers Bali's Subak for heritage list

Kate Davis reports on World Heritage recognition for Bali's ancient agricultural tradition.

For centuries the people of Bali have relied on rice as their staple food. A fact emphasised by the terrace hillsides forming the backdrop to the island's picturesque beauty.

But now the traditional practices are at risk and the United Nations is looking at adding Balinese rice cultivation, known as Subak, to its World Heritage list.

Kate Evans reports from Bali.
(Footage of Bali sunrise over Subak)

KATE EVANS, REPORTER: For 1,000 years, mornings in the heart of Bali have looked something like this.

But Bali's tradition of terraced rice agriculture, or Subak, is more than just beautiful. It's a complex system combining spiritual practices, irrigation technology and social organisation.

KATE EVANS: In the village of Jatiluwih, perched on the side of Mount Batukaru in central Bali the technique is especially well preserved, unchanged almost for 11 centuries.

Rice growers are organised into Subaks, or irrigation organisations, made up of farmers whose fields are fed by the same water source. Each covers a few dozen hectares of farmland and sustains several hundred people.

A reliable source of water is critical for wet rice farming and the farmers of the Subak meet once a month to discuss how their water should be evenly distributed among the fields.

Binding the whole system together is the farmers' Hindu religion and an annual series of rituals honouring Dewi Sri, the rice goddess.

IKetut Susila is the head of the Gunung Sari Subak.

(Footage of ritual being performed)

I KETUT SUSILA, HEAD, GUNUNG SARI SUBAK (translation): We believe that if the ritual is not performed the pests will come. The damage of the rice field will be worse. That’s our belief.

KATE EVANS: Indonesia first nominated Subak for World Heritage listing in 2007.

The decision would mean Bali is eligable to receive financial assistance and expert advice from UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation).

The agriculture academic I Wayan Windia is a member of the Indonesian committee pushing for the designation.

I WAYAN WINDIA, PROFESSOR AGRICULTURE, UDAYANA UNIVERSITY (Translation): UNESCO has given a good image to Bali and to Subak. More tourists will come to Bali to see the Subak. For that reason Subak has to be maintained by the government to protect it and subsidised as well in order for Subak to survive forever.

KATE EVANS: Every year, 1,000 hectares of Balinese farmland are converted into hotels and houses. And while tourists flock to photograph these picturesque terraces, the Subak farmers are wondering if they’ll reap any of the benefits.

I KETUT SUSILA (Translation): We haven't got any benefit from tourists coming because the income is now distributed to the government and the traditional village. Subak hasn't got anything.

KATE EVANS: Ketut Susila says that although the provincial Bali government is assisting his Subak, with organic fertiliser, training and some irrigation help, the farmers still face many difficulties.

I KETUT SUSILA (Translation): We need help with the irrigation channel. That’s the main priority for me and for the Subak because all depends on the water. If the irrigation channel is not good, there is no water in the rice field. So how could it happen when this place is promoted as a tourist site because of the Subak? If there is no water, how can we promote it?

KATE EVANS: In fact, rather than supporting Subak, in some ways tourism in Bali directly threatens it, according to I Wayan Windia.

He says hotels compete with the Subak for water, and in addition current government policy bases tax rates on land value. Tourism development near the Subaks raises property prices, forcing out farmers who can't afford sky rocketing taxes.

I WAYAN WINDIA (Translation): The tax on agriculture is essentially based on location, not on production. If there is a villa near the Subak, then the taxes will go up.

KATE EVANS: Hotel owner and chairman of Bali's tourism board, Ida Bagus Ngurah Wijaya, says that tourism in Bali is depends on cultural institutions like the Subak, and that tourism development should be restricted if it impacts negatively on the culture.

IDA BAGUS NGURAH WIJAYA, CHAIRMAN, BALI TOURISM BOARD: Tourism in Bali is again because of the culture is the way of life in Bali. So if the way of life in Bali is not there, so why should they come to Bali? What we would like the local government to do is to make a list of priority, what should we do to preserve our culture?

KATE EVANS: Each year still, the members of Gunung Sari gather to perform the harvest ritual.

(Footage of ritual)

Praying for safety, a bountiful harvest and the survival of their way of life.

I WAYAN WINDIA (Translation): If Subak disappears, Balinese culture will be shattered. Subak is very important for Bali because it's fundamental to Balinese culture.

IDA BAGUS NGURAH WIJAYA: Whatever unique in the world you have to preserve. Because the world become one uniform: you eat the same food, you drive the same car. Then, you know, you have to have something different.
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