Ulundanu Water Temple

Ulundanu Water Temple

The story of the Balinese water temples and their priesthood used to be (probably still is) a staple of Anthropology 101 classes. It is the story of how the Balinese culture evolved a very elaborate and complicated water management system that worked wonderfully for centuries managing irrigation of terraced rice paddies on extremely mountainous terrain.

In Afghanistan, there is a similar type of irrigation control system that has worked for centuries, as well, but that is a topic for another post. I just hope modern agricultural “aid” doesn’t destroy the Afghan system like it did the Balinese. This is a cautionary tale.

In a nutshell, under the auspices of the Hindu religion, priests controlled every aspect of the agricultural cycle. This included a massive irrigation system starting at Crater Lake and continuing downstream with an incredibly complex network of water channels and terraced rice paddies. This system served them well for centuries and actually formed the cultural fabric of Balinese society.

This complex system ensured that proper agricultural practices were followed, including those that contributed to

Rice Terraces

Rice Terraces

pest control and fertilization without the use of outside chemical inputs. It also ensured that all farmers received the water so essential to rice cultivation, especially important for those farthest downstream. Buth, all aspects of Balinese rural culture revolved around the water temples, making their demise at the hands of modern agriculture forced on them all the more tragic.

What the Balinese traditional system created was actually ecological management of the highest order, ensuring, for example, that natural predators of rice pests would thrive. The “Green Revolution” destroyed that in the 1960s.

The Wikipedia definition of “Green Revolution” reflects it as a positive thing:

Green Revolution refers to a series of research, development, and technology transfer initiatives, occurring between the 1940s and the late 1970s, that increased agriculture production around the world, beginning most markedly in the late 1960s.

The initiatives involved the development of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, expansion of irrigation infrastructure, modernization of management techniques, distribution of hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides to farmers.

The gist of the definition is true, but the blanket statement that it increased production around the world is not. Nor does this biased definition mention any of the negatives occuring due to all the newly introduced chemicals and reliance of very few seed varieties, whereas before seed was mostly localized and ideal for a particular location or region. Both wild and agricultural biodiversity were decimated by the Green Revolution.

Working the paddies

Working the paddies

In Bali, it didn’t work out as planned. Most agricultural scientists working in developing countries that I know and have met are good people. But, they don’t tend to know or care about the cultures of the people they are trying to help. They are also usually quite arrogant when it comes to respecting the agricultural knowledge and abilities of indigenous peoples. They think they are much smarter, when, in particular locales like Bali, they are plain stupid in comparison. This problem is why anthropologists should be involved in every agricultural development project. But, back to Bali.

The National Science Foundation had this to say:

In the fervor of the Green Revolution, the Indonesian government persuaded Balinese farmers to adopt new fertilizers, pesticides, and cultivate hearty “miracle” rice in a $54 million scheme of modernization. Farmers were pressured to plant rice as frequently as possible, and to disregard the traditional irrigation schedules of neighboring paddies. After a brief increase in productivity, crops dwindled drastically, prey to water shortages and infestation by vermin. Balinese farmers began pressing the government for a return to irrigation scheduling by the water temples, but were castigated for their religious conservatism and resistance to change. In 1983, the National Science Foundation sponsored Dr. Steve Lansing to examine the role of water temples in Balinese irrigation management. Dr. Lansing subsequently tried to convey to development officials that the rituals of the water temples were a historically successful system of ecological management that should not be ignored but they persisted with their ill-fated plan.

In 1987, a study by an anthropologist (Steve Lansing) and ecologist/computer modeler (James Kremer) concluded that the traditional water temple system was far more effective than the government’s current policy [Green Revolution]. The good news is that many Balinese farmers have and are continuing to return to their traditional water temple system of agriculture. The Green Revolution knocked the farmers down, but not out.

The bad thing is that the Green Revolution never went away. Genetically engineered crops are the latest incarnation of it, but the US has always tried to push cash crop production on everyone. Just that is the biggest threat to food security there is.


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4 Comments on Balinese Water Temples: Modern Agriculture Run Amuck

  1. [...] system is heavily dependent on technology, while the traditional systems are not. Read my post, Balinese Water Temples: Modern Agriculture Run Amuck, for a cautionary tale about so-called western agriculture experts destroying traditional farming [...]

  2. [...] technology. This report doesn’t even address traditional agricultural methods, such as the Balinese Water Temple system, but does allude to the fact that such indigenous methods are likely to increase yield even more. [...]

  3. [...] Balinese water system I previously wrote about in Balinese Water Temples: Modern Agriculture Run Amuck have been added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. The listing officially is: Cultural Landscape of [...]

  4. [...] similar to the Balinese Water Temples I have previously discussed, the kariz define the cultural identity and structures of villages and towns, so are much more than [...]

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