Developer pressures, disruptive modern farming methods spell disaster, reports Asia Sentinel

Bali’s mystically beautiful rice fields, watered by an intricate, centuries-old subak irrigation system, are near collapse as farmers sell their properties to developers for villas and as other pressures bear on them, according to a global food research organization.

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a worldwide consortium of public research agencies originally funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, says that with more than two million tourists swarming the island each year, the irrigation system is “is in danger of being loved to death.”

Terraced rice fields near Tabanan, Bali as seen in 1957. Pic: AP.

As many as 1,000 hectares per year of Balinese rice fields, which have been awarded World Heritage Cultural Landscape status by UNESCO, are being taken out of production, said Steve Lansing, an ecological anthropologist who has been studying the system since 1974.

“Because the entire system is integrated, when a few terraced fields are sold, the taxes on neighboring farms increase, putting pressure on more farmers to sell, which threatens the viability of the whole,” Lansing was quoted as saying in a CGIAR news release. “At the current rate of loss of rice fields, all subak are under threat and unless something is done in the next few years, the entire system could collapse.”

For decades, Bali has assumed almost magical status, a Hindu island of perpetual festivals with stunning temples, gorgeous tropical landscapes and a populace seemingly steeped in tolerance. But the threat to the island took on ominous new proportions in the 1970s, when authorities built an international airport in the capital of Denpasar, which allowed jumbo jets to arrive with daily flights from Australia and other nearby countries, swamping the island’s own population of 3.5 million with beer-drinking party goers who swarm the tacky beach bar areas. In the 1980s, as the surrounding islands fell into poverty, another invasion of mendicant Indonesians also flooded the island.

Then a new flood of investment bankers, journalists and wealthy expatriates working in business in Hong Kong, Jakarta and other cities swarmed in to take advantage of the cheap land and building prices to build sprawling villas in the rice fields.

“Hotels and resorts started popping up all over Bali, erasing coconut trees and beaches to make way for private terraces and infinity pools,” Point Consulting said in a recent report. “Other beaches were widened and the background nature was destroyed, transformed into parking lots to accommodate the masses of tourists flying in from Australia and Europe.”

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