Is Bali’s heritage rice kept hostage to outdated regulations?

By Ines Wynn

The recent Ubud Food Festival (UFF) hosted a number of ‘Food for Thought’ panel sessions and discussions around sustainable farming and the origins of the foods we consume. Of note was the strong message purveyed by the panellists that “consumers need to engage directly with farmers to safeguard sustainability and give farmers a better deal.” The three biggest challenges for farmers, according to the panellists, are access to the market, finance and knowledge.

The growing movement towards sustainable agriculture and food production in Bali is gaining momentum. It is, however, still a very steep uphill road, especially in the case of rice farming, an underappreciated and under-remunerated labour, and for most rice farmers a Spartan existence. The central question is thus: can rice farming be made profitable?

I Made Chakra, founder and president of Tri Hita Karana, an NGO devoted to sustainable agriculture and technology using permaculture principles, declares that financial support for Bali’s rice farmers is crucial if the practice is going to survive.

Balinese rice culture, he explains, is based on agama, the religious practices that are indigenous to Bali and did not originate in India where Hinduism was not based on rice culture. As far back as the 8th century the Ashram system, describing and guiding an individual through the 4 stages of life, as practiced in Bali, was still the same as that in India. This gradually changed over time into a more community oriented system based on rice farming.

In the 11th century, a Hindu priest named Mpu Kuturan came to Bali from Java with the intent to build a cordon of coastal Hindu temple-fortresses around the island like Uluwatu, Pura Sakenan, Goah Lawah,. He felt the threat of the advancing islamisation of Java and in response created the Tri Kahyangan Hindu system, encompassing the worshipping of the trinity of the gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. On the practical side, it was an agrarian community-banjar system that relied heavily on barter trade. This is the start of the establishment of the Balinese Hinduism we know today, a socio-economic-religious culture that pervades all aspects of Balinese life.

In 1487, the time of the Majapahit exodus to Bali, this work and legacy was continued by the sage Danghyang Niratha who continued to build more temples like Rambut Siwi in Jembrana to protect the island from Javanese invaders.

The Tri Kahyangan system was built on rituals. It is in essence a water- religion culture using the subak system, a collaborative effort to ensure sufficient irrigation for all farmers in a given area. Rituals and ceremonies were created to remind people how and when to execute certain tasks or actions so they would not forget. It encompassed practices like seed selection, growing new rice seedlings in top areas closest to the incoming subak water, keeping the rice fields ‘pure’ by not putting compost as fertiliser or letting cows graze on fallow fields. The reasons and explanations for many of today’s surviving rituals and ceremonies are lost in the mists of time but the practice is still continued to the point where some of the obligatory rituals have become an increasing financial burden on the farmers.

Cultivating a white rice crop is not a lucrative undertaking. Wholesale prices for the hybrid rice most widely cultivated in Bali, are low at IDR 6000 per kilo and the work is arduous and backbreaking. In addition, the cultivation of white rice requires expensive chemicals like fertiliser and weed control sprays. No wonder the younger generation increasingly opts out of continuing the family tradition. The consequences are nefast. The current generation of rice farmers are getting older and have to rely more and more on itinerant labourers. Consequently the rice fields are getting sold off when the older generation retires.

Chakra insists there is another solution. Farmers can get a lot more income if they switch to the cultivation of heritage rice, i.e. the brown and red rice varieties that are grown from original non-modified local seed widely used before the advent of the ‘green revolution’ when white rice culture became the norm. They also fetch more attractive prices on the wholesale market at IDR 25000-30000 per kilo. A number of traditional rice varieties are already cultivated at different locations in Bali: primarily in Jatiluwih (red rice) and Gianyar.

Although retail prices of heritage rice are higher than for white rice, the biggest problem with heritage rice is primarily a problem of marketing, of finding interested buyers for these rice crops abroad due to an old, ineffective government resolution which is still on the books and is effectively preventing the export of Bali’s heritage rice crops. The original resolution, proclaimed at the time of the Sukarno government, was the direct result of a big rat plague that decimated and destroyed the crops. It was intended to keep precious rice stocks in the country in order to feed the population rather than exporting a valuable commodity needed at home. The plague is long gone but the resolution has not been lifted and Bulog, the entity in charge of food distribution and price control, is still enforcing the old ban and most of the Bulog bureaucrats have long lost sight of the original intention.

Red and brown rice varieties are in demand by consumers who appreciate the natural, chemical-free and sustainable nature and properties of these crops, and they are freely available in Bali. Heritage rice production is more than sufficient for the local market and is only held back from higher production and export by endemic bureaucratic obstinacy. In other areas Indonesia seeks to increase its exports to an ever demanding consumer base abroad. Bali heritage rice could be one of its proud exports. It’s high time the government understands this, lifts those old inadequate resolutions and takes down the obstacles to increased prosperity for Indonesian farmers.

To find out more about heritage rice and other permaculture projects, visit the Tri Hita Karana website