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Changing Realities—Perspectives on Balinese Rice Cultivation


This paper discusses issues of agrarian change in south-central Bali. The proximity to urban areas, especially the tourist centers along the southern coast, provides many off-farm employment opportunities for small-scale farming households. Although rice farming continues, for many households it has become a side business. The flexible nature of rice farming in terms of labor input and available casual off-farm work allows farming households to allocate their available labor to a variety of on-farm and off-farm income generating activities. The subak which unites farmers in the irrigation and cultivation of the rice crop plays an important role in supporting this flexibility. Still, the future of rice farming and the organization behind it looks rather dim with a younger generation unwilling to work in the “mud” and little appreciation of the many benefits the subak provides not only to the farming but to the wider community.

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  1. By on-farm work we mean work in relation to attending farm animals, the cultivation of sharecropped and owned rice fields including work for the subak as well as ritual and ceremonial activities pertaining to and integral to all of these tasks. Work for the subak comprises attendance at meetings, preparations and attendance of ceremonies as well as operation and maintenance work on irrigation infrastructure. Off-farm work relates to any other work―community based and household income generating―that does not derive from means on the farm.

  2. Bali presently harvests 5.8 tons of rice per hectare, which is above the national average of 5 tons per hectare (BPS Indonesia 2010).

  3. In the early 1970s the Indonesian government implemented a first Master plan for tourism development in Bali which included, for example, the construction of major resorts in the island’s south and road network extensions (Picard 1996).

  4. Employment indirectly related to tourism is in those industries which produce goods used in the tourist industry, such as the building or textile industries.

  5. The trade industry includes wholesale and retail trade, hotels and restaurants.

  6. As part of the Green Revolution large infrastructural improvement work was undertaken (Bali Irrigation Project), especially in lowland areas, which merged several subaks to share a single dam. With the new arrangements in place shared structures which include the dam at the river, the main canal and a diversion weir to the different subaks, are now maintained and operated by the public works department. (For more details on the consequences of these changes see Lorenzen and Lorenzen 2005.)

  7. With fixed permanent structures in place operation and maintenance is minimal as infrastructural modifications are not permitted.

  8. Balinese subaks have become famous for their meticulous planning of planting schedules to reduce pests and share water equally among up- and downstream subaks (Lansing 1991, 2006).

  9. Payment is in cash and calculated by day or unit size worked.

  10. Teenagers are rarely seen working in the rice fields. Parents and children alike see education as the key to good and permanent off-farm employment.

  11. The hiring of the hand-held tractor and its operator is organized through the munduk but paid by each household individually.

  12. The six subaks in the study area stagger their cultivation cycles with a time interval of 3 weeks to avoid water stress during the plowing phase. For more on rotational cropping, see Lorenzen and Lorenzen (2005).

  13. While a hand-held tractor can plow an average field of 0.5 ha in half a day, it takes up to 2 days to do the same work using draught cattle. In addition, cattle need to be trained to do this work and the work itself is physically more strenuous.

  14. The transplanting period, which lasts between 1 and 2 weeks, is set by the subak head, who starts transplanting in his field. Subak members then have to transplant their seedlings at some time within this window.

  15. The Balinese calendar system is a complex overlay of several calendars based on solar, lunar and ritual cycles which combined together determine auspicious days for specific activities related to life in general but also to the cultivation of rice and animal husbandry.

  16. Fields are weeded three times during the cultivation period: once shortly before and twice after (around 15 days and around 40 days) transplanting seedlings.

  17. See also Lorenzen et al. (2005).

  18. All names appearing in this text are changed.

  19. Nenek Renda is marginally involved in on-farm activities because she suffers from serious gout and migraine. Occasionally, she engages in secular and religious household activities to support Ibu Renda and, if her health allows, she joins one of the hamlet-based labor groups for transplanting of weeding.

  20. They cultivate a smaller area compared to the average owner-tenant (0.67 ha).

  21. The data for these figures is derived from a detailed time-use survey over a period of five-month complemented with our own observations, experiences cultivating a rice field, and personal communication with the survey participants. We asked participants to individually record their daily activities divided into 30 min brackets on a daily basis for the previous day. For the analysis we coded the data into seven main categories: on-farm production activities; off-farm production activities; management of household; care of family members; community services and help to other households; social and cultural activities; and personal care and self maintenance. All categories contained several sub-categories, each of which was again subdivided. On-farm production activities, for example, were broken down into seven sub-categories: rice field activities; animal husbandry, dry land activities; processing and storage (for own use); construction, maintenance and operation of farm infrastructure; manufacturing activities; and on-farm religious activities. Each of these sub-categories was broken down into even more categories, so that the main category (on-farm production activities) actually consisted of 76 different coded activities. Figures 2, 3 and 4 in this paper represent a simplified version of the whole data set.

  22. Farmers go out at night and increase water flow into their own fields. This activity is called borrowing water, which is permitted to a certain extent. Stealing of water is not allowed. For more on borrowing, see Lorenzen et al. (2005), and Lorenzen (2008).

  23. Balinese cannot live by themselves, says Kak Renda. The hamlet community is as important as the extended family, and every household is required to be fully committed to its hamlet. Balinese maintain that hamlet members have to build strong relationships in good times, so that they are strong in times of need. They call this relationship between households and their hamlet ‘suka-duka’—meaning compassion and solidarity.

  24. See for example Eder (1993: 665) who ascribes the persistence of part-time farming to the ‘extraordinarily resilient social organizational’ nature of the farming household.


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Correspondence to Rachel P. Lorenzen.

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Lorenzen, R.P., Lorenzen, S. Changing Realities—Perspectives on Balinese Rice Cultivation. Hum Ecol 39, 29–42 (2011).

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  • Rice cultivation
  • Agrarian change
  • Household labor
  • Subak
  • Off-farm work
  • Indonesia
  • Paddy rice