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Balinese Water Temples Withstand the Tests of Time and Technology
Rice Paddies For centuries, farmers in the dramatically-stepped wet-rice terraces of Bali relied on priests of local "water temples" to coordinate irrigation among hundreds of farming communities. The Balinese agricultural tradition entailed complex religious, social and technical processes that optimized water sharing on the Indonesian island, reduced pest infestations, and successfully yielded rice and other food crops.

While a century of Dutch colonial conquest induced few major changes to the rice paddy system, it was Asia's "Green Revolution" in the early 1970s the zealous spread of new agricultural technologies that promised to radically increase rice production that proved disastrous for Balinese agriculture. During this time, anthropologist J. Stephen Lansing was studying the temples of Bali and began to focus on the water temples, which were either ignored or misunderstood by foreigners. As Dr. Lansing states in his 1991 book on the subject, Priests and Programmers: Technology of Power in the Engineered Landscape of Bali (Princeton University Press; p.11): "If the powers of the water temples were rather hazy for the Dutch, they were entirely invisible to the planners involved in promoting the Green Revolution ."

Water Temple Ranging from mountain lakes to seacoast, water temples were in fact the fulcrum of a delicately balanced system of cooperation between neighboring farmers, steeped in symbolic ritual activities such as food offerings to the Goddess of Crater Lake and other deities. Due to the rigorous social coordination orchestrated through the water temples, led by temple priests, pest levels were minimized and water sharing optimized in the rice paddies. Water temples achieved different ranks of importance according to their role in the rice production process: the highest rank belonged to major water temples which controlled cycles for large sections of rivers and blocks of rice terraces, encompassing larger congregations of farmers.

Map of Bali 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.

preist Again sponsored by the NSF in 1987, Dr. Lansing collaborated with ecologist/computer expert James Kremer to study the traditional Balinese agricultural system using computers to calculate the effects of various crop management scenarios. Their computer simulation model, using historical rainfall data, concluded that the traditional water temple system was far more effective than the government's current policy. Officials finally acknowledged the high price of their having ignored the traditional irrigation management system. Thanks to J. Stephen Lansing's work, development agencies are now encouraging Balinese rice farmers to return to the system that has served them well for over a thousand years. As Dr. Lansing puts it, "These ancient traditions have wisdom we can learn from." Dr. Lansing's research resonates beyond the borders of Bali's rice paddies. It serves to illustrate the value of an anthropological, holistic approach to ecological and agronomic problems.

Please read: Lansing on the ecology of Balinese water temples


For more information see:

Priests and Programmers: Technologies of Power in the Engineered Landscape of Bali, J. Stephen Lansing, Princeton University Press, 1991

The Balinese, J. Stephen Lansing, Harcourt Brace, 1994

This research is supported by the Cultural Anthropology Program.

All photos Copyright © J. Stephen Lansing

All photos and illustrations are copyright© of their respective owners and may not be used without permission.
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