7 November 2011 – Bali’s rice farms may be Earth’s most sustainable food system.

The 260,000 farms have renewed their soil and water and maintained production for a thousand years. The farmers have built and maintain a highly engineered and sophisticated irrigation and farming network.

Several volcanoes are in the island and water runs down from them through very steep and narrow valleys to the sea. Most of the water passes through the irrigation system. Some tunnels are three kilometres long and 40 metres below ground level. Some aquaducts are three kilometres long. Modern studies show a continuous minimum flow of over 2 litres a hectare is maintained each year.

The farmers own and manage the water and soil with little involvement of government.

Areas of farms are managed by an agricultural society called a “subak”. There are about 1300 subaks with about 200 farmer members on average. A subak is an area watered by a common source. Every rice farmer in a subak must be a member of the subak and pay a membership fee. All voices and votes are equal no matter the size of the rice farm. Subak boundaries don’t overlap with village boundaries so a farmer who may own land in several subaks will be a member of each no matter where he lives.

Subaks decide when to plant, how much water to allocate, repairs to the irrigation system, harvesting times, fertilizing and pesticides, whether a new rice terrace may be built, and they keep records and implement any government regulations.

A rice farmer at the bottom of the island receives the same amount of water as a farmer at the top of the island.  Production levels are roughly the same no matter the location of the farm.

The level of co-operation and the equal and democratic allocation of water comes from both an understanding of the economic and food consequences of a failure to cooperate and from a deep belief in the role spirits, magic and myth have to play in daily life.

Spirituality is the main “science”

The physical consequences of a failure to share water equally are accepted by all.  Enforcement of water sharing decisions is consistent and certain.  If water is not shared equally pests will ruin neighbours crops.  A neighbour who does not share water will have their crop ruined by pests from the farm that has been denied water. The farmer denied water at the bottom of the water catchment will, as a matter of environmental certainty, have a farm that produces pests which may easily destroy a farm with water that’s upstream.  Cooperation produces higher, roughly equal harvests for all.

Spirituality, however, is the main “science” and motivator for the subak system and for the decisions about how to manage the water and the rice.  Each farmer could grow a little more rice if they took a little more water. The reason they don’t is their belief that such conduct is spiritually wrong. To take more water would mean less water for someone else.  The subak is a sacred organisation. Its decisions have a sacred dimension. To breach a subak rule is to breach a divine rule. Negative consequences, such as bad harvests, are likely.

The entry point for each subak is marked by a temple where offerings are made to spirits and religious ceremonies to celebrate, appease and enjoy the gods and spirits affecting rice farming and water are a part of daily life there. (1)

Are you having the same thought as I am?

I’ve just described an irrigation and farming system that’s been run by over 260,000 farmers for over 1000 years. It’s run by people who have never been to university, have no best practice management codes, many of whom’ve never heard of university, and which generates equal harvests for all. No scientists. No hydraulic engineers. No government control. Soil fertility is renewed.  Farmers make their own pesticides from coconut oil and other local ingredients. They enforce their own rules.

Does this remind you, as it does me, of the Australian Murray-Darling irrigation system?

Australia’s irrigation system is only 200 years old but is a self-destroying system. It’s not expected to last another 50 years in its current form and production is expected to decline by perhaps 30 per cent in the next 20 years.

There are probably as many if not more scientists, engineers, government regulators, product sellers and hangers on than there are farmers in the Murray-Darling irrigation system. There may be more red tape than water.

Around 60,000 farms are in the system, and about 15,000 use irrigation.  Compare that 15,000 with Bali’s 260,000: selfishness and bitter competition here with far fewer farms, yet cooperation, no selfishness and no theft in Bali.

Murray Darling irrigation and other farms produce 40 per cent of Australia’s agricultural output. About 1 per cent of the system produces a quarter of Australian vegetables.?Three million Australians get their drinking water from it.

In Australia there’s less water for the farmers and for the natural resources that also need it than there is in Bali.

Regular offerings are made to appease spirits

The Bureau of Meteorology says the basin has an average rainfall of 480 millimetres per year or half a million gigalitres. Most of this water is used by plants or evaporates. Only 32,800 GL, or 15 per cent, enters the river system. The Murray Darling Basin Authority found that to be healthy the environment in the river system needs at least 3000 GL a year more than it is receiving. If that water is kept for the environment – the amount will need to increase by at least 6 per cent –  farmers will lose as much as 20 per cent of their water rights.

Thousands of famers are fighting a huge national political campaign to keep their water knowing the environment – the wetlands and birds, trees and insects which depend on the water – will disappear or die so the farmers may have the water instead.

More water is taken by farmers at the top of the Australian river systems than is taken by farmers at the bottom.

Disputes and competition between farmers over water is the norm.

And much of this failure is caused by governments, which sold more water to the farmers than exists in the rivers.

The story of water in Australia has always been hard to believe for the level of incompetence, greed, selfishness and self-destruction, though, hasn’t it? On any objective assessment you’d agree it raises doubts about the value of western government, education and science. We’re manifestly inferior to the Bali rice farmers.

And now, just 200 years later, it appears the Murray Darling irrigation system is a systemic failure. It seems as though government and farmers will kill the rivers this century.

But can you imagine suggesting to an Aussie farmer they consider averting disaster and try to bring to their farming some spirituality, some myths, some offerings to the gods? To try the Bali cooperative approach?

The response, if not unprintable, would at least be to bugger off.

I went to an agricultural boarding school, Yanco Agricultural High during the 60s. My irrigated family farm on the Lachlan river was flooded every other year. The school is located on the farm established in the early 20th Century by the McCaughey brothers on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River near Leeton in NSW, two boys regarded as the fathers of Australian irrigation.

When I returned there 20 years later it was an example of failure. Salt lined the table drains beside the road.  Orchards of dead trees, killed by salt. All caused by the irrigation system they’d inspired. Their farm went from success to failure in less than a hundred years. I’ve seen irrigation failure first hand at a specialist high school for farmers.

Water management, for more than 1000 years

Yet, underneath the red tape, the “science” and accepted wisdoms of the Murray Darling irrigation culture lurks a multitude of myths and even some groping toward spirituality. It’s not in plain view as it is in the rice fields of Bali where little temples pop up about every five to 10 minutes of walking through the paddy fields and daily offerings are made to the spirits. (2)

Myths that run the Murray Darling are these: competition is good and produces a wider common benefit; farmers know best; regulators know best; engineers know best; scientists know best; talking is a waste of time; sharing water equally is for the weak.

Spirits behind the Murray Darling are spirits which in Bali are given names, discussed and for which specific offerings are given daily or regularly. But in Australia our spirituality is barely named, lurks shyly here and there, a weak thing.

The names we give these spirits are random and disparately-held: our gods vary, from the one called “Jesus” and “God the Father” and the like (worshipped in temples built by whatever the franchise may be for that god – Church of England, Catholic, Jehovah’s Kingdom, Tabernacle, etcetera); our “Western Superior Values”  – such as “Profit and Growth First”  (lots of offerings to these) and “Cooperation, Neighbour, Soil and Environment Last’ (rare for offerings to be made to these); our western superiority to the Australian physical environment – ‘My big Caterpillar tractor can force the soil to produce whatever I choose”, “Pesticides made from gas or my oil-powered trucks can control anything that gets in their way, the government told me so”.

Named like this, aren’t these beliefs as silly but far more damaging than the beliefs that lead Bali rice farmers to put out offerings each night on the banks of rice paddies? Worse, aren’t they narrow-hearted indictments of a culture failing to treasure and worship the water which supports it?

Well, on the facts, I’ll put my bets on the Bali rice farmers to be around in 50 years, not the farmers, the red tape or the “engineers” or “scientists” of the Murray Darling.

One last thing.

Not one pump or drop of oil is needed to get water to or from one rice farm in Bali.

(1) For a scintillating, scholarly and deeply, lengthily-researched and wonderfully lucid explanation of the Bali rice farms read two books by J Stephen Lansing: Priests and programmers; technologies of power in the engineered landscapes of Bali (Princeton, 2007); and, Perfect Order: recognizing complexity in Bali 2006).

(2) I know and acknowledge generous, ethical, non-thieving farmers in the Murray Darling; I respect them and the love they have for country; of course, the comments here do not apply to these exceptional farmers.  My aim in this Bathurst Burr is to compare two systems, one where spiritual values, including honesty, outrank non-spiritual values, and where government has almost no role in the one which is successful.  Pleas for people to talk to each other in a spirituality-free zone, to “drop the politics”, and where government is the decision-maker not the farmers seem to me to be . . . well-meant but that’s all; anyway, test me on this and have a look at this article, for example.

Michael Mobbs*  is a sustainability coach and author (of Sustainable House now in its second edition) who advises, teaches and speaks on sustainability issues. He works with developers, governments and communities to design and obtain approvals for houses, units and subdivisions. He is based in the inner Sydney suburb of Chippendale, where in 1996 he pioneered the conversion of his inner city terrace into a sustainable house, which has now been disconnected to mains water and sewerage and is powered by solar energy. See www.sustainablehouse.com.au