Between Economy and Culture: How Art is Curbing Tensions in Bali

by Lauren Shang

on March 17, 2017

The crisis of an old Balinese tradition triggered the potential for violence in Indonesia — until the local Search team came up with an unprecedented solution to curb tensions, based on contemporary arts.

Balinese subaks are a form of irrigation for paddy rice fields with a millennium of history. The beautiful terraced systems of canals and weirs are under the authority of Hindu priests, which manage them in observance of the Tri Hita Karana philosophy, a doctrine representing the interlinked harmony between the human, spiritual, and natural realm. In addition to that, the subaks are collectively managed by families of farmers, who make decisions through group meetings during which a “democratic” consensus must be reached.

In short, subaks are a shared cultural heritage, a system of cooperative governance, and a mean of sustenance.

However, tensions over the distribution and utilization of the land, water, and labor resources have escalated between the burgeoning tourism sector and rice farming in Bali, threatening the subaks system. Driven by access to quick money, the central and Balinese governments have primarily favored land conversion for the commercial development and mass tourism rather than the preservation of rice paddies. Ubiquitous villas and hotels are diverting water from subaks, and—in cooperation with the government and some local leaders—investors continue to convert rice paddies for commercial purposes.

These processes greatly affect rice farmers, as soaring land prices, taxes, and living expenses fuelled by the booming tourism sector force many to sell their lands. For example, 2013 alone, roughly 2,400 hectares of rice paddies were converted to land for business development. Consequently, this reduction in land contributes to a simultaneous loss of cultural heritage found in the use of subaks.

To address these vitally important issues, in 2015, we started a project entitled Mabesikan: Art for Social Change. This multi-year project identifies and provides funding and technical support to aid for the collaboration between Balinese civil society and artists, which are devoted to resolving land resource conflicts, identity issues, and gender-based violence. So far, Mabesikan has engaged 15 Balinese artists and eight civil society organizations, and is currently working on 10 independent arts-based initiatives. Collaboratively designed and implemented by a civil society organization called Manikaya Kauci and three other artists, one of the 10 initiatives entitled The Rice Paddy is Our Future is responding to the conversion of rice paddies and at-risk subak rice farming in Bali.

We wanted to highlight three local artists who are engaged in this social venture: Gede Sayur, Manggen, and Dewa Ketha.

I Wayan Gede Suanda or also known as Gede Sayur is a Balinese artist who lives in Ubud. In the Mabesikan project, Sayur hosts a scarecrow competition for children around the Junjungan village that is expected to raise awareness of the significance of paddy field farming practices. Sayur also empowers local rice farmers by helping them sell their own hand-painted reusable bags to the market. The long-term goal of the campaign is to attract young people to view farming as a promising and respected profession and while also promoting sustainable tourism development in the area. It is the hope that this combination would allow for local cultural preservation and economic development to coexist in harmony and catalyze each other.

Gede Sayur

Gede Sayur

I Komang Mertha Sedana or Gennetik or Manggen is a street artist who is also very concerned about environmental issues in Bali. For Mabesikan, he has teamed up with Manikaya Kauci to focus on the preservation of paddy fields in the village of Junjungan. As a street artist, Manggen leads the painting workshops for school children and produces shadow puppets for the traveling show conducted by the team. Their aim is to raise awareness about the need to protect the environment around Bali.



Another street artist of the Paddy Field project, Dewa Ketha, is an artist, writer, and art teacher. A lot of his works are on dotwork/blackwork, calligraphy, and street art, but he also contributes his expertise in sculpting and leads sculpting workshops for children. Manggen and Manikaya Kauci will also initiate forums of dialogue among local people, business owners, subak members, and village leaders to develop agreements on sustainable tourism development in the Junjungan villages.

Wall graffiti created by Dewa Ketha reads: “There used to be rice paddies here, before.”

Wall graffiti created by Dewa Ketha reads: “There used to be rice paddies here, before.”

Lauren Shang is a Design, Monitoring, and Evaluation Intern with Search for Common Ground.