But as 3.3 million tourists a year bike, surf, hike and downward-dog their way through the scenic Indonesian island, more and more farmers are selling their land to foreign developers. Of Bali’s 81,000 remaining hectares of subaks, about 1,000 are lost each year to development, and the water that once cultivated rice now fills hotel pools. The land sales increase taxes for the farmers who remain and create more pressure to sell, which threatens the whole delicate irrigation system.
“We need to protect the subak,” Perasi says, looking out over the shining, water-soaked paddies. He says he is pleased that this subak, called Kulub, was included in the World Heritage site because the designation requires that the Balinese government come up with a plan for maintaining it.
The designation alone, though, does not ensure protection because it doesn’t come with instructions on how to protect the sites or manage tourism. If anything, the new listing may bring more tourists, roads and hotels to the area. That’s what happened to the rice terraces farther west, near the border of Mount Batukaru National Park.
Perasi has a more subak-centered vision for the future, and it includes a lot of hiking. “I would like to see tourists be able to trek through the subak,” says Perasi. “Not too many structures, not a lot of concrete, just grass trails. They can drink a coconut. If it doesn’t interrupt the farmers, it will be no problem.” He’d also like to help design small-scale tourist facilities and keep some visitor fees for maintaining the subaks. That’s not always the case in these sites, Lansing points out; at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, another World Heritage site, most of the tourism revenues go to a private management company, and very little money reaches the local communities.
Empowering village and subak leaders to control the influx of tourism around the new World Heritage site was a key component in the management plan that Lansing helped draft as part of the site’s nomination dossier. So far the Indonesian government has been slow to include these players in discussions, but if history is any lesson, Lansing and Perasi have reason to be hopeful. The defiantly democratic subaks have avoided top-down management for 1,000 years, so if any cultural site can pull off locally driven tourism, it should be this one.
Perasi’s counterpart, I Gusti Ngureh Anom Mika, whom we visited in the next town, hopes someday that his subak, too, may be included in the protected zone. “I worry about the future. We should be keeping the inheritance of our ancestors,” says the pekaseh who works in a high-end hotel bar by day. “Hotels are stress. When I go to the rice paddy, I feel free.”