The University of Arizona

UA Anthropologist Authors World Heritage Site in Bali

By Alexis Blue, University Communications | February 5, 2013

UA anthropologist Steve Lansing has studied ancient water temples in Bali for more than three decades.

In Bali, farming groups known as subaks meet at water temples to discuss community farming decisions.
In Bali, farming groups known as subaks meet at water temples to discuss community farming decisions.
Steve Lansing
Steve Lansing
Water temples are the sites of festivals, rituals and religious offerings, thanking the gods for the gift of irrigation water.
Water temples are the sites of festivals, rituals and religious offerings, thanking the gods for the gift of irrigation water.
Irrigation water is shared by Balinese farming communities in ways that benefit the community at large.
Irrigation water is shared by Balinese farming communities in ways that benefit the community at large.

University of Arizona anthropologist Steve Lansing took his first trip to Indonesia as an undergraduate in the 1970s to study ancient water temples on the volcanic island of Bali. He was immediately taken in by the culture there, and over the next three decades he returned many times to the Indonesian province, which he came to think of as a second home.

With Lansing's help, Bali's ancient water temple system was recognized over the summer as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO. The Bali site is among 82 World Heritage cultural landscapes recognized by UNESCO.

Bali's water temples

More than 1,000 years ago, rice farmers in Bali began to create a complex, ritual-based farming system in which "subaks," self-governing, democratic organizations of farmers, managed the shared use of irrigation water among several rice paddies, or terraces. Subaks met in special religious temples, stationed along irrigation pathways, to coordinate planting and watering schedules in ways that would ensure an ecologically responsible sharing of resources.

By working together, farmers were able to avoid problems like water shortages that might occur if everyone planted at once. Water scheduling also enabled the farmers to control rice pests by creating synchronized harvests over large blocks of terraces, depriving the pests of their food and habitat.   

The hundreds of water temples also were the sites of festivals, rituals and religious offerings, thanking the gods for the gift of irrigation water, which flowed through canals and tunnels from Bali's numerous rivers and streams. 

Although it has faced challenges, Bali's ancient water temple system remains largely in place today.

Lansing, who authored Indonesia’s nomination of Bali for World Heritage designation, recently completed a guidebook for the site, along with Julia Watson, assistant professor of architecture at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. The book provides visitors with a history of the sacred landscape of subaks and water temples.

He also is working with Watson, the Indonesian government and villagers in Bali to determine how to best manage tourism in the area, which sees an estimated 5 million visitors a year.

"We're working with landscape architects to design a plan so that the people in the sites can gain control of the whole business," said Lansing, a UA professor of anthropology. "Do they want visitor gateways? Should they sell tickets? What should be shown and not be shown? Should they have restrictions on people coming in and out? What kind of structure can be created to enable the subaks to control things? These are the big questions now."

A governing assembly, with representatives from the villages and staff from governing agencies related to agriculture, culture, religion, public works and forestry, will make those decisions, Lansing said.

Preserving ancient tradition in the 21st century

Bali's water temple system was challenged in the 1970s, with the arrival of Green Revolution in rice. This program, supported by the Asian Development Bank and designed to increase rice harvests to feed more people, called for the replacement of native rice with high-yielding varieties that required use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Farmers in Bali were pushed to plant as frequently as possible and forego irrigation scheduling by the water temples.

While rice output initially increased, the introduction of chemicals and elimination of coordinated scheduling created other problems for the Balinese people – among them, increased pest problems and soil damage.

"It was successful for about one year, and then began what the Balinese now call 'the time of hunger' because it led to explosions of rice pests and chaos in the irrigation systems," Lansing said. "What it showed was that the traditional system of water temples had an important, functional role."

At that time, Lansing embarked on extensive research into the functionality of Bali's water temples and was eventually able to show, via computer simulations, that the ancient system was the more efficient system, which helped prompt a return to traditional ways.

Bali’s water temples became known as a real-world example of a complex adaptive system in which the search for locally optimal water scheduling produces a globally optimal solution, Lansing said. The Balinese example triggered a worldwide search for other examples of self-organizing systems in archaeological sites such as Angkor Wat, the Mayan lowlands and the rice terraces of Ifugao.  

"The water temples now are celebrated; however, there are still problems, because the farmers are still instructed to add chemical fertilizers, which results in pollution. Excess nitrogen grows algae, which kills the coral around agricultural drainages," Lansing said. "We've been trying to combat that, and that’s part of what the World Heritage is about – a return to organic farming."

Lansing hopes the World Heritage designation will help preserve the subak system and provide educational opportunities for visitors from around the world. Plans call for the refurbishment of three museums as well as creation of visitor gateways and interpretive walks. The goal is to help visitors discover that they are in the midst of an ancient, still functioning, complex adaptive system with emergent properties, Lansing said.

"UNESCO takes an interest in the management of the World Heritage and helps make it possible for that landscape to survive," he said. "We hope there will be a bright enough spotlight shown on these things that it will be possible for the self-governing system of the subaks to continue."