Bali fields

January 2014, Singapore

As I was sipping my coffee in an air-conditioned hotel in Singapore, my thoughts wondered back to the sweltry roads of Bali, where I’d discovered (and come to appreciate) a more natural way of living, despite its mismatch with any of my usual expectations regarding social norms, personal hygiene, road traffic, or health and safety. A way of living that was less comfortable, possibly more risky (for my standards), but definitely more fulfilling. One’s rapports with the land, the sea, the Gods and the departed were all key aspects of that way of living, all intertwined in a genuinely organic way.

Over there, religion and the economy, for instance, are two facets of the same set of beliefs, which is directly translated into norms and action at every level of life. A family would bring offerings to the temple both for their own health and happiness and for their source of income (be that a shop, a rice field, or any other job). They would have a dedicated space in their home temple for the soul of their parents, as well as a special ceremony for any new endeavour. They have special gods for every aspect of life, and distinct ways of talking to each of them – because they are as moody and alive as humans. Mother land is one such god, and the Balinese wouldn’t dream of upsetting her in any way.

Now, as I’m sitting here in this perfectly comfortable godless hotel lounge and I read a story about foreign investors chasing up Indonesian farmers with their large cheque books and empty hearts, trying to buy their lands and convert them into commercial facilities, I can’t help thinking of all the people I met over there and everything that I learnt from them. As friendly and welcoming as they are with the tourists, they would never sell them their land or their sea – which is to say, their gods. Our driver in Lovina, who divides his time between working at the villas and helping his father – a rice farmer – in the field, told us how many young people would rather work in hotels than at farms; but that did not mean that they would sell the farms to foreigners. They would just sell them to local investors, who could manage farming more efficiently, while keeping the traditions and the spirit of the land. But the reality is that, as the article says, tourism sector is growing at an average of 10% annually, so rogue investors are eager to cut corners of central regulations and start building as soon as possible. They seem to have trouble accepting that for locals, their rice fields may be more than a source of income, and therefore not for sale.

As one such local farmer, Gede Agus, puts it: “We are spiritual people. To me, owning land and not disturbing it is taking care of Bali’s soul. If we allow more padi fields to be converted, someday these views will become scarce, an irony since the main draw for most tourists here is to seek tranquillity by being amid padi fields.” (The Straits Times, Singapore, 23 December 2013, p. A10, available online here)

So it is not that the farmers do not understand business, it is just that business is not always a solution to them – not the best one, anyway. Nor, indeed, is it one of the main considerations (or determining factors) in their life.

In Bali, Gede is one of the four cultural names that a person can have – meaning the first born in a family. Mr Agus is certainly the leading voice on the issue of foreign investors in Balinese land.