Resilience of a cultural landscape: Rice terraces of Bali, Indonesia

The local religious structure and governance role of rice cultivation in Bali, Indonesia is a case being explored with an assortment of projects. Exploring the cultural foundation of this agricultural system highlights the feedbacks resulting in long-term sustainable rice cultivation. This is a system facing internal and external pressures and disturbances to its current productive, desirable state. The ongoing projects associated with this case work to acknowledge, highlight and empower the local farming society to ensure its resilience.

Rice cultivation on Bali, Indonesia spans a thousand years of history. Subaks are ancient, democratic self-governing farmer’s organizations and water temples that manage rice farming. Subaks give spiritual meaning to the governance of the rice terrace ecology. The philosophy which governs the establishment of the subak and their daily activities is a Hindu Balinese concept, to which belief, prosperity and goodness can only be achieved through a harmonious relationship between the individual and the realms of the spirit, the human world and nature. This idea is given concrete realization in the lives of Balinese through the institutions of subaks. Subaks are the foundation for the coordination, cooperation and management necessary to govern the complex processes of pest mitigation, water management, infrastructure development, and harvests required for productive rice agriculture in this region.

During the 1970’s, under guidance from international organizations, the federal government mandated new rice production methods and products resulting in an uncoupling of cultural and religious practices from rice production. During this ‘Green Revolution,’ technology packages of high-yielding rice varieties, fertilizers and pesticides were disseminated. Consequently, rice diversity and production fell and water and pest conflicts increased. The lifting of Green Revolution regulations removed the federal mandates, but the fertilizers, pesticides and high-yield rice varieties remained. Despite continuous use of chemical inputs, part of the island went back to the traditional rice farming practice. Yet, various factors challenge the sustainability of the ancient farming system: high cost of chemical fertilizer combined with the low market price of rice and gradual decline in soil fertility are threatening the long –term economic and ecological viability of rice farming.

Project Goals

The projects associated with this case aim to highlight and empower the subak system within the governance structure of the region.
- Developing a governance framework that empowers local communities to manage the system and embeds this in the larger governance system that can couple development with ancient rice farming systems
- Local and international education programs to explore the dynamics of this social-ecological system
- Nomination of this farming system as an UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Landscape

Status Updates

This case has several ongoing projects. Developing a governance framework and local and international education programs are in preliminary stages. The Nomination of this farming system as an UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Landscape is nearing a final decision.


Stephen Lansing home page The Stockholm Resilience Center


Changing Realities-Perspectives on Balinese Rice Cultivation
Lorenzen, R. and S. Lorenzen. 2010. Changing Realities - Perspectives on Balinese Rice Cultivation. Human Ecology.
Project Image

Location: Bali, Indonesia

System Type: Agriculture

Contact: Anna Schmuki; Steve Lansing

Organization: Stockholm Resilience Center

Project Dates: 2010-2015

Keywords: irrigation; temple; adaptive management; rice; farming; cultural landscape; governance; Bali; Indonesia; UNESCO