The Impact of the Green Revolution and Capitalized Farming on the

Balinese Water Temple System


Jonathan Sepe

copyright © 2000


In the 1970s, the Green Revolution answered the call of world hunger. The program was undertaken to commoditize production of several cash crops in order to make countries more self-sufficient and increase the world food supply. Despite its good intentions, it became one of the most unsuccessful development projects in history whose effects are still widespread. In the case of the island of Bali, three main factors contributed to the development and failure of the project. Developers, operating from an economistŪs perspective, failed to recognize the culture, history, and natural agriculture of Balinese society. First, the Balinese cultural devotion to religious ritual is closely tied to their agricultural system. Second, the history of Dutch colonization established a framework for bureaucratic farming methods, which was later utilized by the Green Revolution. Finally, the implementation of capitalized farming opposed the natural agriculture due to its disregard for the natural system of water temples. One must first examine the social organization of Balinese society.

››››››››› Bali is a province in the Lesser Sunda Islands of Indonesia and is one of over thirteen thousand islands located in the Indonesian archipelago. Historically, Indonesia was engulfed in the momentum of the booming commodity market. The islands became early victims of colonization beginning with the spice trade of the sixteenth century. In their search for nutmeg, cloves, pepper and other fine goods, the Portuguese first conquered Indonesia in the 1500s and then the British and Dutch struggled for power until the Dutch obtained full control by the 1700s (Encyclopedia Britannica CD-ROM). Indonesia declared its independence from the Netherlands in 1945. However, the nation still experiences the aftermath of colonialism as the economy presently relies on the production of export cash crops such as rice, timber, rubber, tea, coconuts, coffee, and spices (Encyclopedia Britannica CD-ROM). Bali primarily remained untouched by colonialism until the Dutch invasion of the mid-nineteenth century.

In the sixteenth century, Bali became a haven for many Hindu refugees when Java succumbed to Islam. In the Balinese sect of Hinduism, temples play a primary role in social integration. Lansing notes that rather than prompting the formation of cities or urban centers, Balinese institutional structures managed everything from the control of irrigation to the rituals of the Hindu religion and caste system throughout a network of temples (The Three Worlds 7). The complex village temple system includes caste system temples, kinship temples, agriculture temples, and water temples that organize all aspects of daily life. Lansing writes:

žEvery temple represents a social unit; it is a permanent institution, and only those directly involved in the life of that institution need to pay attention to it. A second consequence is that people must belong to more than one temple...Temples, then, are more than places of worship and more than symbols of social units. In an important sense, they are the institutional framework of Balinese societyÓ (The Three Worlds 55).


Therefore, temples are responsible for the cohesion of Balinese society as religious followers form strong bonds and transform into a congregation.

The agricultural system, like other aspects of society, relies on the temple network for guidance. This decentralized system is regulated by priests rather than central government authority yet the process requires intricate systems of social control. Lansing indicates that this framework begins with the direction of the water temple as the water flows along the river through the weir, or dam, and ends up in the subak down the irrigation canals (Priests 48). The subak, an irrigation society, demonstrates this local-level control. Clifford Geertz writes:

žA subak is defined as all the major rice terraces irrigated from a single dam...The dams are arranged one below the other down the river canyons, a single canal, usually of some length, carrying the diverted water to the subak, often with the aid of overhead aqueducts or long tunnelsÓ (230).


Individuals in a subak form a congregation that becomes affiliated with the activities of particular temples. Geertz notes that within the subak, congregation members prepare offerings to the gods, repair and decorate temples, clear small field canals, and make repairs to water channels (232, 241). The communal efforts of the subak members, strongly linked with religious ritual, contribute to the social integration of Balinese society.

According to Lansing, the Temple of the Crater Lake stands at the summit of the water temple system, and through its association with the Goddess of the Lake claims authority over the water in all of the irrigation systems of Bali (Priests 74). Rituals and ceremonies are conducted by priests and involve the entire community. Lansing describes a festive ceremony of song and dance in which priests bless holy water, distribute it among the subak channels, and give thanks to the gods for the new harvest cycle (The Three Worlds 64). The flow of holy water, originating from the Temple of the Crater Lake, establishes hierarchical relations between temples and symbolizes social relationships in the process. Lansing indicates that the downstream flow of holy water through lower-order temples parallels an individualŪs caste ranking and the entire system of rural class stratification (Priests 71). The connection between agriculture and religious ritual has not only fostered a tightly knit community but has also promoted natural farming methods based on religious cycles.

The planting of rice seedlings, flooding of terraces, offerings at the temple altar, and harvest rituals strictly abide by the subak cycle and the Balinese calendar (Lansing, Priests 67). As well as providing a cyclical agricultural method, the water temple system also employs a form of artificial ecology. Lansing alleges that the flow of water is alternated between wet and dry phases which results in such biochemical benefits as the circulation of mineral nutrients, the formation of nitrogen and natural fertilizer, and the preservation of nutrients in the soil (Priests 39). Balinese farmers utilize natural pest control without harmful pesticides. Lansing indicates that pests such as the brown planthopper are contained by drying or flooding fields and driving flocks of ducks through rice paddies to eat insects (Priests 39). Therefore, the ritual-based temple system is responsible for the organization of daily activities, farming schedules, and religious ceremonies. Water flow encompasses a dual nature as the flow of irrigation creates the hydro-logic dependency of farming while the flow of holy water creates the social hierarchy of ritual and culture. The Dutch colonizers and the Green Revolution planners never understood this important duality of agriculture and religious culture.

Historically, the Dutch imposed a bureaucratic capitalist system in Bali, a structure that set the stage for future disaster in the Green Revolution. Driven by the commodity market, the Dutch formed the Dutch East India Company in 1602 and colonized most of Indonesia by the early 1800s. Between 1870 and 1910, the Dutch had converted the islands into a unified colonial dependency expanding roads, railways, and shipping to serve the needs of the new plantation economy (Encyclopedia Britannica CD-ROM). Lansing writes:

žThe classical states of Bali were not merely conquered but obliterated: the people killed, the libraries burned, the palaces reduced to rubble. It is all the more remarkable, then, that the cultural and institutional life of BaliůBalinese civilization, in factůwas able to survive...The real roots of this civilization lay elsewhere, in intertwining networks of thousands of temples where the power of the myths was guarded, nurtured, studied...Ó (The Three Worlds 49).


While Dutch colonialism radically altered Balinese society by abolishing the monarchy and destroying visible signs of culture, the temples endured untouched and maintained their importance in constructing Balinese culture. Lansing notes that Dutch observers did not understand the decentralized system of irrigation and the importance of water temples in agricultural production as they abandoned any attempts to intervene in water management solely allowing the ancient system to transpire (Priests 109). The Dutch installed an irrigation bureaucracy, which consisted of collecting taxes, performing land surveys, and building irrigation works, yet they remained clueless as to the vital role of water temples in both agriculture and social organization.

The wave of imperialism in the nineteenth century urbanized the land and commercialized production of several cash crops including rice, tea, and opium. Because rice was a large source of government income in Bali, it prompted the Dutch to improve the managerial system with a firm bureaucracy and taxation on rice lands. Lansing states:

žBecause the Dutch model of irrigation vastly underestimated the complexity of the sociobiophysical systems involved in rice production, water temples and bureaucracies coexisted without creating technical problems in irrigation control. Most Balinese rice terraces continued to produce two crops per year, as they had before the arrival of the DutchÓ (Priests 127).


This institutional framework allowed the Dutch to transform rice into cash crop and begin exportation. When Bali gained their independence in 1950, they continued on a path towards development based on the bureaucratic capitalism imposed by their colonizers. They were trapped in the colonial system and did not return to the decentralized ways of the pre-colonial era. Consequently, the irrigation bureaucracy, which altered traditional Balinese society, provided an accommodating framework for the Green Revolution to operate.

As the Dutch had done many years earlier, the Green Revolution was an attempt to convert rice from a subsistent crop into a cash crop. However, the engineers of the colonial age had little technology to offer whereas the Green Revolution offered new agricultural technology such as chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and new breeds of žmiracle riceÓ in a $54 million dollar scheme of modernization (žBalinese Water TemplesÓ 1). This large-scale development project began at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines and was implemented in Indonesia in 1967; the program, known as Massive Guidance, furnished new agronomic practices to farmers (Lansing, Priests 112). In Bali, the Bali Irrigation Project was launched in 1979 by the Asian Development Bank in order to improve the performance of irrigation systems while disregarding the practical role of water temples (Lansing, Priests 113). All of the new changes contradicted the natural agricultural system based on ritual and religious cycles. Lansing writes:

žThe Green Revolution approach assumed that agriculture was a purely technical process and that production would be optimized if everyone planted high-yielding varieties of rice as often as they could. In contrast, Balinese temple priests and farmers argued that the water temples were necessary to coordinate cropping patterns so that there would be enough irrigation water for everyone and to reduce pests by coordinating fallow periodsÓ (Priests 117).


The bureaucratic procedures that changed irrigation patterns and cropping cycles eroded the religious culture and agricultural-religious ritual of Bali and led to the demise of the project.

While the first few years brought greater harvest, Massive Guidance quickly led farmers into ecological collapse. The lack of crop rotation and natural planting cycles resulted in less productive fields and the use of chemicals and pesticides backfired as the infestation of the brown planthopper destroyed hundreds of acres of rice crop (Encyclopedia Britannica CD-ROM). The absence of natural pest control and the application of the new pesticides killed the good insects that used to eat the brown planthopper. Besides the agricultural downfall, there were sociocultural consequences of the exclusion of the water temple system as discovered by Lansing in his analysis of the development project. He declares:

ž...The model supports the conclusion that the social organization of cropping patterns plays an important role in the management of terrace ecology. The real productive significance of the ritual system is not in the imposition of fixed cropping patterns but in the ability to synchronize the productive activities of large numbers of farmers. The water temples are a social system that manages production, not a ritual clockworkÓ (Priests 123).


Water temples are necessary not only to prescribe proper irrigation and natural pest control but also to organize social activities such as ceremonies and holidays among the farmer congregation. The Green Revolution in Bali and other Southeast Asian countries was a failure because developers failed to recognize cultural practices and natural agricultural systems.

››››››››› In the 1980s and 1990s, governments began to implement new procedures and return to the decentralized systems of the past in order to counteract the problems generated from the Green Revolution. The Indonesian government has employed a project known as Integrated Pest Management to reduce pesticides and create sustainable agriculture and land use. Ralston, Anderson, and Colson indicate that involvement in development projects trains rural people new skills, familiarizes them with government channels, and gives them the opportunity to become better citizens of their countries (115). Integrated Pest Management follows this ideology as scientists and officials train farmers natural pest control methods and instruct them in the monitoring of pest and water levels thus combining both ritual and science.

››››››››› LansingŪs analysis of the effects of the Green Revolution on Balinese agriculture persuaded the government to acknowledge the importance of the water temple system. He notes that in response to the threat of severe toxic contamination from pesticides and gradual loss of soil fertility, the government of Bali now strongly supports the use of traditional techniques of coordinated fallow periods as the primary methods of pest control (Priests, 41). The return to natural methods has restored the agricultural-religious bond and the ritual of temples in Balinese society. Lansing contends:

žThe water temples must, therefore, be understood, not only as a system of irrigation management but in terms of their role in the process of sociogenesis...The ritual system is not merely a gloss on productive relationships, for in the long run it is the social relationships constructed by water temples, not the mechanics of water flow, that create and sustain the terrace ecosystem (Priests 129-130).


In the water temple system, religious bonds are reaffirmed between farmers while the caste hierarchy is observed between temple, weir, and subak. This solidarity has fostered an organized congregation of farmers united by religious ritual who partake in efficient agronomic methods. Therefore, the failure of the Green Revolution has proved that decentralization is more successful than bureaucratic farming methods.

››››››››› The bureaucratic system first imposed by the Dutch, and later utilized by the Green Revolution, oversimplified irrigation into a function of the rational state. Lansing maintains:

žThe stateŪs claims to control irrigationůor at any rate, to manage terrace ecologyůwere hollow. In reality, subaks were not autonomous units; terrace ecology could not be sustained by continuous rice cropping; and water temples played a major role in hydrological and biological managementÓ (Priests 128).


The bureaucratic irrigation complex failed because it contradicted the native decentralized system of temple ritual and agriculture in Balinese society. A decentralized planning strategy is beneficial since it tends to favor indirect, non-central government control while empowering local people by giving them command over their project (Ralston, Anderson, and Colson 113). The water temples create a decentralized system in which priests and farmers control the land under a religious hierarchy rather than the central government. Scientists and economic policy makers who designed the Green Revolution did not consider the viewpoint of farmers, the very individuals who were the projectŪs main beneficiaries. These farmers were instructed to adopt a Western style of farming that was incompatible with their culture, history, and natural agriculture. Therefore, it is essential in any development project that planners understand local-level control and acknowledge the culture of the particular nation.

In its unsuccessful attempts to capitalize rice as cash crop, The Green Revolution ravaged the environment, culture, natural agriculture, and water temple system of Bali. The primary downfall of the project lied in the fact that developers failed to distinguish both symbolic and instrumental roles of the water temple system. In one aspect, the temples are religious institutions that dictate worship to the gods and schedule liturgies for the congregation. On the other hand, they also coordinate agricultural cycles and irrigation flow creating a social caste hierarchy. This decentralized temple system was altered when the Dutch imposed their own bureaucratic framework. However, guided by the Green Revolution, governments usurped control of agriculture from the temples intent on capitalizing farming in their territories. Hence, removing the control of temples not only deteriorated agriculture but affected the entire society since temples play such a major role in social organization of ritual and daily life. Development projects, such as the Green Revolution, that are fueled solely by the commodity market generally do not succeed since the goal is profit, not the self-sustainability of rural peoples. Nevertheless, while Bali and many other communities still encounter the aftermath of the Green Revolution, there has been increasing agronomic success with the return of the indigenous Balinese water temple system.


Works Cited


Lansing, J. Stephen. (1991). Priests and Programmers. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Lansing, J. Stephen. (1983). The Three Worlds of Bali. New York: Praeger Publishers.


Geertz, Clifford. (1967). Tihingan: A Balinese Village. In Koentjaraningrat (Ed.), Villages in Indonesia (pp.209-243). New York: Cornell University Press.


Anonymous. (1997). Balinese Water Temples. National Science Foundation. [On-line].


Ralston, L., Anderson, J., & Colson, E. (1969). Voluntary Efforts in Decentralized Management. Berkley: University of California Press.


Agricultural Management. (1998). Encyclopedia Britannica CD-ROM.


Indonesia and its History. (1998). Encyclopedia Britannica CD-ROM.