Thursday, 30 May 2002

BALI, Indonesia

Last night, led by Henry Harrison, a spirited county extension agent from Louisiana, a small group of us escaped from the U.N. encampment. We were a motley crew: a linguist, an ethnozoologist, a renowned nature writer and activist, a researcher from Egypt active in the Pan African Center for Land and Resource Rights, a grassroots community forestry activist from Ohio, a social justice activist from Louisiana, her colleague who runs a market that supports local farmers and fishers, and a media consultant from Nigeria.

And suddenly, there we all were, in “real” Bali at last: snaking streets flooded with schools of motorbikes, lined with Hindu temples and shrines, food stalls, cigarette billboards, and one-story shops selling everything from baby clothes to dried lemongrass. The air was thick with the smell of wood smoke and burning garbage, and the traffic seemed to eddy in all directions, with a chaotic balance that transcended logic.

Beyond the busy towns, the profusion and diversity of life continued: mango, tamarind, string beans, avocado, and, higher up, papaya, guava, jackfruit, coffee, and cacao. And, of course, the storied rice fields: an impossible shade of green blanketing open stretches of flat land, and majestic terraces in the hills. Our destination was a local subak, or rice growers’ cooperative, of which there are hundreds in Bali, where we were welcomed by the reputed subak expert, officials from the subak museum, and local rice farmers.

Subaks in Bali date back more than a thousand years, and are an example of successful community-based natural resource management. The primary function of subaks is to ensure equitable and efficient access to the water needed to irrigate the rice fields. They also serve to coordinate planting, production, and marketing. Their structure is ancient, intricate, and interwoven with the social structure of the community, as well as its religion: Each stage of the rice-growing cycle is marked by a ritual, and every year, all of the subaks in Bali gather at a lake believed to be the source of the island’s water.

At a miniature grocery store on the dusty main street, outfitted with a veranda and vinyl couches, we snacked on nameless crispies, water chestnuts, and a plate of rice noodles, bean sprouts, pounded rice cake, and chilies. All the while, lanky dogs patrolled the paddy catwalks, sleepy in the noon heat.

When we returned that evening, we learned that the language we proposed be added to the Chairman’s Text, which we’d been told was admirable but hopelessly idealistic, had been introduced and accepted. We were jubilant. It still needs to pass a few more tests, namely the meeting of high-level ministers next week, but we are hopeful. The spontaneity, momentum, and surprising success of this group has delighted me to the point of tearful laughter.