Apr 22, 2024 Last Updated 1:12 AM, Apr 19, 2024

Good intentions, mixed realities

Published: Jul 05, 2016

Graeme MacRae

Indonesia’s rich cultural heritage has long been recognised by UNESCO World Heritage listings, most notably spectacular monuments such as Borobudur and Prambanan. Bali was at first ambivalent about such listings, because of a widespread fear of losing control over living sacred sites, but around 2000 it began seeking a listing of a combination of sites, landscapes, social practices and cultural ideas. After several rejections and revisions, the ‘Cultural landscape of Bali province: the subak system as a manifestation of the Tri Hita Karana philosophy’ was finally accepted by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee in 2012.

The ‘cultural landscape’ involved is a complex mix of static structures (the temples Taman Ayun in Mengwi and Pura Ulun Danu Batur), natural features (Lake Batur) and dynamic engineering and hydraulic systems (subak landscapes in upland Tabanan and Gianyar). The key element tying it all together is the living, intangible heritage embodied in the knowledge, practices and social organisation of farmers and local communities as well as a set of philosophical principles linking human society, ecology and religious values. 

The primary aims of the World Heritage Convention are raising awareness of the value of cultural heritage, especially among local communities and visitors, and mobilising resources for protection and conservation of heritage sites. Boosting tourism is not the aim of the World Heritage system, but it is a frequent side effect that has the potential to benefit locals. However, while tourism often does increase, that is not automatically followed by good planning, good management or benefits to local communities and heritage sites. There is considerable evidence worldwide of the unintended consequences of tourism such as speculative investment and inflation of land values, which in turn have mixed consequences for local communities and environments.


In Bali, within a year of the listing, there were reports of exactly these kinds of effects, especially in a spectacularly beautiful basin of terraced ricefields called Jatiluwih. This area has attracted tourists for decades, but within a year of World Heritage listing, numbers increased from 44,000 people annually to nearly 98,000 and by 2014 they were up to 165,000. Every day the narrow winding mountain roads are now jammed with buses and cars. Investment money is pouring in, a bank has set up an ATM beside the ricefields, land values are inflating fast, and enterprising locals are making money from restaurants and outdoor tourism enterprises such as trekking and cycling. Over 60 (mostly local) people are now employed in restaurants and homestays, and more in outdoor tourism activities. 

International visitors pay an entry fee of Rp.30,000 (A$3) and Indonesians pay Rp.10,000. In 2014 this amounted to a total of over Rp.3 trillion. The money is collected by the Jatiluwih Tourism Management Board, a body set up by the district government to administer tourism in the area. After overheads (mainly wages for 17 employees) are deducted, 45 per cent of the money goes to the government. The remaining 55 per cent remains with the local community, divided between six organisations. The subak (farmers’ irrigation cooperative), which is both the basis of the World Heritage listing and the main tourist attraction, receives less than a quarter of this which is not enough to make a difference to maintenance and development, let alone to the livelihoods of individual farmers. 

Farmers feel, not surprisingly, that they have been turned into an attraction for tourism which has made their daily lives more complicated and for which they are receiving little benefit. Some have tried to get in on the action by setting up small stalls selling drinks and snacks to tourists, or even trying to levy their own fees for entry and photography. 

Land value

The dramatic inflation of land values offers the temptation of cashing up and abandoning farming altogether, but sale of irrigated land within the World Heritage area is prohibited by district law. Unirrigated land however is fair game, so has begun to pass out of local ownership as farmers seek to augment their incomes by selling to non-local investors.

The living cultural heritage of rice-farming the World Heritage listing was supposed to protect is now under even greater stress than before.

According to key members of the team that wrote the application for World Heritage listing, the root cause of the problems is that the system of governance of the World Heritage site has not been established. The key element of the application was a ‘governing body’, with representation from a wide range of stakeholders, including government agencies. Its responsibility was ‘to sustain traditional practices and deflect inappropriate development’. To do this, the centre of gravity of governing power was designed to remain where it has always been: in the ricefields themselves with the local communities and especially the subak.

Ngaben (2014) - Credit: Leyla Stevens

A governing body has been set up, at provincial level, but only in name. It consists largely of government officials and rarely meets. The actual management of the various elements of heritage has fallen, by default, into the hands of district governments whose jurisdiction encompasses the sites.  They are administering it in normal, top-down government fashion, by committees of bureaucrats with only nominal representation of local communities. In Tabanan district, the only body set up is for exploitation of the Jatiluwih tourism resource rather than conservation of the heritage resource. The farmers have been left out of the process, apart from token representation. 

Other agencies, including Samdhana Institute, Stockholm Environment Institute and academics from Udayana University have been working to try to bridge the gaps between the aims of the World Heritage listing, district government processes and local realities, but the underlying causes remain. 

The UN World Heritage committee conducts regular reviews of listed sites. When it became aware in 2014 of these problems and deviations from the agreed plan, it expressed concerns to the national government. The government responded with assurances that farmers were well represented. However, if the problems are not resolved to the satisfaction of the World Heritage committee, they have the power to place it on the List of World Heritage in Danger or even cancel the listing, which would be a serious blow to Indonesian national pride.

Developments elsewhere

There is more to this story (and it is not over yet) but if we’d prefer to finish on a more optimistic note, the problems in Jatiluwih are only the most visible tip of the World Heritage iceberg and there is better news from other parts of the cultural landscape of Bali. In Tampaksiring, the listing includes a set of ancient temples along the Pakerisan river, but also a much smaller area of ricefields fed by irrigation channels from springs at these temples. 

These sites fall within the jurisdiction of a different district government (Gianyar) with more experience of dealing with cultural heritage and a better understanding of what is involved at the local level. It recognises that, in the current environment of poor returns from farming, rapidly inflating land values, and increasing population density, World Heritage agreements prohibiting building on farmland disadvantages farmers. 

To maintain the culture of farming, the Gianyar government has ‘compensated’ farmers in the World Heritage area by relieving them from the burden of land and development tax, subsidising agricultural inputs and costs of subak rituals, and funding additional improvements to irrigation systems as well as providing hardware such as hand tractors for ploughing.  While it could be argued that tractors and fertiliser subsidies contribute more to modernisation of agriculture than conservation of tradition, they contribute, at least in the short term, to maintaining the confidence of farmers in the value of World Heritage listing. 

Professor Wayan Windia, head of the Subak Study Centre at Udayana University, was part of the team that wrote the successful application, and now consults to the government on managing the subak World Heritage listing. He sees district governments’ understanding of the need to provide material support to farming in World Heritage areas as an essential step toward enabling the World Heritage system to work in Bali. His recommendation however goes beyond the (so far ineffective) provincial level governing body, to the establishment of local governing bodies for each part of the cultural landscape, controlled by local communities and subak with government agencies as partners rather than managers. At the time of writing, he is working on the establishment of such a body in the best-equipped district, Gianyar.

Graeme MacRae (G.S.Macrae@massey.ac.nz) is a senior lecturer at the School of People, Environment and Planning at Massey University, Auckland. You can read about Graeme’s research and reflections at graememacrae.wordpress.com.

Inside Indonesia 125: Jul-Sep 2016{jcomments on}

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