With the current template for mass tourism, is balance possible between the Balinese agrarian life and the agro-tourism juggernaut?

Graeme MacRae gives us an overview:

As you head uphill from Ubud the signs start appearing – big ones, usually in front of big car-parking areas, and usually describing themselves as Agro-Wisata, whether it is Coffee Luwak, or Cocoa or fruit of some kind. I’m not sure what lies inside, but as far as I can see they are commercial enterprises producing and selling an agricultural product with a restaurant and visiting experience added on – hence the term AgroWisata – agricultural tourism.  Nothing wrong with that – just ordinary honest commercial enterprise, although I suspect some more honest than others. But the AgroWisata label hints at something more.

The main problem for Agro(culture) in Bali is (pari)wisata (tourism) – which has completely sidelined, overwhelmed and marginalised agriculture – everything is wisata with not much left for agro.  And this has happened in such a short time – just two or three generations – that nobody has quite adjusted to it yet – but everyone senses there is a problem.

The most obvious problem they sense is “what will we eat when all the ricefields are converted to villas and hotels?” Its not a bad question, especially when (not if) any of the things that could go wrong with tourism do go wrong. But perhaps less obvious is that one of the real bases of Balinese culture is agriculture, especially irrigated rice farming. Balinese language is replete with words, images, metaphors, proverbs and stories about farming. The entire beautiful, spectacular, complex religious assemblage that Balinese call Hindu, is based on making offerings to a range of invisible beings, and the primary currency of those offerings is the fruits of the earth, starting with rice.  Likewise with social organisation – two of the basic units are desa (village) and banjar (neighbourhood) but the third is subak – the organisation of farmers who share responsibility for maintaining a physical (sekala) irrigation system and a corresponding system of invisible (niskala) beings by way of offerings.  When all this is pushed aside, something changes, something is lost.

Above:  Part of a real farm that doubles as an agro tourism facility above Taro.                                                                       Lead photo: what started out as civet cat coffee stop is turning into a major park just north of Tegallalang.  


So while AgroWisata sounds like a nice idea, it does not really look like a solution. It is a bit like the old formula of Cultural Tourism – which was supposed to magically create a beautiful, mutually enhancing, symbiotic relationship between Balinese culture and the new tourism that seemed to threaten it in the 1970s. UNT’s old friend Michel Picard documented elegantly the way in which Cultural Tourism was transformed, by the 1990s into a “culture of tourism”. We don’t hear much about cultural tourism these days, but AgroWisata has a similar unconvincing ring to it.  But does it need to be that way?

Ever since I first came to Ubud, I have taken morning walks in the ricefields on the uphill side of town – Subaks Juwukmanis and Sokwaya. I never tire of it, and I am not the only one – every day hundreds of visitors walk there. They do it for the sheer pleasure of walking through such a beautiful landscape, between fields of green or golden rice and avenues of coconut trees and seeing how the farmers make it all work. Its that simple– a tourism experience based on direct, unmediated contact with an agricultural landscape – the human basis of something we might want to call agro-wisata.

Farmers discovered that visitors like the taste and the experience of drinking juice from a freshly cut young coconut and they would pay for it. Another step towards a simple kind of agro-wisata where everybody is happy. This still happens, except that those coconuts stacked beside the path may have came on a truck from East Java and the farmer may not even be a farmer.

Maybe the farmer sets up a little warung. The warung becomes a restaurant. A foreigner comes looking for land to build a house. Somebody needs the money more than they need their rice crop. The owner of another ricefield has more profitable things to do than working it, so he sells or leases it to somebody who also has more profitable things to do with it.  Before we know it Subak Juwukmanis is like kain poleng – that black/white checked cloth that is used for all sorts of ritual purposes, except that the colours are green rice and grey concrete. Some subak are nearly all grey now and all that is left of Subak Muwa, between Monkey Forest Road and Jalan Hanuman, is the little temple where people still make offerings to the gods of ricefields that are no longer there. What has become of Agro in the face of wisata?

Agriculture has been providing a free subsidy to tourism for decades, but tourism is not returning the favour and by pushing up the prices of everything and pretending to be the normal, proper place for young people to work, has sucked the life out of the farming economy.

But did it need to be like this? What if that simple, mutually beneficial relationship we saw in that first scene, had led to something else? Imagine a true, symbiotic relationship between tourism and farming – if even a fraction of the money that tourism brings was used to support farmers, protect their fields and provide incentives for young people to work in them.

But how is that going to happen? Is the tourism industry going to volunteer to share its profits? The only way would be if the government began to take a more responsible role, and created unprecedented cooperation between departments (Agriculture, Tourism and Culture), to provide systematic support to farmers, prevent conversion of farmland, reverse the flow of subsidy from tourism back to the farmers it depends on and maybe even force tourism operators to include some agro in their tours and supermarkets to stock local produce.

The Jero Gede Alitan at Pura Batur once told me that the crater of Batur is the garden of Dewi Danu, the goddess of the lake, and it should be treated as such. Imagine if the whole island was treated that way – as a sacred garden, producing food, attracting visitors and supporting itself by a small subsidy from tourism. This is what we might call AgroWisata.



Anthropologist Graeme MacRae first visited in Ubud in 1977. He lived here with his family for 18 months in 1993-6Graeme did his PhD thesis based on Ubud research: “Economy, Ritual & History in a Balinese Tourism Town” at the University of Auckland, 1997.

photos ©Rio Helmi


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