Rice: for most Indonesians it’s almost synonymous with food as a whole. Average Indonesians feel that even if they’ve had bread for breakfast, they haven’t eaten yet until they’ve had rice. Yet the variety and quality of the most important staple food in this country seems to be dimishing at an alarming rate. Ibu Kat explores the situation.

(feature photo: A rare sight these days – harvesting Balinese heritage rice the traditional way, snipping the stalks with the “ani-ani” knife.  photo ©Rio Helmi)

Consider how many millennia the species known as Homo sapiens has relied for its survival on carefully gathering and growing edible plants. Then, in a little less than a century, this cocky primate has managed to destroy most of the biodiversity that underpinned its food security.

According to the BBC, 50 years ago Chinese farmers were estimated to have been growing 10,000 varieties of wheat. By the 1970s, that figure had fallen to about 1,000. The range of corn varieties cultivated by farmers in Mexico today is 20% of what they were raising in the 1930s. And in the past half century almost all of Indonesia’s estimated 7,000 varieties of rice have been lost.

I worry about this. More and more people eating fewer and fewer varieties of plants seems like a very poor long-term planning scenario. Surely the more options we have, the better?

Plenty of thoughtful Indonesians are concerned as well. I was delighted to learn of a wonderful Javanese woman who shares my obsession with indigenous Indonesian rice.   A couple of years ago about 40 interested folk strolled through the lush rice fields of Abangan north of Ubud to listen to Helianti Hilman talk about her favourite subject at Sari Organik.

Heli was brought to Ubud by Slow Food Bali to share her extensive wisdom and experience around heritage rice. Heli started her company Javara in 2008 to help preserve some of the very rare heritage rice varieties and other traditional crops which are still being cultivated in remote communities around the archipelago.   Since then the brand has flourished.

“We established Javara with the purpose of keeping alive Indonesia’s rich heritage of food biodiversity and improving the pride and welfare of the traditional farmers who have been committed to preserving it,” she explained to us. “We believe that by mobilizing consumers to buy these products on regular basis, efforts to keep this heritage alive can gain momentum and create a significant impact.”

RicePots Some of the varieties that Javara is helping to preserve. photo©Catriona Mitchell

Although Javara sources and sells a variety of indigenous food products, Heli’s great passion is heritage rice.   Her research shows that before the 1960s there were as many as 7,000 varieties of rice grown around Indonesia. During the Green Revolution the government forced farmers to abandon traditional rice varieties and cultivation practices to intensively grow hybrid rice with chemicals in order to increase yield. Thousand of rare indigenous rice varieties were lost in a few years.

Javara’s dedicated staff works with network of indigenous farmers to locate and help preserve the varieties which have survived. The company now has access to over 300 rare rice varieties and small amounts of about 30 of these are available for purchase.  Others may eventually become commercially viable.


“We believe that making these wonderful, rare heritage rice varieties available to consumers will help to protect them as well as support the smallholder farmers who have dedicated themselves to preserving these varieties,” says Heli.

“Many of these varieties were highly adapted to different elevations, climates and other variables. Some varieties grew in brackish water, some high on cool mountain slopes, some in shade, others in marshes. Swamp-grown rice in Kalimantan has long roots which help the plant withstand dramatic changes in the depth of the water. “

Surprisingly, indigenous rice is not an aquatic plant. The hybrid white rice now grown everywhere was designed to stand in water so the chemicals it relies on to grow will quickly be dissolved and taken up by the roots. Some heritage rice varieties grow without any irrigation at all, and others are tolerant of swamp conditions.   Indigenous rice varieties were relatively low in yield compared to hybrid rice and took longer to grow. Traditional communities which had been growing these varieties for up to a thousand years were experts in their cultivation.

DSCF1747planting hybrid aquatic rice in Bali (©Rio Helmi)

After the Green Revolution, which started in the 1960s, farmers were forbidden to grow their own rice and ordered to produce as many as three crops a year of the mandated hybrid white rice. Their traditional seeds were taken from them, destroying their food sovereignty immediately.

Heli found one old farmer who was growing traditional rice in pots so the seeds would not be lost since he was no longer allowed to cultivate it for food. “He felt a responsibility to preserve the seeds. The government put him in jail.”

Traditional rices differ significantly from hybrid white rice in colour, texture, flavour and aroma. There’s actually no such thing as natural white rice; the grain only becomes white when the bran is removed. The only variations of natural rice are red, brown and black. The black, when fully or partially milled, may become purple in hue. And the red becomes pink. The Balinese have been socially conditioned to white rice now, and few of the younger people will eat the much more nutritious heritage rice. Ironically, it is much more popular with educated Indonesians and the expat community.

During Heli’s presentation we were served a banana leaf plate with ten different rice varieties. The difference in their flavours, textures and aromas was amazing.   She explained that mechanically husked rice has a very different texture to rice that’s been husked by pounding by hand in a big stone mortar; a few traditional communities still do this. The latter is much creamier when cooked, has a softer texture, is easier to digest and retains more vitamins.

It’s hard to imagine going back to hybrid rice after tasting the real thing. All the heritage varieties had their own robust flavours and identities. Many traditional communities believed that their rice was so nutritious that they didn’t really need to eat anything else, and I now understood what they meant by that.   It’s hard to define, but these rices have authority and strength. They concentrate the energies of the earth in which they grew. They are living, authentic, elemental and powerful FOOD.

Heli pledges to purchase the surplus harvests of these communities, sometimes exchanging other food supplies in communities where the selling of rice is taboo.  These surpluses can be very small, sometimes only 20 kilograms a harvest. This explains the small packets of rice in Javara’s beautifully boxed heritage rice collections — these varieties are so rare that each grain is precious.

Heli’s passion shines through as she describes how she and her husband and staff find innovative ways to preserve Indonesia’s disappearing legacy of heritage rice. They create seed banks and seed reproduction centers that distribute heritage seeds to traditional farmers. When quantities are small, they grow them in containers to ensure the seed survives until they have enough to grow in a field.

“But the best way to preserve these ancient varieties is to consume them,” she assured us. “As long as there is a good market for the rice, it’s an incentive for the farmers to continue growing these heritage varieties.”

Heritage rice can be purchased at the Saturday morning market at Pizza Bagus and through Chakra at chakra.widia@gmail.com

Javara’s rare rices can be purchased through its website (www.javara.co.id)

text: Cat Wheeler