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Hum Ecol (2011) 39:310

DOI 10.1007/s10745-011-9383-1

Studies of the Subak: New Directions, New Challenges

Nitish Jha & John W. Schoenfelder

Published online: 9 February 2011

# Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Introduction on Bali, each controlling an irrigated field complex ranging

from 4 to almost 800 hectares. In total, these groups
It may seem excessive to devote this many articles to oversee the irrigation of almost 18% of the islands total
studies of the water management groups characteristic of land area (Sutawan et al. 1986: 1; 1990: 85). Today, subaks
one small island, but Bali is a rather special place. In the are also found on other islands of the Indonesian archipelago
first issue of the first volume of Human Ecology, Clifford where sizeable migrant communities of Balinese agriculturists
Geertz presented an article in which he compared irrigation have settled.
practices in Bali to those in Morocco, demonstrating that Subaks first came to prominence courtesy the writings of
in both locales the organizational approach taken to the Dutch colonial administrators who studied them with an
creation of an agricultural ecosystem extends in an eye toward improving revenue collection in agriculture.
overall way to the two societies as a whole (Geertz Since then, these unique associations, and the so-called
1972: 37). For the Balinese case, this meant that the water temples that structure and connect them, have
careful regulation of the timing and distribution of water attracted the interest of social scientists from Indonesia
by irrigation societies known as subaks was both an and beyond. Anthropologists, agricultural scientists and
adaptation to the environment (and the crop), and one of archaeologists have all contributed to a large body of work on
the many variables contributing to the formation of the the subak that deals with such diverse topics as ritual
pluralistic collectivism pattern of social integration that economy; management of paddy ecology; watershed-level
Geertz saw as characterizing many other facets of Balinese organization; irrigation technology; historical developments;
life. the autonomy of irrigation communities vis--vis elites; water
Subaks are recognized in social anthropology as irriga- politics and upstream-downstream power negotiation; and
tors associations that combine ritual and resource manage- responses to external economic changes and governmental
ment. Inscriptions indicate that antecedent forms have been interventions.
in existence for at least a millennium on Bali. Scholars
estimate that there are now between 1,200 and 1,800 subaks
The Literature on Subaks
N. Jha (*)
Ha Noi, Vietnam The extensive body of subak literature stretches as far back
e-mail: nitish.jha.07@gmail.com as the late 19th century, with information and insights about
the institution interwoven throughout the larger social
J. W. Schoenfelder
Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA, science literature on an island that has probably received
Los Angeles, CA, USA ethnographic attention vastly disproportionate to its modest
e-mail: schnfldr@ucla.edu size and population. A truly exhaustive review would be an
endeavor on a scale beyond what we can attempt here, but
J. W. Schoenfelder
Department Anthropology, University of Massachusetts Boston, we can at least provide an incomplete set of highlights. To
Boston, MA, USA begin at the beginning, initial accounts about the gover-
4 Hum Ecol (2011) 39:310

nance of subaks and their potential for revenue generation themselves while providing incentives for subaks to boost
addressed issues of concern to the Dutch colonial govern- agricultural production. The fiction of an autonomous
ment. Significant among these scholar-administrators were subakimposed from the northsuited these objectives
F.A. Liefrinck (1969 [188687]) and C.A. Grader (1960 admirably. Unfortunately, according to Schulte Nordholt,
[1938]). Liefrinck, in particular, noted that Balinese lords Geertz and other, later researchers have been as much
acted as arbiters in the case of inter-subak disputes but were victims of this successful fiction-turned-fact as were the
otherwise removed from the management of irrigation. This Dutch themselves. Moreover, in drawing conclusions about
was a view that contributed to Wittfogels (1957) argument the structure of authority in irrigation in precolonial Bali,
that the Balinese subak was a prime example of what he Geertz relied not on indigenous historical sources but on
posited were hydraulic civilizationslarge, centralized colonial sources and on what he saw in the contemporary
polities whose authority stemmed from their control over scenariowhere the provincial government acts mainly as
irrigation. a service provider and has little direct influence over how
The nature of management of the subak has been a water is managed within subaks.
principal issue in subak studies ever since. In sometimes Comparing historical documentation from both the
contentious debate, writers have presented opposing por- precolonial and colonial periods, Schulte Nordholt argues
traits of subaks as being controlled by either religious or that the Dutch were instrumental in creating a standardized
political authorities. More recently, contributors have subak all over Bali, using Liefrincks work as a template.
focused their attention on individual subaks to highlight Although they saw their work as a mission to restore the
the degree of autonomy that they enjoy and the consider- autonomous subak of yore, their prime motive was self-
able agency that their members exercise, regardless of the interested administrative pragmatism (1986: 3233;
nature of control. 1999: 242, 245, 254256).
The enduring debate about the nature of irrigation Stephen Lansing added his voice to this debate with his
authority in Bali and the extent of subak autonomy in finding that an important role in subak management is
historical and contemporary Bali began with Geertz. played by extensive hierarchies of water temples that
Almost a hundred years after Liefrinck, Geertz (1980) stretch from the mountains to the coast, presided over by a
characterized the 19th-century subak as having little to do few temples located by lakes near the center of the island.
with royal authority, refuting the Wittfogelian notion of a Decisions about how to share water, what crops to plant and
hydraulic state on Bali. In his conception, indigenous rulers when to plant them are made at higher temples and then
were mainly interested in collecting taxes; they were not in disseminated to local subak temples throughout the water-
any way involved in the management of subaks in water- sheds within their jurisdictions. Each subak, in turn,
sheds. They played a minor, almost peripheral role by acknowledges these links by paying obeisance to senior
appointing officials to oversee certain auxiliary functions temples in the form of prayers and offerings made on
of coordination, arbitration, and adjudication in irrigation specific ceremonial occasions. Individual subaks were thus
(1980: 69). In his view, therefore, the subak was a never really as autonomous as Geertz made them out to be,
decentralized and relatively autonomous organization. though it was religious rather than political authority that
Henk Schulte Nordholt, one of the contributors to this held them in sway in the face of the frequent internecine
volume, faults Geertzs methodology and his failure to take warfare that characterized the period prior to the Pax
into account regional variation in the managerial relations Neerlandica (Lansing 1987).
between rulers and subaks. Geertzs area of study was Lansing points out that along with the more nebulous
southern Bali, where rulers played key roles in the benefits of solidarity within and between the subak
establishment of subaks and in several aspects of their memberships that form the congregations of these temples,
subsequent management (Schulte Nordholt 1986: 18, 52; the operation of the water temple network also has the
1991: 7), and Liefrinck was writing about subaks in the effect of reducing pest populations and maximizing water
north, where they were more isolated and dispersed, availability by facilitating the staggering of cultivation
making it hard for local rulers to control them. schedules between subaks in the same watershed. Water
Schulte Nordholt holds that, when compared with their temples at multiple levels provide forums and leadership
counterparts in the north, southern rulers had more lasting mechanisms for the coordination of efforts to suppress pest
ties with their rural subjects and were able to exercise a far populations and ensure judicious water sharing among
greater degree of political authority over them. After the subaks. When requested, priests at the highest temples also
Dutch succeeded in colonizing South Bali, their strategy sanction the capture of new water sources by subaks, impart
was to take over the agricultural tax collection function of advice to them on such matters as headwork placement and
the southern kings, cut the links between these rulers and tunnel routing, and settle water disputes between them
their rural support bases, and stay out of subak management (Lansing 1983: 7, 38, 60; Lansing 1987, 1991, 2006: 175;
Hum Ecol (2011) 39:310 5

Lansing and Kremer 1993). Lansing is highly critical of grudgingly by the Dutch administration which retained state
those proponents of the Green Revolution who believed control of the irrigation systems (1982: 80). At the time of her
that the water temple system was outdated and subak ritual ethnographic work in the 1970s, with the conduct of subak
was pointless (Lansing 1995: 100101). He maintains that ceremonial in the hands of a non-governmental body (the
the Dutch colonial administrators of Bali suffered from a national council of Hindu religious authority, or PHDI), there
similar ignorance, and that it was their oversight of the appeared to be, for the first time, a separation of religious
secular aspects of the temple system that set in motion and political authority in the management of irrigation in
events which led to the diminution of the systems age-old Lombok subaks (1982: 185, 216). Gerdin alludes tangential-
functions (Lansing 1991). ly to the absence of subak autonomy on Lombok, noting that
Lansing is right in arguing that subak are subsumed although subaks were independent of neighboring settle-
within a religious hierarchy that most scholars had not ments, their leaders were (and still are) state-appointed
noticed previously. Until recent years (cf. Lansing 2006: employees and ordinary members had (have) little or no
107) his focus has usually been more on supra-subak than say in decision-making about subak matters (1982: 7273,
intra-subak dynamics, and this has meant relatively less 80, 178, 185).
attention paid to the agency of ordinary subak membersto Returning to a wholly Balinese context, some authors
just how individuals and small groups make decisions, take have retained the middle ground in portraying local
actions, and assert influence and autonomy vis--vis communities as being neither autonomous from supra-
outsiders. We would note that, in the present era, subaks local authority la Geertznor largely subservient to
and their members use government agencies as well as such authority, whether one sees it as emanating from rulers
priests as alternative appellate and advisory authorities. In (Schulte Nordholt 1996) or priests (Lansing 1991). This
todays context of legal pluralism, the modern state reserves view draws on the work done by anthropologists on the
the authority to make or ratify decisions in specific areas nature of social interactions in a variety of institutions,
concerning the subak, where its jurisdiction overlaps with subaks among them. For instance, Warren presents a thesis
that of the temple system (cf. McTaggart 1988: 108; Suasta that, in talking about the decision-making autonomy
1988). Contemporary state agencies seem more enmeshed exercised by members of customary village ward groups
in subak affairs than either temples or kingdoms were in the (or banjar), evokes many parallels with the functioning of
past. Even after the backpedaling that followed the Green subak (1993). According to her, the considerable degree of
Revolution confrontation with the ritual order, the state is agency that resides in local groups goes along with their
both a tax collector and a promoter of agricultural integration into administrative hierarchies. In Balinese society,
development (providing subsidies, training programs, new this has long been made possible by a twin set of values that
seed varieties, irrigation infrastructure, etc.). Beyond this, it allow a hierarchy-obsessed, state-propagated ideology to exist
is also (supposedly) the guardian of the subak, enacting alongside an egalitarian and flexible village ideology in spite
legislation that grants subaks jural status, protects their of latent tensions between the two (1993: 6898).
rights to water, and so on. It remains to be seen whether Historians and archaeologists have been particularly
water temples or government offices will play the larger engaged in seeking answers to deeply perplexing questions
role in the future of the subak. about the nature of links between the agricultural and
Gerdin, in her study of poverty in a rural Balinese sociopolitical systems that have evolved on Bali (see van
community in neighboring Lombok, describes subaks as Setten van der Meer 1979; Wisseman Christie 1992, 2001;
fused politico-religious entities. She argues that the preco- Schoenfelder 2000; Hauser-Schublin 2005). In the pro-
lonial Hindu rulers of Lombok (who were originally from cess, many of them have contributed to our understanding
the kingdom of Karangasem on Bali) not only constructed of the ancient origins of the subak and of Balinese
irrigation systems, coordinated water sharing and cultiva- agricultural management practices (Ardika 1994; antika
tion schedules and collected a tax on water through 1986: 3637; Purwita 1986: 45; Sudarta 1987: 5860).
appointed officials, but also conducted all agricultural ritual Material evidence and inscriptions of royal charters provide
at a state temple (1982: 7273, 169, 216). clues pointing to the presence of wet-rice cultivation on
Thus, in contrast to the scenarios described for Bali by Bali about two millennia ago, irrigation-tunnel builders at
Schulte Nordholt and Lansing, the authority overseeing the end of the 9th century CE and an organization named
irrigation management among subaks on Lombok seemed the kasuwakanmost likely the precursor to the subak
to have merged political and religious functions. Moreover, circa the 11th century (Ardika 1992; Wisseman Christie
perhaps in part due to the large population of Muslim Sasak 2001: 1519, Schoenfelder 2003: 6079).
who farmed land in subaks alongside the Hindu Balinese, One of us argues that the organization of irrigation and
nothing like Balis water temple system existed on Lombok. the rise of complex society on Bali went hand in hand but
In colonial times, all agricultural ritual was sponsored admits that much remains to be learned about the
6 Hum Ecol (2011) 39:310

productive and religious roles of [subaks] at, before, and Like their Indonesian colleagues, they have moved increas-
after [1071 CE] (Schoenfelder 2000: 43). Another scholar ingly away from the mere description of the organizational
asserts that initial findings reveal a remarkably low royal elements of subak to train their sights on intra-subak, inter-
profile in respect to the pragmatic aspects of water subak and subak-state dynamics (e.g., Hobart 1978, 1980;
management and that water use for irrigation was Poffenberger and Zurbuchen 1980; Spiertz 1990, 1991,
apparently a matter for local initiative rather than for state 2000; Jha 2001, 2002b, 2004; Hauser-Schublin 2005).
direction (Wisseman Christie 1992: 19; also 2001). Much less in known about subaks outside Bali. Although
Archaeologists have been restricted in their analyses by there are assertions that subaks exist on at least five other
the paucity of data sources. The majority of studies have islands in the archipelago, ethnographic information is
searched for answers based on the very limited epigraphic available for subaks on only twoSulawesi and Lombok.
material, with few actually using field methods to try to Most non-Balinese subaks are relatively new, having been
determine how subaks may have first been established (but established by transmigrant Balinese who moved to these
see Scarborough et al. 2000; Lansing et al. 2006). locales in the post-colonial era; the subaks on Balis
Nonetheless, the evidence marshaled by these works neighboring island of Lombok are the only ones that can be
supports the premise that subak structure and function have dated to the precolonial period. Portrayals of the social
displayed a high degree of continuity over time. organization of subaks by Gerdin (1982) for Lombok and
Thus, anthropologists, historians and archaeologists by Vermillion (1986, 1992, 2000) and Roth (1999a, b) for
present us with at least four different scenarios of the Sulawesi reveal many similarities to subaks on Bali but also
degree of administrative autonomy enjoyed by subaks in some significant differences (see Roth, this volume).
historical and modern times. Whereas it would appear that
subaks on Lombok had (and have) very little autonomy, the
evidence for Baliwhile more plentifulis less clear-cut. Overview of Articles
All three models presented for Balii.e., that of wholly
autonomous subaks, subaks dependent on political author- This volume brings together representatives of a fresh
ity, and subaks dependent on religious authorityseem cohort of social scientists working on subak-related matters,
credible in their own ways but incompatible if pitted against each of whom brings to the field of subak studies a
one another. Maybe the answer lies somewhere in the perspective imbued with personal experience and insights.
middle. Following the views espoused by Warren (1993) Two of the articles are based on historical research
and based on our own research experience (Jha 2002a and bolstered by fieldwork about the nature of the subak. The
Schoenfelder 2003), we would suggest that Balinese subaks four others are based on long-term fieldwork in village
enjoyand perhaps have always enjoyeda fair degree of communities, some of it ongoing. Each of the six papers
managerial autonomy while still being subject to supra-local contributes to pertinent debates about the historical and
authorities in specific respects. Contributions to this volume contemporary nature of subak management (Fig. 1, also see
are informed by both historical as well as contemporary Fig. 1 in Roth, this volume). They all consider aspects of
research. Read as a piece, they seem to bolster this view. change in contemporary subaks as they operate under a
Individual subaks or groups of subaks have been studied variety of constraints.
in every one of Balis eight districts. Despite distinct The articles by Schulte Nordholt and Hauser-Schublin
regional differences, the mass of subak studies throw up a deal with issues concerning the historical development of
finite number of subak types from all parts of Bali, all irrigation management institutions on Bali. Both are primarily
showing some degree of functional autonomy in contem- concerned with the late pre-colonial, colonial, and post-
porary times. Geertz followed his initial study of a subak in colonial eras of the 19th and 20th centuries, and both present
eastern Bali (1967) with a schematic depiction of one from their arguments as responses to the work of Lansing.
the southwest of the island (1980: 6886). Since the 1980s, Following on from his earlier work (discussed above),
a number of accounts started being generated by Indonesian Schulte Nordholt uses written and oral historical evidence to
scholars for subaks from all areas of the island. This counter Lansings depiction of subaks as subject principally to
burgeoning literature, which appears both in English and religious authority. According to him, in the kingdom of
Indonesian, covers everything from academic theses and Mengwi at the least, royal dynasties and local noble houses
evaluation reports (e.g., Sutawan et al. 1984; Sudarta 1987; were of prime importance to the construction, upkeep, and
Suasta 1988; Pitana 1989; Jemet 1991; Sudana 1991) to ritual management of large irrigation systems. Pre-colonial
conference proceedings, edited volumes and full-length control over fields, irrigation infrastructure and agricultural
monographs (e.g., Sutawan et al. 1986, 1990; UNUD 1986; labor was directly related to the strength of the polity in
Pitana 1993). Meanwhile, non-Indonesian scholars have question, which often organized agricultural ritual as well.
continued to supply information on subak-related topics. Furthermore, he reiterates that the widespread notion of the
Hum Ecol (2011) 39:310 7

Fig. 1 Primary research sites for articles appearing in this issue: (MacRae and Arthawiguna). Also shown: Modern administrative
Mengwi (Schulte Nordholt), Batur Temple (Hauser-Schublin), Kapal districts (kabupaten, or regencies) of Bali
(Lorenzen and Lorenzen), Sanur (Strauss), and Wangaya Betan

subak as a long-enduring egalitarian, semi-autonomous groups that are members of the constituency of the temple, and
institution is largely a colonial construct. Dutch officials in beliefs that it was ever thus have developed.
the early 20th century left the ceremonial aspect of irrigated The other four articles all look at present conditions with an
rice agriculture intact but took over the secular role of regional eye to the future. All draw insights from studies or projects in
irrigation management from Balinese lords, strengthening the specific locales, focusing on describing and proposing
autonomy of local irrigation associations in the process. solutions to constraints or crises faced by subaks. Read
Hauser-Schublin similarly feels that Lansing has over- together, the process of change documented by these four
stated subak-related institutions independence from state articles privileges readers with a view of how the form and
interference, but in her case much of the focus is on the function of subaks are constantly being altered to suit emerging
Batur Temple, the supreme water temple honored by many challenges, whether institutional, economic or political.
of the subaks of Bali, studied here through personnel In this sense, the change depicted by Roths piece about
interviews and temple manuscripts. She differs from subaks in Sulawesi is the starkest, dealing as it does with
Lansing (who has written extensively about the Batur the creation of subaks in an area settled by Balinese
Temple) in stressing that the temple was formerly a major migrants only in the last few decades. As constituent
landholder of irrigated rice fields, obtained from many entities in a state-established irrigation scheme, they find
villages as gifts initiated by sovereign lords. These estates, their irrigation activities circumscribed by government
as well as ritual control of water, created webs of decree. Comparing two subaks in neighboring settlements,
interdependence and obligation linking peasants, villages, Roth finds that there is an inverse relationship between the
temples, kings, and other actors. In the post-colonial era autonomy of the subak in irrigation affairs and its spatial
dynamic perceived by Hauser-Schublin, land ties have location within rather than on the fringes of the state-
faded as the Batur Temples rights to land in distant villages sponsored irrigation scheme. However, even in the more
have been erased from collective memory. However, annual government-controlled setting, the subak survives as more
tribute is still forthcoming from many of the villages where the than just a ceremonial entity. Subak knowledge can be
temple was formerly a land-owning entity, with contributions observed in the practices, norms and organizational arrange-
now being based more on symbolic water ties. Subaks being ments adopted by farmers at the tertiary level and below.
institutions concerned with water matters, they (and not Based on this finding, Roth cautions that the form and
villages) have increasingly come to be seen as the local function of any subak should be seen as a set of practices
8 Hum Ecol (2011) 39:310

growing out of local institutional spaces rather than as a fixed basins. Without this, the subakand all that it stands foris
normative type, unvarying from place to place. imperiled.
Back on Bali, Lorenzen and Lorenzen deal with the The contemporary subak has been described as facing
reaction of subaks to contemporary challenges emanating threats to its existence ranging from the decline in people
from urbanization and a rapidly diversifying economy in keen on farming and an increase in arable land being
which the agricultural sectors importance is diminished as transferred to non-agricultural uses, to the loss of water
tourism and other service industries provide many off-farm rights and the widespread adoption of labor-saving produc-
employment opportunities for members of farming house- tion technologies that render the subaks ceremonial and
holds. Here the subak as an institution seems to give more community-oriented ties meaningless. In this environment,
to its members than it receives from them in return. With MacRae and Arthawiguna strike an optimistic note by
the growth of off-farm employment, reciprocal and com- revealing one subak that is in the process of taking on these
munal labor arrangements have increasingly given way to odds and seemingly set to succeed. Based on long-term,
contract labor. Membership in a subak offers households intermittent fieldwork, they describe a subak in southwestern
several benefits, and is accommodating in what is required Bali that is using the growth in tourism to its advantage by
in return: the subak is very flexible in the labor it demands facilitating the adoption of organic farming methods by its
of its members, allowing household members to substitute members, thereby carving out a niche for organic produce in a
for one another in performing subak duties. Farming itself market increasingly dominated by agribusiness. The authors
acts as a safety net in times of economic uncertainty. Yet, underscore the degree of agency that the members of a subak
when off-farm opportunities are good, members of the and their well-wishers can display in ensuring the persistence
younger generation evince a reluctance to take up farming of the subak itself when circumstances are favorable. In this
as a profession. The diversification of the economy and the process, they point out that these individuals rather than the
concomitant growth in agricultural contract labor have institution of the subak itself should be seen as the center of
meant the weakening of traditional institutions like the agency. Their study demonstrates the potential of the subak as
subak and, as subsistence agriculture is superseded by an adaptable vehicle in the long-term quest for the sustain-
commercial agriculture, the loosening of its ties with the ability of irrigated rice agriculture.
village. According to the authors, such trends put the future Perhaps it is this ability to be transformed that is the
of not only the subak but of rice cultivation itself at risk. subaks greatest asset, leading to its resilience through the
In comparison to the economic constraints of subsistence centuries. Subaks will prosper if their members can
agriculture highlighted by the Lorenzens, Strauss stresses empower themselves to become more active partners in
hydrological constraints posed by entities competing with movements for change that are strictly speaking outside the
subaks for river water. Based on fieldwork in a south subaks traditional mandate of irrigation management. Put
Balinese subak, she highlights the powerlessness of subaks differently, the contemporary subak has become the last line
in the face of inequitable water allocation among different of defense in a war that is eroding its authority and
stakeholders in a river system. She asserts that the much- threatening its very existence. The final four articles in this
vaunted autonomy of the subak is a myth that continues to collection show that the key to the survival of the subak in
be propagated by the post-colonial government. In the face these changing times lies in a combination of strategies that
of competition from other entities consuming large amounts include switching to alternative methods of farming, sustain-
of water (such as bottling water companies, municipal ably exploiting any possible synergy with tourism, enacting
drinking water utilities and hotels), the proposed solution is laws that limit the conversion of arable land to other uses,
for subaks to rely on groundwater sources for irrigation while securing subak rights to water resources, and recruiting the
these other entities are accorded priority in use of surface (read combined defensive talents of those with its welfare at heart. If
river) water. This forced reallocation of hydrological any of these phenomena occurs on a large enough scale, the
resources results in a scarcity of water for irrigation (since institution that we have come to know as the subak will be
groundwater in the area is limited anyway) and, consequently, positioned to play an organizational role, and will have a
dry season crop failures. However, rather than see this as a chance to endurechanged, to be sure, but still relevant and
continued denial of the subaks water rights and their own recognizable in a new era.
inability to negotiate these in the context of the river basin as a
whole, farmers in the subak tend to focus on the rural versus
urban nature of the conflict over water resources. Following References
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