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Managing a Living Cultural Landscape: Bali’s subaks and the UNESCO World Heritage Site

In 2012, the cultural landscape of Indonesia’s Bali province was inscribed as a World Heritage Site – a place of “outstanding universal value”, to be protected and preserved for all humankind.
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In 2012, the cultural landscape of Indonesia’s Bali province was inscribed as a World Heritage Site – a place of “outstanding universal value”, to be protected and preserved for all humankind. The inscription recognizes the value of Bali’s subaks: farmers’ organizations that collectively manage irrigation systems on rice terraces, as well as water temples. The subak system, which dates back to at least the 12th century, is still in practice. It embodies the Balinese philosophical principle Tri Hita Karana (three causes of goodness), which seeks to create harmony between humans and the spiritual realm, between humans and nature, and among humans.

In 2013, at the request of the Government of Indonesia, SEI launched a two-year project to support the development of an effective participatory management structure for the site. This report focuses on the needs and contexts of the subak landscape of Catur Angga Batukaru (CAB), which has the largest number of subaks and villages in the World Heritage Site.


Figure 1. Phases of SEI’s Partnership in Governance Transition project. Click to enlarge.

The project was implemented in phases (see Figure 1 for an illustration of the process), adapting to evolving conditions. First there was a preparatory phase, with site visits and preparatory and introductory meetings. The second phase was the series of 11 focus group discussions in February and March 2014, each including about 20 participants. The researchers also conducted 14 key informant interviews with farmers, women in the subaks, pekasehs and heads of pekaseh associations, puri, priests, village chiefs, adat officials, and students. The interviews and focus group discussions were conducted in four villages – Rejasa, Sangketan, Wongaya Gede and Jatiluwih – as well as a subak assembly in May 2014 to build consensus among the 20 subak heads (pekasehs) of the CAB, which resulted in the establishment of a coordination forum.

The third phase involved feedback and learning, along with support for the formalization of participatory governance structures. The researchers shared the results of the focus group discussions and interviews, and organized a subak assembly (musbak or musyawarah subak) on 11–12 May 2014 in Wongaya Gede. The purpose of the assembly was to build consensus among the pekasehs of the CAB. They shared issues encountered in their subaks and developed a collective action plan to address them. They were also able to get the support of the Samdhana Institute, Udayana University (UNUD), MoEC, the Office of Culture (Dinas Kebudayaan, or Disbud), the King (puri) of Tabanan and the High Priest (pemangku gede) of Batukaru.

Temple in Batukaru, Bali. Click to enlarge.

Key Management Challenges

In general, the farmers are optimistic about the World Heritage Site and see it as an opportunity to address the problems they experienced. But based on the focus group discussions, interviews and other discussions with various actors, the researchers have identified several key challenges that need to be overcome so that the World Heritage Site truly benefits the farmers, their subaks and the province. These key challenges are:

  • Lack of information about the World Heritage Site
  • Sustaining the subaks in light of the World Heritage Site
  • Expectations of the World Heritage Site
  • Increasing land speculation
  • 5 Impacts of increased tourism
  • Long-term implications of uncoordinated policies

Each of these challenges are discussed in detail in the report, and one main conclusion that can be drawn is that the resolution of these issues will require political will and engagement at all levels of government and – just as important – meaningful participation by all key stakeholders, particularly the subaks.

Way forward

To protect the outstanding universal value, integrity and authenticity of the subak landscape as a World Heritage Site, it is crucial to address land conversion. This requires ensuring a continuous supply of water for the subaks, maintaining land for farming, ensuring that labour is available, and ensuring that there are enough funds for rituals. All the CAB actors need to work together to address these issues, but formal mechanisms have yet to be set up to enable those conversations. As of March 2015, the Coordination Forum had not met again since its inaugural session in 2014, and the government of Tabanan Regency has yet to create an administrative body to manage the World Heritage Site in its jurisdiction. Ongoing efforts led by the subaks and their pekasehs must also continue.

Although these recommendations are solely for the CAB and do not apply to other parts of the World Heritage Site, our intention is to ensure that the World Heritage Site protects the universal values that make Bali unique and sustains the subaks into the future while improving people’s well-being. To address these cross-cutting concerns, we suggest a number of options, including:

• Implement the UNESCO- approved management plan and make better use of existing materials.

• Establish a badan pengelola at the regency level or consider an interim authority.

• Engage meaningfully with the Forum Pekaseh.

• Expand engagement with other actors in the World Heritage Site area.


The ingredients for a successful farmer-led management system are already in place in the subaks. The members of Forum Pekaseh have also codified the rules that bind them and defined their responsibilities. The goals of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention can thus be realized in the Bali Cultural Landscape, if key institutions are made to work better. Most of all, in our view, the future of the Bali Cultural Landscape depends on how well the relevant governance institutions in Indonesia can empower the farmers to oversee and manage the heritage they built.

Click here to read full report.

Suggested citation

Salamanca, A.M., A. Nugroho, M. Osbeck, S. Bharwani and N. Dwisasanti (2015), “Managing a living cultural landscape: Bali’s subaks and the Unesco World Heritage Site”. SEI Project Report 2015-15.

Further resources from the project: Partnership for Governance Transition: Cultural Landscape of Bali

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