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Balinese Women (Photo: Greenhotelier.org)

Balinese Women, Tourism and Poverty

OurIndonesia – Men Mo, a Balinese woman in her seventies, will never forget the time in 2005 when the bombs shook Bali. She immediately realised how fragile her livelihood was. She could no longer obtain canang (tiny palm-leaf baskets), flowers and ducks for sesaji (offerings). Without worship, without the daily rituals that centre on the sesaji, for Men Mo there was no life.

Men Mo is a tiny, dark-skinned, illiterate woman from Pengubengan. Her given name is Luh Asih. She is the meme (mother) of Monastra, her eldest son, so by local custom she is called ‘Men Mo’, the mother of Mo. Luh Asih was born and has spent her whole life in Pengubengan Kauh, a traditional hamlet (banjar) that is part of the traditional village (desa adat) Kerobokan Kota Utara, not far from Kuta, Bali.

Everyone knows Kuta as the icon of Bali’s tourism, and a popular tourist destination since the 1930s. As tourism became a major industry, it expanded rapidly northward to the area where Men Mo and her husband Pan Mo live. Pengubengan changed very quickly. Farmland was sold to support the tourism industry, and the price skyrocketed.

Like many other banjar, Pengubengan was a community of farmers, but the shift in the function of the land has changed the types of work available to the local people. None of Men Mo’s children work in farming. After gaining a high school education, they have become cogs in the tourism industry.

They work in hotels, own warungs or small shops, or work as drivers or in restaurants. But not everyone in Pengubengan Kuah is able to pursue these new types of work. Older women feel the impact of the changes most, because all their knowledge and skill lies in the world of farming.

According to Men Mo, when she was young, Pengubengan was a vast, fertile rice growing area. As far as the eye could see, there was nothing but expanses of rice fields, with small shelters (kubu) marking the ownership boundaries. From before she was married, her only skills were rice farming and making jarit (woven coconut leaves), canang and banten for sesaji. After she married, she and her husband farmed the fields that they bought and those they inherited from their parents.

When they needed money for their children’s education, to prepare them for the many jobs opening up in the tourism industry, they sold off their land little by little, even though it was the source of their livelihood. Now, Men Mo and her husband are sharecroppers.

They cultivate sixty ares (6000 square meters) of rice fields, owned by the same city dweller who bought their land from them. Their wage is one fifth of the rice crop that is produced, enough to meet their own needs. Men Mo and her husband are grateful that they don’t have to buy rice, but this security could be lost at any time if the owner decides to build on the land.

Tourism brought an income to many of the local families. Their homes have been renovated, and from the outside, their poverty is not obvious. But as Balinese, residents of a banjar, they have traditional religious and social obligations. But now, the materials for the rituals are not longer available from the natural environment and have to be bought with cash. Life therefore seems very fragile, as they experienced when Bali’s economy suddenly seemed to halt.

There is another process which brings impoverishment to the people of Bali – mortgaging of land. Once mortgaged, almost no one is able to redeem their farmland once it has been transferred to the moneylenders.

Bali may be the most dramatic example of such shifts in land use and its consequences for women. The rapid growth of tourism has forced Bali to choose between this industry and maintaining the agriculture sector. In fact, most people don’t really have a choice – they are essentially being forced to abandon their agrarian culture.

Those who cannot survive are pushed into the interior, or become transmigrants or migrant workers. And yet it is Bali’s agrarian culture that is the heart and soul of its ‘Balinese’ – with its roots in religious rituals and traditions to maintain the balance between humankind, nature, and Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa (God).

For women, land is more than just a place to grow food or to live on. Inherent in the land is their livelihood, knowledge, traditions, values, culture, relationships, ethnicity, gender and even religion. Women’s status, derived from their knowledge about how to farm the land and grow crops is an important element associated with the land.

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