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The Balinese People are One of The Warmest and Friendliest Peoples in The World

What are the people of Bali like? Where do they come from? What do they grow? What sort of animals do they keep? What are their challenges?

The Balinese people are one of the warmest and friendliest peoples in the world, and in fact, what makes someone "Balinese" has more to do with culture than race.

Indeed, facially it is hard to tell a Balinese apart from any other racial group making up the Indonesian people. At the risk of being simplistic, I can on occasion tell a Balinese from a Javanese – usually the Balinese face is more rounded, and fuller in the jaw, with the cheekbones less pronounced. And typically the bodies of the Balinese are a little fuller. But than you can never really tell – the religious aspect is more telling.

And if facial features are really no great indicator of race, forget trying to do something simple like guess someone's age – thank heavens asking someone's age is a polite courtesy in Bali, as you will be surprised at the answers!

The Population of Bali

There are about 3.2 Million people on Bali, and 90% of people here are Balinese. The rest are from other areas in Indonesia, most notably Java, Nusa Tenggara, Sumatra and Sulawesi. Ethnic minorities include small groups of Chinese, Indians, and Arabs in the larger towns.

Western expatriates living and working in Bali would make up about 0.5% of the population, and are a diverse mixture of Canadians, Americans, Germans, Swiss, Italians, Spanish, French, English, Australians, New Zealanders, Brazilians and of course Dutch – as well as the Japanese and twenty or so other nationalities.

The Balinese are a mix of descendents of the Malay races, who moved down through the Indochina region from China in a series of migrations around 3000 BC, and earlier from people related to the Australian Aboriginals who moved upwards. Also mixed into the genetic strain are Indians and Polynesians – and you can definitely see the more Indian features in some of the people, as well as the Polynesian strand.

Balinese Society

Bali is an agricultural society, boasting a wide array of Fauna, and an incredible amount of lush tropical plants. It also has its environmental challenges in regard to waste management and the protection of its ecosystems.

Balinese Agriculture

Agriculture plays an important part in both the economy and community of Bali. Agriculture contributes about 40% of Bali's total economic output, with the majority of the rice being sold and consumed locally.

Bali is predominately an agricultural society and agricultural economy, with the hot and wet climate, and the volcanic rich soils making the island ideal for the growing of rice.

The Balinese use a fast growing variety of rice that matures in about 4 months, allowing them to plant multiple crops year round – thus every where you go on Bali you can see planting, ploughing, and harvesting going on in the fields.

Over 65% of the island is under cultivation, with the majority of this cultivated land devoted to terraced rice fields. The steeply terraced hills of Bali look like they have been sculptured into the landscape, and are remarkably beautiful in their color.

The watering of the terraces is both a technical and social achievement of some standing, given that the steep terrain makes mechanization difficult and that the main water sources are well below the terraces in the river gorges.

The Balinese have developed a complex series of irrigation channels and dams that control the flow of water to the terraces, and they regulate this water sharing through local organizations or co-operatives known as subaks. These communities are known to have existed in Bali since the ninth century, and each subak is made up of all of the farmers who use water in that system.

Membership of the subak runs across village or desa lines. Each subak is headed by a chairman, the kliang subak, who is elected by the members and who co-ordinates the distribution of water, settles disputes, and plans the maintenance of the irrigation systems.

Not only does the subak organize the division of labor in the cultivation of rice, it also fixes and organizes the religious dates and ceremonies of its members, such as each field's temple, annual ceremonies to the rice and water gods, and harvest thanksgiving. Religious rituals and offerings govern every stage of the rice growing cycle, from growing to harvesting.

The easiest way to talk to a Balinese rice farmer is to ask him how much his rice is worth per kilo – believe me you will be there all day.

Other important Balinese crops are copra, coffee, tea, vanilla, and rubber. Bali produces over 10% of the total Indonesian coffee crop and is the world's second largest supplier of vanilla. Newer primary industries include aquaculture and seaweed farming, although fishing, while having enormous potential, will never develop because of the Balinese belief that the sea is where the evil spirits and demons live, and a result the ocean is not the safest place or the best place to spend a lot of time.

Balinese Flora

Although much of Bali is under cultivation, and human activity has reduced the diversity of habitats, there are still a lot of beautiful unspoilt areas in Bali, ranging from arid and volcanic mountain slopes and high natural forests, to unspoilt coastal shores and rivers fringed by dense jungle.

The western part of the island, especially Bali's only national park, the 19,000 hectare Taman Nasional Bali Barat (West Bali National Park), is a region of tropical jungle, with finely wooded trees such as mahogany in abundance at the lower elevations, and tall slender pines and ferns at the higher levels. As the rain in Bali is seasonal, there are no rainforest hardwoods. At the highest levels and in the drier regions of the Bukit in the far south, and in the far east of the island, the vegetation consists of grassland vegetation, shrubs, and hardy plants.

There are extensive forests of coconut palms and bamboo all around Bali, primarily used for building materials. Bamboo in particular has a million uses, ranging from bags and string, to roofing and musical instruments. There are also plantations of pineapples, bananas, vegetables, and betel nut grown everywhere.

Trees have a special significance to the Balinese, and the most sacred tree of all is the banyan tree, a large fig tree with massive buttress roots. These trees are often over 30m tall and have aerial roots tangled up in the wide canopy of its branches. Every temple and village in Bali has a banyan tree, often decorated with black and white checked cloths.

Given the rich soil and climate, there is almost no plant that cannot grow in Bali, and you will find every flower you could imagine growing here. There are orchids, jasmine, hibiscus, lotus, hydrangeas and more.

Fragrant frangipani trees with beautiful white and yellow, or pink and white, flowers are in abundance.

You will find many stalls and nurseries selling tropical plants and flowers set up on the main roads between Denpasar and Sanur, should you be interested.

Balinese Fauna

Given the large population, amount of land under cultivation, and the small size of the island, you will not see too many large animals in the wild.

Monkeys are common in the wild, and are often kept as pets. There are a number of monkey forests that you can see them at, and they often live near major temples, especially those visited by tourists, such as Ulawatu.

A word of warning however. Be careful with the monkeys that you find at monkey forests and temples – they can be very aggressive in regard to getting food. It is not a good idea to carry any food in your pockets as they have a habit of jumping on you and putting their hands in to find food – anything else found could be souvenired as well. And they can get cranky when they do not find food, and I have seen them bite people and pull hair.

Having said this, they are still a delight to watch as they play and socialize.

The Ulawatu temple is on the Bukit in South Bali, and the Ubud Monkey Forest can be found in the Ubud area of central Bali.

Bali has a large range of lizards, ranging from the small to the large. The most common lizard is the small cecak that appears at nighttime around any light source. These small lizards serve a useful purpose in catching insects, and you can spend a lot of time watching them chase each other around. The larger lizards often found in buildings are the gecko. You will often hear these lizards before you see them, as they make a very loud "geck-ooo" sound – several times in a row! And be warned – if they are in your room at night you will know about it! They are not scared as well, so don't think merely waving your hand at them will make them disappear.

Bats are also in abundance. These are very small and brown, and you can see them flying repeated patterns around lampposts and lights at night. There are also flying foxes that congregate in noisy groups around fruit trees at night.

The other animal you will see is the Balinese Squirrel – a small gray and brown creature with a bushy tail and cheeky face that moves across houses and palm trees. It is in abundance in built up areas with lots of trees. You will often hear them before you see them. They make a distinctive chattering noise that stops you doing what you were doing, and has you thinking "What was that?" When on the move they are lighting fast and can leap long distances onto the smallest of branches and leaves. It is great fun to watch them cavorting about.

In regard to Birds, Bali has over 300 species of birds, all introduced from elsewhere. You hear a lot of birds in Bali, but you do not see as many in the built up areas. There are a lot of tropical parrots and finches to be heard and seen. The best place to see all of the birds is at the Bali Bird Park, located in Central Bali.

There are also a large range of domestic animals kept by the Balinese. Again, you will hear them before you see them! The most noisy and common animal is the chicken, followed closely by dogs. They are everywhere in Bali.

The dogs are used as security and as mobile waste disposal units by the Balinese, and seem to do little except roam around all day, and bark all night to keep you awake. There is no real way to describe the dogs of Bali – mangy comes to mind. They are of medium height, and come in a range of colors. They are skinny and have floppy ears, which tends to give them a dopey look. They really don't give off a friendly, playful doggie (here rover fetch) demeanor, so you never feel like you would want to pat them. As a matter of fact, I never have.

The chickens tend to have more character than the dogs. Chickens and roosters are kept as pets here, as well as for eating purposes, and every Balinese compound would not be complete without them. I am not sure weather it is the chickens or the dogs that make the most noise.

Roosters are highly prized, as cock fighting is a very popular male gambling activity amongst the Balinese. Many Balinese men spend hours with their roosters, training and exercising them for the fights. Because the rooster is the pride of the household, particularly when he wins a lot of fights, he is given special status in the compound. This means he can get away with a few more things the other animals cannot. If you have the opportunity to visit a Balinese compound, you will earn high praise by asking to see the fighting roosters, and don't forget to check if the rooster that is attacking your foot is the fighting one before kicking it away.

No animal is more symbolic of Bali than the duck. The classic photo opportunity in Bali is the "Duck Parade". This is the scene where a Balinese rice farmer is walking along a rice padi wall, followed by a line of ducks. In the mans hand is a tall bamboo pole with a white flag on the top. Everywhere the flag goes, the ducks dutifully follow. The Duck Man leads the ducks to a rice field, plants the pole and the ducks happily jump in and feed all day. The ducks eat many insects that destroy the rice. As well, they stir up the floor of the padi, and add more fertilizer back!  At the end of the day, the duck man returns and the ducks obediently jump out and waddle off home. Ducks are also a food source.

Other domestic animals of the Balinese are the pig and the cow. The Balinese pigs are not one of the most beautiful creatures in the world – ok read plain ugly. Like the dogs, they are walking garbage cans, and often roam free through the compound, or have their own area. When allowed to roam free they sometimes think they are dogs, and more than one tourist has been surprised to feel something rubbing against their leg, and looked down to find 60kilos of pure ugliness and smell smiling up at them. I have even seen children going for a ride on the back of a pig – the children laughing madly, hanging grimly onto its ears, and kicking its flanks repeatedly to make it run faster. Not sure how the pig felt about this, but judging from the expression on its face, I could probably guess. Pigs are also used as a food source at festivals.

The cows are small, and are used to plough fields. They are not milked nor eaten. Although the Balinese are Hindu, they do not treat the cow as a sacred animal, as in India, and there is a strong market in the export of cows to Hong Kong for consumption.

The other domestic animal you will see are water buffalo, quite large beasts with long curled horns and a temperamental and stubborn attitude. Like cows, they are used for the ploughing of fields.

And like the ducks, they are an icon of Asian culture, and no traveler's photo album is complete without a picture of water buffalos at work, or wallowing in a water hole.

Environmental Challenges

Like every community in the world, Bali has its share of environmental challenges. These range all the way from agricultural (problems associated with high yield varieties of rice) to tourist (wastage, land loss, and sanitation) related.

Bali has been able in the past to support a large population based on intensive rice cultivation. In the past Bali was subject to periodic volcanic eruptions, droughts, pest plagues, and famines that kept the population in check.

However now it is subject to newer more difficult challenges than those experienced in the past:

Population Pressure. Health improvements and a growing tourist industry has led to a bigger population in Bali. The government has embarked on a successful family planning program that has seen Balinese family sizes reduced from the large numbers of a decade ago, to smaller families of 2 – 3 children. This has assisted in creating less stress on the islands infrastructure and cultivated land.

Effects of High Yield Rice Grains. The use of high yield rice grains has caused long-term sustainability problems. The high yield grains require more pesticides, which has killed off the frogs and eels that usually keep the insects under control. In addition, more crops has meant a different pattern of water distribution. This has led to an ongoing management problem still being dealt with.

Traffic Pollution and Congestion. The roads of Bali are not equipped for the number of motorbikes and cars currently using them, and there is nothing being done to reduce the chocking clouds of exhaust fumes in the major urban areas.

Solid Waste Management. There is no government policy in regard to the disposal of plastic bottles and bags. 

Land. There are problems regarding the rapid growth of urban areas onto agricultural land, because of the development of tourist hotels and developments. It is estimated that approximately 25 Hectares of cultivated land is lost each year to tourist development in Bali.

Water. Bali has a very large and extensive underground boar water system. All of the hotels and tourist developments are consuming water at an increasing rate, and there is concern that the boar water is being drained at such a rate that it cannot be replenished. This will mean a water shortage for some farmers, and for others a water supply that is salty, as salt leaches into the underground system.

Coral Reefs. The basic foundation material of buildings in Bali is coral. Building and construction in Bali is still booming as everyone tries to catch the tourist dollar. The more buildings being built means the more coral reef ecosystems destroyed.

Cultural. Many Balinese are angry at the way their culture has been commercialized for tourism. But they do understand why many people come here, and why they are attracted to their culture. There is a wide-ranging debate at present regarding the benefits of tourism verses the cultural costs amongst the Balinese.

The Balinese welcome and invite travelers to their shores. The issues here are the same ones that have plagued all island paradises since the beginning of time. There are no easy answers. The greatest joy here however is that these issues are now being publicly and openly discussed and debated. The greater the level of the debate, and the more stakeholders engaged, the more likely a workable model will be found.

I do believe that within a few years Bali will have developed a sustainability model, that seeks to preserve those things that travelers come here to see, and takes into account the needs of both the local Balinese and those that come here.

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