May 4, 2008 / 12:20 AM / 10 years ago

Golf courses, developers nibble at Asia's rice paddies

TANAH LOT, Indonesia (Reuters) - The tourists who tee off at this golf course on Bali’s west coast are probably unaware that the ground beneath their feet is connected to a global panic over rice supplies.

<p>Foreign tourists play golf surrounded by paddy fields at a resort in Bali April 18, 2008. REUTERS/Murdani Usman</p>

Once this golf course was a patchwork of rice fields. Now just a few remain, and villagers work as caddies or waiters at Le Meridien Nirwana resort and its Greg Norman-designed greens.

From Bali to Vietnam, rice paddies are being replaced by golf courses, hotels, villas and industrial parks as Asian economies surge ahead, the standard of living rises and locals opt for higher-paying, less labor-intensive work away from farming.

This shift has cut into rice production, a staple food throughout much of the region.

A recent surge in rice prices to historic highs has sparked fears of political unrest in some parts of Asia and highlighted the dilemma faced by Asian governments about how to balance economic growth with food security in the future.

“The call from Malaysia to Indonesia to China is ‘return to the land and be a farmer again’,” said Song Seng Wun, regional economist at CIMB-GK Research in Singapore.

“The lesson is, food security is important, but people have forgotten that in their rush to industrialise. Longer term, they have to focus on the fact that all these people have to be fed.”

In Bali, hotels and other property projects are nibbling away at the picture-postcard rice paddy terraces. Total harvested area for rice, which peaked at nearly 182,000 hectares in 1980, has fallen to 145,000 hectares, the agriculture ministry says.

“I don’t want any more villas here because if all the land is used for villas, there won’t be enough for rice,” said I Ketut Cuet, who farms rice on the outskirts of Ubud, in Bali.

YOUTH SEE NO FUTURE IN FARMING

Stunning rice paddy views are a part of Bali’s appeal as a tourist destination. Last year, foreign tourists contributed about $5.3 billion to Indonesia’s economy, with Bali attracting the lion’s share, or about 40 percent, of all visitors to the country.

But with tourism forming one of the main economic drivers on this Indonesian island, many Balinese are abandoning the back-breaking work for better-paid, easier jobs. Some Balinese farmers now prefer to hire cheaper labour from the neighbouring island of Java to work in their rice fields.

The change is not surprising. Rice farmers spend long hours standing in muddy water, bent double as they plant, tend or harvest their crops.

“Farming is not a good life. You work hard and make a low profit compared with other jobs, for example in tourism,” said Wayan Sugita, a farmer in Canggu, western Bali, who has worked in his family’s rice fields all his life.

He fears that when he grows old, his own children won’t want to take over the fields, which have been in his family for generations.

“Because of the low profit, the younger generation don’t want to be farmers any more.”

Benchmark Thai rice prices have risen nearly threefold to above $1,000 per tonne this year. Yet it is mainly middlemen, such as traders and millers, who are best placed to profit from the increase: farmers rarely reap the benefits as fertiliser prices have gone through the roof cutting into their profits.

In Bali’s Badung district, which includes the popular tourist areas of Kuta, Nusa Dua and Seminyak, the local government said it plans to preserve certain areas for rice production and restrict property development.

Rice isn’t just food but an important element of Balinese culture: it is still grown using complex irrigation methods and a centuries-old co-operative system known as subak. Balinese make rice offerings to the household gods each morning, and to the rice goddess Dewi Sri during the crop cycle.

FOOD SECURITY AND GOLF

Nearby in the Philippines, the government, alarmed by its inability to feed a fast-growing population, has ordered a halt to the conversion of farmland to other uses.

The Philippines, the world’s largest importer of rice, has been hit hard by the surge in rice prices.

It has set a goal to become self-sufficient by 2011 although some experts say the rising population, currently over 88 million and growing over 2 percent a year, poor productivity and a lack of river deltas mean it is unlikely that the Philippines will be able to meet all its rice needs.

Near Bali’s Tanah Lot, golfers are advised to aim clear of rice fields flanking fairways that overlook Pura Tanah Lot, a Hindu temple perched on a rocky outcrop that’s cut off from land at high tide and guarded by poisonous sea snakes.

“A creek running in front guards the approach shot, rice paddies left and wetlands short. The well-contoured green must be accurately read to walk away with par,” explains the course instructions for the third hole.

Golf courses such as this one have torn up paddy fields from Indonesia, to Malaysia, Thailand and even China where Beijing added them to a list of “banned land usages” in 2006.

Yet hotel resorts and golf courses are not the only threat to farmland and Asia’s ability to feed itself in the future.

Vietnam’s government wants to speed up economic development, using industrial parks to attract foreign investment.

Since 2000, Vietnam has built about 40 industrial parks using 10,500 hectares of the Mekong Delta rice basket and has earmarked a further 40,000 hectares of this area for industrial use over the next three years -- still, just a small fraction of the 7.2 million hectares planted with rice in that area last year.

But with Vietnam’s annual inflation hitting 21.4 percent in April -- the highest in the region, partly due to surging food prices -- Hanoi needs to address land use and food security issues, economists warn. Other governments should follow suit, they say.

Part of the problem, says ING economist Tim Condon, is that the market for staples such as rice needs to be more open in order to curb big price swings.

“With rice, so little is traded internationally that a small increase in demand leads to the price going up sharply,” he said.

Further improvements could come from using better seed varieties and fertilisers, and by switching to more efficient farming methods, for instance by moving to large-scale farming as in the United States and Brazil, some economists said.

Asia’s population is forecast to reach around 4.6 billion by 2020, from around 4 billion currently, according to United Nations figures, leading to higher rice consumption even as development and industrialisation whittle away the available farmland.

For this reason, some experts think the soaring rice price may be a blessing in disguise as this might force policy makers to make much-needed changes in the way rice is cultivated and distributed in the region.

“The whole world is interested in the agriculture sector now so maybe this will be a catalyst for more efficient farming,” said CIMB-GK’s Song.

“Perhaps this will eventually open up new opportunities for farmers, a period of greater prosperity.”

Additional reporting by Mita Valina Liem in Jakarta, Lucy Hornby in Beijing, Manny Mogato in Manila, and Ho Binh Minh in Hanoi; Editing by Megan Goldin

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