Wet Rice Cultivation and the Kayanic Peoples of East Kalimantan: Some Possible Factors Explaining Their Preference for Dry Rice Cultivation (1). (Research Notes)

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In Kalimantan, as in other Indonesian islands, wet rice cultivation has been encouraged by government policy, which often equates dry rice cultivation with "traditional", "extensive", "wasteful of land", whereas wet rice cultivation is equated with "modern", "intensive", "productive", and "rational". Inland groups in Kalimantan, so-called "Dayaks", are considered to be dry rice cultivators and are under pressure to switch from dry to wet rice cultivation. In fact, however, many Kalimantan inlanders, including Kayanic groups of East Kalimantan among whom I conducted anthropological research for two and half years (1996-8), have a knowledge of both dry and wet rice cultivation. Among Kalimantan groups, the Lun Dayeh (or Apo Duat group) (2) are, in addition, known as being traditional wet rice cultivators. Moreover, the Lun Dayeh are not alone, and wet rice cultivation, at least in the form of "rawa" or "swamp rice farming", has been reported among a number of Borneo swiddeners, for example, the Iban, Land Dayak , Kantu', Maloh, and others (see Pringle 1970, Sather 1980, Wadley 1997, Low 1848, Dove 1980, Seavoy 1973, King 1985). There is, however, little detailed discussion of such cultivation. This may reflect not only ideological factors but also the fact that wet rice cultivation is often carried out on a small scale and is frequently secondary to dry rice cultivation for many of those who practice it. Several recent studies challenge the view that dry rice cultivation is "primitive" and historically precedes wet rice cultivation. Instead, rice agriculture, as practiced in Kalimantan and in other parts of Island Southeast Asia, using both dry and wet fields, has been described as the remains, or characteristic feature, of an ancient Asian rice agricultural system, which itself is the result of adaptation to the varied and special environmental circumstances of Southeast Asia (for example, see Watabe 1983, 1993, Tanaka 1991). Characteristic of this agricultural system, wet rice fields are cultivated in a similar way to dry rice fields, without tillage except for puddling (3) (regarding the details of these types of rice farming, see later).

In this paper, I will first describe Kayanic wet rice cultivation and outline its characteristics. I will then speculate as to why Kayanic people prefer dry rice over wet rice cultivation, although they appear to have practiced the latter since the time they lived in the Kayan basin, for some 350 years. There are several obvious reasons for this preference, including environmental and technological constraints, but here I wish to stress historical and cultural factors.

First, before beginning our discussion, it is necessary to mention some terminological problems. To clarify the differences that exist between different types of wet rice cultivation in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world, I shall use here Schneeberger's terminology and distinguish between "ladang", "rawa", and "sawah cultivation" (1979:46-53). "Ladang" or dry field cultivation is so-called slash-and-burn and is widely practiced in interior Borneo. "Rawa" cultivation involves the utilization of natural swamps or wetlands with or without control of water-levels by the use of dykes and is practiced, as noted above, by a number of Borneo groups, including Kayanic people. "Sawah" is the most elaborate form with developed irrigation systems, that is, dykes, water conduits, reservoirs, and so on, as seen among the Lun Dayeh, Javanese, in mainland Southeast Asia, and also in East and South Asia. Here we need to refine these distinctions further.

The principal difference between rawa and sawah fields is, in fact, not just irrigation but rather the total system of the water regulation, that is, the techniques used to control water impoundment in the field. These techniques consist of three main elements: leveling (to make the field bed flat, so as to keep the water-level equal, involving usually tilling, puddling, or trampling), bunding (to surround the field with dykes), and inundating (to fill the field with water, not only rain water, but water supplied by a constant source). …