Ritual as Feedback in Bali
The unique social and ecological nature of regional watersheds was the focus of a mesmerising presentation by Stephen Lansing at last month’s poptech conference in Iceland. His key point: Bali’s subak water management system is a “coupled social-ecological system”.
Balinese farmers have been growing rice in terraces since at least the eleventh century. Because the island’s volcanic rock is rich in mineral nutrients, water running off mountains fills the rice paddies to create a kind of aquarium.This system has enabled farmers to grow two crops of rice a year year for centuries. They do this using a unique form of cooperative agriculture that enables farming to flourish despite water scarcity and the constant threat of disease and pests.
Rice planting and water allocation is coordinated by subaks; these bring together all of the farmers who share water from a single source – such as a spring, or an irrigation canal. The subaks adjust cropping patterns cooperatively in order to achieve fallow periods over sufficiently large areas to minimize dispersal of pests.
Irrigation, in this context, is not just a matter of delivering water to a plant’s roots. The rice terraces are hydrologically connected to each other, so the farmers have had to solve a complex coordination problem: who gets to use how much water, when, and how. A complex, ‘pulsed’ artificial ecosystem has evolved over generations in which the allocation of water is adjudicated by a priest in a water temple. The arrangement is a dynamic one; cooperation is continuous among hundreds of farmers whose relationships span entire watersheds.
“There is a complex adaptive systems explanation for water temples” Lansing explains, “but also a complex cultural one”. (Lansing has been studying irrigated rice agriculture in Bali for 40 years, but is also is associated with the Santa Fe Institute where his interests include ‘ecological anthropology’).”The temples are more than just a kind of mathematical device”, he explains; “a great deal of attention is devoted to symbolic ritual activities such as food offerings, prayers to deities, and elaborate pilgrimages.