Subak - irrigation

Short Summary

In order to irrigate their fields, Balinese farmers must solve a complex coordination problem due to the nature of pest outbreaks and water shortages. They have done so using systems of religious ritual and actions organized by specific groups of farmers on specific dates—called Subak. Although there is no centralized authority dictating or coordinating outcomes, the system works exceedingly well.

Location: Bali

Jatiluwih Rice Terraces source


Balinese rice farmers face two difficult challenges in coordinating the behaviors of dozens of farmers: planting at different times and harvesting at the same time. Their faithfulness to traditional religious rituals has been effective in meeting this challenge.

"The temple networks [in Bali] are fragile, vulnerable to the cross-currents produced by competition among male descent groups. But the feminine rites of water temples mirror the farmers' awareness that when they act in unison, small miracles of order occur regularly, as the jewel-like perfection of the rice terraces produces general prosperity. Much of this is barely visible from within the horizons of Western social theory." (J. Stephen Lansing)

Anthropologist J. Stephen Lansing writes that the rituals are not simply rooted in religious conservatism, but are a social/cultural means of coordinating farmers to plant rice at different times in the season (to avoid water shortages) but to harvest rice at the same time (to minimize pests proliferating). As Lansing explains in his book Perfect Order, Subak irrigation re-emerged in the 1980s as the failures of Western industrial agriculture became apparent. He describes how the dysfunctional technological interventions of the Green Revolution introduced costly complications that no institution or experts could master:

"Farmers easily fell into a routine of purchasing 'technology packets' and selling their crops for cash, which could be used to purchase consumer goods such as motorcycles. But it turned out that there were hidden environmental costs. Rice pests soon acquired resistance to pesticides. The agricultural service responded by prescribing more pesticides. Within a few years resistant pests such as the brown leafhopper were devastating rice crops, in some areas consuming the entire harvest. While the extension service turned to aerial pesticide-spraying campaigns, the farmers found a more effective solution by returning to the old system of coordinated region-wide fallow periods, organized by water temples. Pesticide usage declined, but meanwhile it was becoming apparent that the technology packets were triggering another major environmental crisis. The fertilizer contained in these packets included phosphate and potassium, minerals that are naturally abundant in the volcanic soil of Bali. Monsoon rains falling on the island leach these nutrients from the soil, and irrigation canals continuously transport them to the rice paddies. The result is a very efficient hydroponic system of fertilization, which in the past enabled the farmers to grow crops in the same fields for centuries without harming the land. But this natural system of fertilization was ignored by the designers of the 'technology packets.'"

YOUTUBE h9ozS8BKUFI J. Steven Lansing describes the Subak system

YOUTUBE g_9N0e4B2FU Short documentary about Subak irrigation


Balinese farmers have clearly developed shared purpose & values in governing their rice commons. A big part of this derives from separating their commons from commercial imperatives, particularly those marketed by Western agriculture. Subak practices have relationalized property by showing that each farmers' success is linked to coordination with other farmers, and then enacting this agreement through religious rituals at water temples. What the West may see as the "merely religious" amounts to a form of social governance in this context. The value is not generated and secured through markets or the state, but through the peer coordination of the farmers themselves. As a scholar of complexity theory, J. Stephen Lansing regards the Subak system as a decentralized, agent-driven system of effective governance. It successfully protects and extends value sovereignty.


As a system driven by social practice and tradition, Subak has no direct financial or monetary costs.

Origin Story

Subak practices to help manage rice planting and irrigation have been around for generations in Bali (at least as far back as the 12th century), but they were marginalized in the 1960s when the Green Revolution introduced "miracle" rice varieties, pesticides and fertilizers. In the face of "modern" rice farming methods, farmers preserved their traditional religious rituals at water temples as part of their cultivation practices.

See Also

  • Other commons categories that are related to this one's, or specific similar examples