The downpour that began in the early hours of the morning continued as we climbed out of the vans to explore Lodtunduh subak. The subak system is a water distribution method that has been used in Bali for thousands of years. Our group walked down a narrow mud path stopping in spurts to discuss the canal running alongside us. We then proceeded to explore the subak on foot, walking single file down grass pathways separating the rice paddies. We navigated the slippery trails and arrived back at the compound to further discuss the intricacies of the subak organization.
The Lodtunduh subak has 60 active farmers. All of the decisions made regarding the inner workings of the subak require unanimous consent. This means that the 60 farmers gather in the small cement room that we all huddled into, to make decisions regarding water distribution for each farmer. If one farmer requests additional water for their area of land, the subak as a whole decides whether this request will be granted. The Balinese refer to this water transfer as ‘borrowing,’ but this term differs from the American understanding of borrowing, which involves incurring debt. When a member of the subak requests water, the council deliberates, and the request is typically granted. However, the farmer who has been granted the additional water does not then owe the subak any debt. Rather, the transfer builds social capital between the farmers. The farmer who has received additional water will then offer the same help to a fellow subak member.
This exchange led many people in the class to ask about the formal structure in place to keep people from cheating the system. For instance–what is there to stop one farmer from diverting additional water to their land without telling the other subak members? This question puzzled Professor Wyndia and illustrated a fundamental difference in the thinking of Americans and Indonesians. The subak members were confused as to why someone would choose to cheat when they could get what they needed simply by asking. As a class we were thinking about the subak as a profit driven farming technique rather then a lifestyle focused relationships and harmony.
The subak system demonstrates harmony between man and man, man and nature and man and g-d. The council of subak members, who deliberate to reach a mutually acceptable consensus, illustrates the relationship between men. The relationship between man and nature is illustrated by the care and attention that each farmer accords to his land and water. The relationship between man and g-d is highlighted in the importance of the temple and the religious rituals of the farmers. The sustainability of the subak system makes it an attractive example for study and replication in other contexts. One barrier to implementing a subak-like structure in the US is the exclusion of religion from all aspects of public life. For a subak-like structure to function in the US the religious aspect of the subak would need to be substituted with another equally powerful force. One suggestion offered as a substitute was patriotism. Rather then relying on the emotional pull of the g-ds, relying on patriotism to inspire people to join a subak structure could be an interesting experiment.