Multi level governance in the Subak and Panglima Laot management systems

During our visit to the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Dr. Andrew Wardell talked to the class about his work on multi-level governance. The main focus of his presentation was the regulation of forest resources, but the concepts he explored are useful for understanding any environmental issues involving multiple dimensions of power relations, including state and non-state actors. We have seen such governance issues already in this class when we examined the Subaks in Bali and the management system of the Panglima Laot in Pulau Weh, both of which are cases of local informal law serving to regulate environmental resources that also operate within a larger context of power relations.

The Subak system of water management exists across the island of Bali, involving both very small scale governance by participatory democracy within each Subak, and a higher level of governance by coordination between individual Subaks. Both of these levels are relatively small and lacking in power compared to higher levels of the state government and the influence of systemic economic factors. Furthermore, since the power of the Subaks is exercised within the system that relies on the land ownership of the farmers, the interactions with levels of state governance and formal policy are mainly related to the effects on economic factors on farmer income and land ownership.

Wardell posed the question of comparing the worth of development by participating in global markets to the alternative value of growth within more localized markets, which have the potential to create more stability, food security, and sustainability. This is exactly what the Subaks have done for rice production in Bali prior to their integration with global markets and the increased allocation of land to the tourist economy. Wardell questioned the assumption that small scale systems of governance were inherently better than larger scale management, but in the case of the Subaks there is demonstrable evidence that the community based system works better than any existing government efforts to regulate water resources. Since the green revolution and the introduction of new rice, rice farmers face different economic pressures to produce more rice for sale and export. While the Subaks developed as an adaptive system and have continued to develop adaptations to changing circumstances, these external changes are a serious threat to local autonomy.

The efforts of UNESCO to preserve the Subaks represent a higher level of power being exercised by an international non-state organization in the interests of preserving small-scale systems of governance and resource management. The creation of a land trust to protect Subak land from development and the commitment of UNESCO to involving the farmers in the process should allow for the expansion of the power of the involved Subaks when in conflict with more economically powerful actors. However, Wardell pointed out that in Indonesia, regardless of government regulations and the actions of NGOs to protect local land rights, major economic interests tend to be able to trump all other levels of governance when there is a lot of money to be made, so even protection by the United Nations cannot provide any assurance that local autonomy will not be completely disrupted or that the government will uphold the authority of a land trust.

In the case of the Panglima Laot, their autonomy is not threatened in the same way as the Subaks, but their power still intersects with other levels of governance. The Panglima Laot exercise power over fishing activities within their individual jurisdictions. Interactions between Panglima Laot are also to informal traditional law. There is interest by the provincial government in officially sanctioning the authority of the Panglima Laot through formal law, but the process has been slow. In the meantime, their authority over fishing activities remains largely uncontested, and in some cases supersedes property rights. The Panglima Laot have the authority to seize control of or destroy the property of fishers who are in violation of their rules and yet the intersection of this power with that of the formal legal system does not seem to be a source of conflict.

It is unclear exactly what explains the smoother functioning and integration with other levels of power seen in the case of the Panglima Laot in Pulau Weh compared to the Subaks in Bali, but it seems to be the product of external factors rather than the intrinsic nature of these local management systems. Bali has a much greater population density than Pulau Weh and there is a greater integration of the local economy with external actors, both through global markets and through tourism. This increased involvement of higher power actors is central to the increased complexity of governance and the associated problems faced by the Subaks in Bali.

-Nick Butler-Lapointe

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