Organization of the Balinese Subak (Abstract)


Clifford Geertz



In the Island of Bali, each drainage basin has its own subak, or irrigation society. The subak is "in fact very much more: an agricultural planning unit, an autonomous legal corporation, and a religious community. Aside from house gardening, virtually everything having to do with cultivation lies within its purview."11 It operates under a system that today could be described as subsidiarity, relegating decision making and activities as much as possible to the village level.12 The bond between potentially rival villages has been the shared religion. "The begetter of order in this otherwise rather particulate social .eld is the temple system . . . The temple system provides both a simpli.ed model of Balinese social structure and a schoolroom in which kinds of attitudes and values necessary to sustain it are inculcated and celebrated."13 One of the three great temples, the Great Council Temple, holds an annual ceremony, which is the climax of lengthy preparations of representatives of the surrounding subaks. As Geertz observed, "the integrative force of this continual collective effort, as it moves from one social context to another, is the linchpin of the entire system."14 This common belief system sustains an explicit local customary law that is enforced through negotiations.15 Often the policies of the emerging regimes in the developing world, supported by Western scientists irreverent to "native" and "primitive" cultures and practices, shattered those ancient systems. The modern systems, however, have proved less ef.cient. Contemporary scientists and disillusioned governments have now discovered that this and similar religious rites in Benin, Bolivia, and Cambodia may be more ef.cient than modern command and control systems run by short-sighted central bureaucracy, and strive to reconstruct them wherever this is still possible. Since attempts to introduce modern strains of rice and fertilizers brought only environmental disaster, the Indonesian government has recently been trying to convince farmers to revert to the ancient Balinese "rice cult" noted so precisely by Geertz.




11  Geertz, "Organization of the Balinese Subak," p. 79.

12  Ibid.: "Theories of Űhydraulic despotismÝ to the contrary notwithstanding, water control in Bali was an overwhelmingly local and intensely democratic matter." The subak encompasses all owners of rice .elds irrigated by a single dam. Organization is based on a one-person one-vote system for electing the subak head and other of.cials who perform allocation, monitoring, and maintenance works (at pp. 80˝1).

13  Ibid., at p. 81. 

14  Ibid., at p. 88. 

15 I bid., at p. 81.


Organization of the Balinese Subak, in: Coward, E. Walter Jr. (ed.): Irrigation and agricultural development in Asia. Perspectives from the Social Science. Ithaca/N.Y./USA 1980: Cornell University Press, pp. 70-90


online source: Eyal Benvenisti: Sharing Transboundary Resources. International Law and Optimal Resource Use.


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