Right Scale, Resilient Watersheds

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31 minutes of reading

What does the group of Wall Street trad­ers focused on banks of computer screens have in common with the wa­tershed communities of South America’s Gran Chaco, the second largest ecosystem on the continent; the priests of Bali, where some of the ear­liest evidence of irrigation used in rice cultivation is found; the Arctic Circle’s indigenous communities of herders and hunters; and National Heritage Areas? A great deal.

They all (1) evaluate information in much the same ways (scale, timeliness, credibility, action, risk, and uncertainty); (2) act both tactically and within a large-scale vision; and (3) serve others outside their own group.

However, the Bali, Arctic, and Gran Chaco groups go further in considering the outcomes of their man­agement practices because any mistake they make will have direct consequences for their individual lives and for the lives of their communities.

Bali’s large-scale rice production system has pro­duced high yields with low inputs for nearly one thousand years. The Arctic indigenous peoples’ resource man­agement system has operated sustainably for count­less centuries. In the Gran Chaco, the rivers’ shifts have fostered complex, cooperative behaviors that are organized to benefit multiple communities.

In contrast, traders in the global financial sys­tem—another large-scale, complex system—have crashed routinely with devastating consequences for both themselves and far too many of those served. The transferable management lessons learned from the Gran Chaco, Bali, and the Arctic could be highly con­sequential for global financial markets. Fundamental survival can be a great motivator when developing su­perior life-support systems. It is here that indigenous peoples excel. They use shared values.

Let’s explore. In the Gran Chaco, the Guarani and others see great value in social network systems that link the energy of diverse people and cultures across landscapes.[1] Their management methods are continu­ous observation and data exchange, and are often em­bodied in “case studies” featuring principals like Fox Walker. Fox Walker is a survivalist who shifts shape as readily as any serious investor in a turbulent market.

Who walks like the Fox? According to the Guarani peoples of the Gran Chaco’s Parapeti and Pilcomayo River basins, he is an ideal manager and culture hero because he is astute, intelligent, and stalked by dan­ger but never conquered. His principal scene of ac­tion is the present world; his role is that of a surviv­alist adapting to the moment, capable of reading and writing, riding horses, hunting birds, stalking the jag­uar, and using GPS. He is a radical transformer, rule breaker, and commander of frontiers. He fractures norms and patterns while simultaneously reinforcing them. Sometimes, if need be, the Fox is an audacious liar. He bridges time and space in ways that evoke risk and uncertainty. He is a clever adaptive manager.

The Fox of today is fulfilling his role as ideal man­ager and cunning survivalist by trying to maintain the Parapeti ecosystem’s state of equilibrium. When adapting to new towns, outside developers, investors, or new settlers and their alien ways, he does not lose his identity but goes forward like the unbounded and smart rule breaker and maker that he is. One can see Fox Walker both successfully running the rapids of the winding, shifting, elusive rivers of the Gran Chaco and Bali, and coursing through the channels of Wall Street.

What follows is management advice from the Gran Chaco, Bali, and the Arctic, where co-management of resources based on right scale and widely shared sys­tems of thinking and acting—if pursued—benefit both the wily and the wise.

Scale: Right Scale

Successful natural-systems management means operating at right scale, where the best boundaries are defined by direct observation, rapid networked infor­mation exchange, flexibility in response, and trans­parency among all agents. Often this equates with recognizing and operating within natural-systems boundaries such as watersheds, mountainsides, and high plains areas.

This type of management, recently named net­work governance, is done highly effectively in Bali, in the Arctic, and with growing ability in the Gran Chaco. It can be observed in the success of National Heritage Areas in the United States as well. It relies on a set of operating nodes located within the boundaries of nat­ural systems that bring together for comparison the latest information from highly experienced observers, time-tested evaluators, and open forums with an acute willingness to solve the problem in the most respect­ful way possible. This does not eliminate conflict but does make it much less severe. Analyses of incoming real-time data are assessed against historical empirical knowledge of the river systems’ behaviors in regu­larly scheduled and highly nuanced dialogues.

According to Innes and Booher, there are four key aspects of network governance:[2]

1. Reciprocity: sustained collaboration results from collective dialogue, in which the rela­tionships themselves are the incentive to act in concert with others.

2. Collaborative not competitive behavior: the relationships aid multi-faceted problem def­inition.

3. Opportunities for learning: relationships with actors in multiple sectors result throughout the system, unlike in a more con­trolled, hierarchical, top-down approach.

4. Creativity and flexibility: networked local governance encourages information richness, especially when managing complex natural systems like watersheds.

Let’s look more closely at some examples of right-scale resource management using network gover­nance nodes. On an island of 5,633 square kilometers, the Balinese have constructed a dense and redundant network of “managing” temples that are strategically placed at each level and node of the watersheds’ com­plex irrigation systems. These have provided farmers with an information platform on which to coordinate three key variables: cropping patterns, water flows, and pest management. Farmers are organized into subaks, Balinese farmers’ associations, with leaders who represent them at the temple. This compares to the Gran Chaco knowledge-network systems across the 261,000 square kilometers of Pilcomayo and Para­peti River basins in southern Bolivia and northern Argentina. Currently, the mix of outside, inside, local, and global knowledge about these vast river systems remains uncoordinated and therefore impossible to use in the same way that both the Balinese farmer/priests with their rice output and Wall Street traders with their revenue generation do to maximize their ef­forts.



This nodal coordination in Bali has been accom­plished by leaders who form a core of managers who are embedded in temples and who have acted as scale-free nodal points since the eleventh century. At the temples, collaboration and negotiation are disciplined and routine, consolidating results of regular meetings of subak farmers, which represent the filtering of de­tailed direct observation. The planning process finds subak heads meeting once a year to decide on a highly changeable yet coherent cropping pattern—adaptive planning at its best.

There was and is no central control of this Bali­nese system. It is not dictatorial, linear, or hierarchi­cal. Each subak and temple manages its own irriga­tion works, taxation, and labor force with intensive communication among the networked actors. This institutional arrangement of farmers’ water temples facilitates coordination and yet needs no formal en­forcement power (such as the threat of force or ostra­cism) or strong central authority. Each cooperating farmer has maximum yield as an incentive to seek and therefore to follow whatever advice and feedback is collectively determined; however, the temple system’s tight cooperative relationships does not mean that it functions as a free-market system.[3]



In the vast ecosystem that is the Gran Chaco, this type of intricate understanding of shared resources and watershed management is just emerging. There, local peoples realize that it is their active participation in gathering and sharing information among them­selves and with the public and government that will help ensure their long-term control of the river system they rely on for life and livelihood. For example, in addition to their environmental indicator monitoring work, a ninety percent participation level in gathering socioeconomic data in the Upper Parapeti has helped to make the population’s livelihood patterns and their dependence on the natural river and forest more comprehensible to the government and others.[4]

Similar to Bali’s farmers, Gran Chaco’s indigenous peoples are intimately connected to the river’s behav­ior. For example, as soon as the seasonally dry river­bed fills with water, the leaders of river communities meet to determine how principal irrigation canals will be cleaned. These meetings are particularly important for the Isoso tributary because they involve families of Upper and Lower Isoso and thereby celebrate the community’s enjoyment of life together, while they also remind everyone of the rules, oppositions, and shared origins of the Isoso, which unite them.[5]

The local NGO Yangareko has nurtured nodal re­lations between the flat territory downriver in indig­enous Isoso and the upriver territory of rural farming communities in the sharply dissected Andean foot­hills, where the Parapeti begins its journey. Upriver, Yangareko shared technical information and assisted in organizing communities to consolidate their own lo­cal watershed committees. This NGO is now working with those local civil society committees and the four­teen local governments (counties) with jurisdictions along the Parapeti to form the Parapeti Watershed Management Group that will share local informa­tion and encourage management up and down river. This cooperation will ensure that this valuable local resource continues to be available to everyone living along the river. The details of collaboration across the fourteen counties are being explored through discus­sions among the parties as they adapt to the changing policy environment in Bolivia.

The ongoing professional assistance of small NGOs like Yangareko is producing small networked systems of rural people whose confidence in assessing and communicating local conditions to governmental decision-makers and outside investors is beginning to act to prevent further impoverishment and other threats to biodiversity in Bolivia and Argentina. The small local NGOs that are learning from each other in­clude Yangareko, AgroXXI, Fundación para la Gestión e Investigación Regional (FUNGIR), Gran Chaco, and Proteger. (For more information, see https://www.iucn.org/es/content/cuenca-del-plata-y-el-gran-chaco-new-website.) Similar collabora­tion between small NGOs and peoples’ citizen associations grounded with local roots can be found in Ne­pal, India, Indonesia, Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Namibia, Cameroon, and other countries. However, unlike large international NGOs that actively seek publicity, these smaller NGOs tend to operate beneath the radar. While limited and in need of replication at key water-management points, these ad hoc successes have created a starting point from which to create a wider network of linked man­agement nodes that could transform river basin man­agement in the magnificent Gran Chaco ecosystem.

Timeliness: Direct Observation and Rapid Response

The intricate management systems highlighted in the last section show relationships that are intelligent and have evolved to work to the best interest of those operating within natural-systems boundaries. Rates of response to observed changes are rapid, and, as with the fabled Japanese quality assurance approach, in­controvertible change is immediately shared for wider understanding and application. This same pattern of rapid response and action also characterizes trading operations around the world.

For the past seven years, indigenous observations from a timely, sophisticated, and comprehensive riv­er-monitoring system composed of more than sixty local monitors in the Gran Chaco have been consistently en­tered into a GIS system and overlaid onto satellite imagery of the Pilcomayo River during different flood stages. This enables highly accurate and well-timed updates to the GIS ecosystem model, which is used to project flooding patterns from the Pilcomayo River tributary network. The Gran Cha­co’s communities call on more recent technological tools and partners available through FUNGIR, which serves as the articulator, assisting in interpretation and projection of future scenarios.

These local managers are also joined by people working for the national weather services of Argen­tina, Bolivia, and Paraguay; the Trinational Commis­sion of Pilcomayo; the Argentine and Brazilian Space Agencies; United States Geological Survey and Na­tional Aeronautics and Space Administration; and the Formosan provincial water authority. This creates a new scale, expanded both horizontally and vertically, that, in a sense, models the smaller nodal network seen in Bali.

This type of highly effective use of network systems and governance is also employed by many Arctic in­digenous peoples. Constant observation of landscape, animal movement, and plant appearances are embed­ded in routine conversations that culminate in timely major regional decisions made at routine larger gath­erings. These occur at least once a year and, depending on urgency, up to four times a year. At the same time, meetings with representatives from international in­stitutions, national agencies, and other groups have been systematically undertaken, incorporating the advice and observations from the Arctic indigenous peoples’ traditional systems into outside bodies. At­tentive and astute explanations are filtered through a local lens for relevance before being passed on.

It is difficult to deny the similarities to the Wall Street traders who are engaged in constant, intensive monitoring across a variety of inputs, using sophisti­cated evaluation systems, and relying on information from a host of outside sources. But the highly contex­tual, nuanced changes in localized settings are simply not available for review and analysis. Even adding data from local market monitors can be in error when compared with farmers’ directly observed and intense experiences.

Credibility: Tools and Trust

In recent times, the resilience and strength of the ancient Balinese system has been demonstrated twice: once, when the Dutch attempted to combine the origi­nally separate irrigation and taxation systems, result­ing in conflict and reduced revenues, and, most re­cently, with the Green Revolution’s forced program of prescriptive rice varieties and chemical inputs, rather than reliance on the time-tested intrinsic value of farmers’ network governance.

Any top-down control—whether from the inside or the outside—has not improved on the Balinese system of rice production. This was the case with both Dutch colonial bureaucratic controls and the Green Revolu­tion’s imposition of untried, outside seed varietals. Long-term farmer “testing” and proven indigenous system that resulted in the flexible, multi-scale food security system allowed a nuanced understanding of the intricate interplay of water flows and pest manage­ment—the two key elements affecting sustained high yields.

The wave of European colonization in the nine­teenth century urbanized land and commercialized production of several Balinese cash crops including rice, tea, and opium. Because rice was a large source of government income, the Dutch were moved to try to improve the flexible Balinese system by imposing their own comparatively rigid bureaucracy on the manage­ment of water, rice, and taxation. This simpleminded imposition of an outside system of irrigation did not recognize the complexity of the sociobiophysical sys­tems of rice production.



The rice production system destabilized when the Dutch colonials mismanaged the overlay of irriga­tion and taxation networks. Under the outside Dutch authority, village heads had nominal authority over both irrigation and agriculture, and collected agricul­tural taxes through the temple system. But since an­cient times, the irrigation systems and water temple networks typically extended beyond the boundaries of village administrative units and were a much more accurate measure of total water availability. This mis­match of water, rice, and taxes created a great deal of conflict and was corrected only when the brief colo­nial era ended, at which time village heads lost any administrative role in irrigation and became responsible solely for collecting taxes.

This institutional framework allowed the Dutch to transform rice into a cash crop and begin exportation. When Bali gained its independence in 1950, the coun­try continued on a path toward development based on the bureaucratic capitalism of their colonizers and did not return to the decentralized ways of the pre-colonial era. Consequently, the irrigation bureaucracy that altered traditional Balinese society provided an accommodating framework within which the Green Revolution could operate.

Paralleling what the Dutch had attempted many years earlier, the Green Revolution was an attempt to convert rice from a subsistent crop into a cash crop. However, the engineers of the colonial age had little technology to offer, whereas the Green Revolution of­fered new agricultural technology such as chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and new breeds of “miracle rice” in a fifty-four-million-dollar modernization scheme for Balinese water temples. This large-scale develop­ment project began at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines and was implemented in Indonesia in 1967. The program, known as Massive Guidance, furnished new agronomic practices to farm­ers.[6] In Bali, the Bali Irrigation Project was launched in 1979 by the Asian Development Bank in order to improve the performance of irrigation systems while disregarding the practical oversight and coordination role of water temples.[7] J. Stephen Lansing writes:

The Green Revolution approach assumed that all agricultural information was purely techni­cal and that production would be optimized if everyone planted high-yielding varieties of rice as often as they could. In contrast, Balinese temple priests and farmers argued that the wa­ter temples were necessary to coordinate cropping patterns so that there would be enough ir­rigation water for everyone and to reduce pests by coordinating fallow periods.[8]

The bureaucratic procedures that changed irri­gation patterns and cropping cycles undermined the water temple system of Bali, which led to the demise of this outside, top-down program. While the first few years brought greater harvests, Massive Guidance quickly led farmers’ rice production into ecological collapse. The lack of crop rotation and natural planting cycles resulted in less productive fields and the use of chemicals and pesticides backfired as the insects that controlled infestation of the brown plant hopper were killed and hundreds of acres of rice crop were lost.

Besides this agricultural destruction, there were sociocultural consequences of the exclusion of the wa­ter temple system as managing agent. The temples’ in­herent social organization, which combines farmers, priests, village heads, and others, actively maintains rice terrace ecology. Sustained high rice yields are fi­nal proof of the temples as nodes that synchronize the productive activities of very large numbers of farmers.

It was this combined force of people from the wa­ter temple nodal network who convinced the Balinese government that their subak system was superior to the management system of the Green Revolution. Not only did the outside system reduce yields, it also in­creased costs to farmers by requiring repeat purchase of hybrid rice, pesticides, and fertilizers, along with new machinery. Two additional dire outcomes were a loss of self-generating seeds, whose genetic material cannot be replaced once lost, and the loss of wildlife in the paddies, which is a good indication of soil decline. Finally, using specialized hybrids means breeders are faced with constant replacement as long-term production declines; this has been documented in all Green Revolution sites around the world.[9]

In South America, the peoples of the Gran Chaco are now rapidly moving toward interlinked manage­ment of their river systems. The Gran Chaco peoples have both practical and technically documented expe­rience with their shifting rivers. This experience takes into account the difficulty of fully controlling both the topography and changeable water flows, as well as the annual flooding that enables fish migration upriver and dumps silt downstream as the water spreads out on to the plains to create valuable wetlands where fish grow to maturity. The people’s flexibility in respond­ing to movable landscapes has been nurtured by their unique resilience to flood and drought conditions. Once again, as in Bali, this fluid shifting is done with little cost to either regional trade or local economies. Like Fox Walker, the peoples of the Gran Chaco are survivalists who shift shape as the rivers’ waters re­quire.

Going beyond those in Bali, these indigenous peo­ples have at their command high-tech reporting tools, as well as more traditional methods of reporting. In addition to GIS and satellite systems, they have zon­ing plans and maps; analyses of vegetation, hydrology, soils, topography, and climate data; and socioeconom­ic data gathered at the household and community lev­els. This kind of detailed demographic information is gathered directly from families, then discussed by the community, and then shared with the government; without the families’ efforts it would not be available. But unlike the case in Bali, the resulting guidance is not imposed through an outsider’s massive guidance program; this citizen-generated information has been used in discussions with the national government on forest policy and in land-use definitions with the Ar­gentine Supreme Court.

As a result, not only do we have credible, tech­nically based recommendations to clearly show the kinds of impacts possible, but these are often project­able system-wide in the newly shared language of in­digenous communities, local landowners, and global development and technical professionals.

Like the priests of the Balinese temple system, NGOs in the Gran Chaco “accompany” local commu­nities and governments as they make decisions but do not act as executors of the projects; instead, they act as distant advisers, encouraging communities’ continu­ous learning, as well as providing on-demand techni­cal backup for their decisions. This skillful approach ensures that local peoples’ keen observations and in­sights are recorded as perceived by them and not in an outside and, perhaps, less nuanced way.

In 2003, FUNGIR began acting as a critical node by training local environmental monitors who were networked to each other and able to engage the gov­ernment, while at the same time assisting local com­munities to improve their livelihoods and enabling them to access assistance for ecologically appropriate devel­opment activities. For example, socioeconomic infor­mation gathered by monitors in Salta province was useful to the Lhaka Honat in­digenous organization and the criollo ranchers’ organization in their territorial negotiations with the Salta provincial government. These negotiations were facilitated by the Inter-Amer­ican Commission on Human Rights intervention with Lhaka Honat and the Argentine government. By act­ing on a stepped-up scale but still at the local level, more conceptual decisions emerge. Divorced from the fine observations of natural resource fluctuations and not affecting individuals, this neutral but grounded process lowers the noise level of high data input. Es­sentially, the years of experience offer a filtering node to make effective and fast decisions.

This type of decision-making for natural resource management does have its downside. As we are seeing with the melt of permafrost across the Arctic Circle, radically new land and water changes can disrupt food production and migratory patterns. Massive blocks of ice that thrust up to the surface are destroying houses and pasture lands. New freeze patterns are making it difficult for grazing animals to get food. Local people can no longer rely on past observations of weather or plant and animal appearances to guide their planting and harvesting cycle. Where these problems arise, new technologies and outside information can help with ad­aptation.



The Gran Chaco also experiences this type of new dysfunction, except that there the evolved resilient behavior is in peril because of infrastructure develop­ment and loan projects that have not taken into ac­count issues like the costs or benefits of highly produc­tive established algarrobo groves. Algarrobo are very deep-rooted trees that provide household fuel and high-protein seeds, as well as shade for useful under­story plants. Reliance on local communities’ highly de­tailed and credible data on river management has been overridden by incentives from agro-industry project funding and by loans that continue to proceed on the basis of the lender-government relations and external advisors’ assessments in regions where local people have long occupied lands that are officially classified as fiscal lands. Local people do not have land tenure rights; this leaves them vulnerable to resettlement if the government encourages outside investors to buy fiscal lands for investment. One thinks of the Balinese government’s recognition and trust in its own farmers’ customary rights and rice production methods that re­versed the impact of a forced agricultural system from outside the country. This recognition is even more im­portant in the Gran Chaco, because even with the care­ful balancing of natural local resources, high poverty levels and a tenuous subsistence economy prevails in these intricate and idiosyncratic river systems. This combination of naturally tenuous landscapes, main­tained with low disturbance of natural forest but with­out strong tenurial security, makes these wild river ecosystems even more vulnerable to outside forces that can exploit the lack of public information for their own interests.

It is up to the nations and regions sharing the riv­ers of the Gran Chaco to listen to the nodes of local people who live upriver and downriver along the rivers’ courses and who understand the intricacies of the wa­tershed’s management in order to temper and wisely apply the benefits of outside intervention and right-scale network governance. Enabling more NGO-local organization nodal networks is a critical step in the right direction. Creating more nuanced local-level un­derstanding can help prevent incremental loss—some­thing long recognized as perilous to land change and biodiversity loss. We have proof of this from 2,000 years of successful nodal systems management in Bali. This system of information management is replicable throughout the world.

Whether or not this could work for the global capi­tal management system’s impact on natural resource utilization is questionable. Traders at their computer terminals are caught short when manipulating critical phases of resource management because of long sup­ply chains that begin with local resource extraction or industrial farms and then move through diverse and often energy-intensive production processes to global consumption. The end result is mostly a blind man­agement process at the top. Capturing true cost in this system is probably close to impossible, and trading futures contracts becomes riskier than it should be. Despite remarkable computer-based tools, recurring market crashes have generated little trust. It is the po­sition of this paper that crashes of systems (ecologi­cal or financial) result from the multiple incidences of actions that individually might not cause harm, and are not necessarily monetized, but that carry severe financial and ecological impact when combined with­out deliberation over feedback among nodes as these decisions are made. Unlike mortgages, the unique and beneficial indigenous peoples’ knowledge trade exchanges are highly nuanced, place-based, and not always comparable; they cannot be bundled for even regional-level trade. This alone may be a significant advantage in maintaining a stable, large-scale trading system.

Action: Prompt and Effective

One of the most distinctive features of Balinese wa­tershed management is the vibrant exchange among watershed farmers that drives prompt action on high­ly efficient flows and allocations to farmers; this is of­ten accomplished through small volume releases. Pest outbreaks are quickly reported and immediate action taken to restrain their spread. Any farmer at any time has access to the nodal temple system, where with the aid of a “priest,” reports can be logged and disseminat­ed to those who need to know, whether to farmers in adjacent fields or those controlling downstream flows.

In Bali, the construction of boundary-crossing water channels and tunnels provided an impetus for the development of irrigation societies that are largely autonomous from other social institutions.[10] This has created a double-scaled local management system that operates as a feedback loop to control the risk of crop loss. Videotaped records of monthly inter-subak meetings show the lively discussion of key issues. For example, we find that the perceived threat of pest invasion is strongly related to the willingness of the heads of upstream subaks to synchronize cropping. In years of high pest damage, more synchronization is observed, while in years of light rains, less coopera­tion happens.[11]

This high information flow among farmers and subaks sustains high-yield harvests, which are achieved by the subaks’ coordination of irrigation and cropping schedules to reduce losses from pest infesta­tions or to mitigate watershed-wide water shortages. These societies are just one level up from individual farmers. Importantly, the subaks are still highly ac­cessible to the farmers so that the small, incremen­tal losses that might go unnoticed and untreated in a thinner or less extended observational system do not occur because they are seen by those who are highly motivated to fix them.

Resilience is further enhanced in this watershed-management system by exempting some water sourc­es from irrigation society control, which deals only with the flow in major canals. Because of the length, complexity, and fragility of Bali’s canals, downstream subaks suffer losses from percolation and evaporation. Consequently, it is difficult to control the real supply needed for downstream subaks. Therefore, down­stream subaks routinely take advantage of the ex­cess flows from upstream neighbors and local springs and seeps. These small-scale water sources are vital for most downstream subaks to make up the deficit caused by percolation and seepage losses in the canals. In effect, they are localized buffers against short-term shortages. They are not always needed but are there as backup and used at the discretion and for the need of individual farmers. They are good for densely popu­lated, intensively cropped, and biologically diverse systems.

In the Gran Chaco, the progressive movement to­ward systemic watershed management has just begun with the identification of responsible “agents” who produce highly relevant scientific and socioeconom­ic data. These agents are comparable to Bali’s subak managers and engage with people’s cultural self-defi­nition; they are bound together by a shared narrative, such as that of Fox Walker. The combined thrust of readily shared and understood data and key agents throughout the watershed is a first step toward estab­lishing a key nodal system. An important difference is that the information is generated through new tech­nologies and promoted by means of videos, photos, and participatory theater. These visual aids serve to build and transmit not only numerical data but also the more pungent and visceral historical memories of the people themselves, while strengthening the local watershed associations and binding communities to­gether.

This use of information is highly promising for building complex and responsive watershed manage­ment for the Gran Chaco rivers by making the entire system more resilient and less vulnerable to outside interference. But until governments within the river system cooperate to achieve a much deeper knowledge of the Gran Chaco’s ecology and respect for indigenous peoples’ intimate understanding of the shifting river, long-term health and well-being of this second larg­est ecosystem in South America will be increasingly at risk. Successful adaptation and the new understand­ings that are taking root will be eroded by outside forces—both economic and through new agro-indus­trial expansion. These already have increased poverty, sometimes to a severe extent, in the indigenous and rural communities.

Unlike the Gran Chacoans and Balinese, Wall Street traders frequently have no knowledge of how their trading actions affect on-the-ground resources. Despite immediate dataflow changes at their finger­tips that report daily and often critical changes to ter­ritories affected by local weather, water availability, disease, and population shifts, without recourse to comparison and negotiation among widespread local agents dealing in the same commodities and financial products, these traders are blind. And it is here that farmers’ management systems, expertise, and experience make them the superior players. They both re­duce risk of failure and incorporate tested, short-term adaptive responses.

Traders’ risk of mistakes is heightened by their inability to operate as full-scale, planetary coordinat­ing agents with the ability to correct novel mistakes. Instead, errors of any size escalate rapidly, making corrective interventions nearly impossible. We’ve seen what a small human error can do when cascad­ing through a planet-sized trading network, sweeping through the global financial organism, slowing it, and, increasingly, at times choking it to a halt. The cost of repair can be significant and sometimes includes sig­nificantly reduced rewards for those doing the trading. It is arguable whether the present group of traders is equipped to view and respond to the relatively small and vital changes to the many diverse natural resourc­es reported on their screens. As with any information system delivering large-scale, globally aggregated numbers, the observed but frequently uncounted loss­es at the local level aren’t detected until they reach a critical accumulation. No algorithm to date can ana­lyze the many tiny changes inherent in intricate plan­etary systems.

Risk and Uncertainty: Stable Lives

By the mid-1980s, the highly desirable ecological impacts of Bali’s water temple system—misperceived in official reports of the time as a “rice cult”—were slowly recognized by government officials. This stable, double-tiered local system with its persistent balanc­ing of water, rice variety, and coordinated planting to manage pests contrasts sharply with the uncertain rice production of the Green Revolution’s modern method­ology. Once farmers reinstituted temple-based coor­dination, despite resistance from outside consultants and those officials supporting the modernization pro­gram, risk of failure once again became manageable. In fact, the utility of a separate water-management system was recognized as early as the ninth century, when the term water tunnelers was found on a list of professionals whose labor and other costs were paid by those who ex­pected to profit from the flow and who had no connection to the elite courts or village administrations. The breakdown of the long-stable Balinese ecosystem during the Green Revolu­tion clearly showed that without farmers’ constant monitoring and linked-temple node management, the crop losses (and ultimately lower aggregate output be­cause of exploding pest populations) would have gone unreported. More critically, without this event’s inter­pretation by local actors, it likely would have devolved into total system failure. This might be expected be­cause the Balinese water temple networks have ex­tended themselves throughout the watershed through many local initiatives and intermarriages that produce a kind of internal budding process. While even bud­ding can destabilize from the bottom up, water temple agents intuitively know that a local budding process can present a potential challenge to the overall expan­sion of the rice irrigation system. Modeling has shown that repeated shocks to the system could potentially push it outside the parameter space where good rice harvests can be sustained, and poor harvests could make further expansion economically unviable.[12] In 2000 years of real life, this has never happened.

This stability is in contrast to growth through elite sponsorships that operate off political or economic, not biogeophysical, mechanisms. The most destruc­tive of these can be outside economic forces that often do not find corresponding partners at the local pro­duction level. Frequently they operate as opportunis­tic free agents to destabilize ecological and social sys­tems. But it is the highly individualized and uniquely local “budding” that has reinforced the stable water­shed landscape by acting as a risk-mitigation mecha­nism for the larger scale irrigation systems. It acts as a kind of safety net for the already well-synchronized common-pool management network. Only recently documented, it is this understanding of the resilience of the natural resource base of Bali’s watershed that has made long-term, stable, low-risk rice production a reality.[13] Critically, the Balinese government now recognizes and supports the water temple network, which needs no herbicides or insecticides for pest con­trol, and does not require continual repurchase of seed varieties that do not replicate. Such capacities allow this network to avoid numerous costs throughout the value chain.

As in Bali, the Gran Chaco ecosystem is under threat of destabilization from both regional and out­side financial agents in the form of investment-driven development for roads, channels, and new soy produc­tion areas. The situation is also becoming more unpre­dictable in actions and timing because the rivers’ be­havior is affected by the annual cycle of rains that are changing due to climate change and because off take and channeling of the water downstream for irriga­tion and industry are affecting fish migrations moving upstream. People have traditionally adapted to these risks of unpredictability through livelihood strate­gies that mix hunting, fishing, gathering of algarrobo seeds, and farming—the dominant pattern before Eu­ropean conquest through 1960—and free-range live­stock; cattle and goats were added in the 1800s. A new level of risk is being added by new titling programs that are being used to alienate lands from local knowl­edge-bearers for use by agro-industry. This increases the likelihood that the system could be flipped once the institutional elements that maintained resilience are removed.

Poor project design is also affecting fish migra­tion and changing annual flood patterns. In short, the imposition of outside development will in the Gran Chaco, as in Bali, disrupt a complex, sustained natural waterway and impose potentially costly and destruc­tive changes to food production and the health of all species. As in Bali, risk of famine is increased as indig­enous forecasting models for food production must be changed and no new reliable production estimates are available. Additional ecological stress is incurred with the failure of naturally cleansing river services that slowed and mitigated pollution from upriver oil and mining extraction.

The increased stress is attributable in large part to imposing outside generic financial schemata on highly specific local trade and management systems. It would be more beneficial and productive to carefully tailor the generic financial schemata of outside agencies to reflect the unique and complex biogeophysical sys­tems they hope to harness for widespread economic gain and to create a nodal management system simi­lar to Bali’s. For example, monitors from indigenous communities, funded by the European Union (EU) to identify critical sites that needed to be taken into account for planning future interventions along the Pilcomayo, demonstrated that the Gran Chaco indig­enous peoples have better knowledge of the specific biogeophysical dynamics of the river than many of the technical specialists from hydrology offices. A key dif­ference was that the indigenous monitors’ proposals did not try to create generic and homogenized projects into which everyone would have to fit. At this point in their development, because of indigenous input, the resulting project proposals were based on highly specific, nuanced, local knowledge of biogeophysical systems behavior as well as the social particularities of different families in each community.

However, this indigenous input and the resulting project proposals ultimately had little influence on the EU-sponsored Pilcomayo Trinational (Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay) Master Plan recommenda­tions in 2007. It could be surmised that this resulted from EU specialists’ ignorance of the Balinese expe­riences of imposed outside forces: the colonial Dutch watershed management interference and imposition of GMO-based rice cropping. In the Gran Chaco, lo­cal participation in the Master Plan was subverted by using approved workshop participant lists, and other tactics were used to narrow the perspectives of the participants. Importantly, these actions also critically narrowed the range of insights, outcomes, and man­agement devices that the outside specialists needed to consider. This continues the tradition of failed do­nor-driven Pilcomayo Master Plans that began in the 1970s.

Significant and prolonged outside stresses imping­ing on a long-term resilient watershed can result in dangerous mismanagement when separate and new data elements and interrogative methods do not speak to one another. Lessons from resilience literature doc­ument the consequences of this failure to articulate at many levels and for biological, chemical, and geophys­ical systems. While the resilience lens offers up ways for both indigenous and outside systems to function together, it also brings cautionary lessons to bear.[14]

As we’ve seen in the above examples, water flows, fish reproduction and availability, and common-pool celebration sessions are all affected so that the socio­ecological system is being affected. And yet the ecolog­ical system still displays the capacity to both withstand shocks and surprises and to rebuild itself. In contrast, the Gran Chaco indigenous and local communities seem less able to withstand and recover from outside stresses, such as economic or political disruptions and their resulting impact on communities’ food produc­tion. As Alcorn and colleagues have written elsewhere: “In the past decade, efforts in the Gran Chaco have been made to reconnect older governance structures and knowledge with the modern state apparatus. The national and provincial regulations and laws appear good in principle, but they are poorly implemented. The challenge is to develop a robust, cross-scale, insti­tutional or network governance system.”

Local Stability Equals Long-Term Resilience

In every case explored, social resilience—the abil­ity of human communities to withstand and recover from stresses such as environmental change or social, economic, and political upheaval—has played a pow­erful role in maintaining a stable, healthy, and produc­tive environment. It is resilient societies that uphold the space needed to broker novel human responses to change.

Again, Stephen Lansing offers a cogent ex­ample from Bali. There are factors in Bali that tend to enforce social resilience through subak cohesion, and indeed, survey evidence suggests that farmers believe that key economic outcomes are closely tied to those of fellow subak members. In particular, given the prox­imity and low mobility of individual farmers within a given subak, individuals have very long-term interac­tions with one another across a variety of social and economic realms, ranging from agriculture to mar­riage, in an environment where individual behavior is easily observed by others. In such a world, the long shadow of the future, multiple ties, and easily avail­able information tend to promote very high levels of cooperation.[15]

The Gran Chaco communities, although in an ear­lier stage of regional evolution, also reflect this style of cooperation. The local leaders understand the water­shed concept in relation to the wider geographic and cultural space implied by their upriver-downriver con­nections, and the interdependency of communities us­ing the same resources. Discussions and exchange vis­its among indigenous peoples in these large-scale river systems have raised conversations about the respectful coexistence with others and have yielded knowledge of the cultural and economic diversity of everyone liv­ing in the watershed, as well as different perspectives on how to use and protect the environment. The small NGO Yangareko facilitated the signing of local agree­ments between different populations in the Parapeti watershed to demonstrate commitment to the overall well being of all the populations, and their good inten­tions to work together. FUNGIR, another small NGO, has also generated shared knowledge that has contrib­uted to a nascent nodal network along the Pilcomayo. These activities also strengthened the local represen­tative associations in each community to further en­hance the network that already binds the communities together.

These many Gran Chaco community discussions are also important because they provide an occasion to reflect on the long-term impacts of land use. (This is something that can easily be overlooked in daily activ­ities such as protection of both the water itself and the forested riverbanks to prevent silting and subsequent flooding.) These conversations renew knowledge and commitment to long-effective practices. Unlike with the EU process, along the Parapeti River, local knowledge-based documents have been developed with the communities’ input. These documents have been printed and distributed to the fourteen county governments so that they now have a highly nuanced and thorough range of information available to them for land-use planning decisions at individual, commu­nity, and county levels. Moreover, the very existence of this documentation helps to protect the land. A very important role of the NGOs is constructing local own­ership. They do this in part with the help of documen­tation by raising the profile of these local, ecologically sustainable land uses so that the provincial (Argenti­na), departmental (Bolivia), or national governments cannot readily claim that these lands are unused or unproductive and therefore available for others to in­troduce short-term, often destructive land uses.

These same long-term and large-scale information exchanges among local peoples are common in the Arc­tic. Whether through making traditional, regularized, annual rounds, attending annual gatherings, or sitting in meetings with representatives from international institutions, the goal of traditional natural resource management systems is to yield fruitful outcomes for coexistence. Major regional decisions continue to be made at larger gatherings that occur at least once a year and as needed—sometimes as often as three to four times a year.[16] The Arctic peoples of the studies consulted equate being knowledgeable with being ex­perienced. Arctic indigenous leaders express this by thinking of others’ ideas and interpretations and en­visioning (forecasting) outcomes when faced with im­mediate new problems or circumstances.[17] Once again, demonstrating the regularized capacity and practice of adaptive management.

The important stories of Yamozah (a mythical leader of Arctic peoples, who helped establish tradi­tional laws and respectful relationships) and other key leaders tell how they listened to the concerns and problems of the people before providing a solution and action for the people to follow. And, if the problem was more widespread so that it affected other nations and indigenous communities, leaders listened to the situation, and the solutions taken by their neighboring nations.

As a final note, the United States National Heri­tage Areas (NHA), first established in 1996, exhibit many of the traits of resilient, indigenous resource management systems and function similarly to “col­laborative complex adaptive networks”[18] or “complex adaptive systems.” According to Booher, as with the river systems of Bali, these systems tend to be highly dynamic; they diffuse information across actors within the system, and they rely on some degree of random­ness and probability between actors. These systems also continuously explore possible response options to opportunities or challenges and exhibit a constant in­terplay of top-down and bottom-up processes. Taken on their own, they form a new geography of shared in­formation.

More Alike than Different: It Takes an Open Mind

Before going out in the Gran Chaco, the Fox dressed himself well—with new shoes, jeans, new watch, a styl­ish mobile phone, dark glasses—and converted into the “other.” He is easy to recognize and admirable in how he walks. He navigates between two different worlds and reads the nuances of tiny changes in the complex ecological system in which he is immersed. In this sense, the Fox is like the traders who glide across their global screens to avert imbalances and appear on the scene arrayed in Gucci, Blackberry, and bespoke suits, calling up the arcane language of symbols that invoke the magic of markets, at times lost in the eu­phoria of herd psychology.

As Henry Huntington notes, the wealth of knowl­edge available from indigenous and local people can be locked in place by outsiders’ research regimes that narrowly focus on technique rather than on produc­tive and high-value insight.[19] To avert the limitations of certain disciplinary and institutional methods, collaborative research of the kind undertaken by the small NGOs with indigenous and local peoples of the Gran Chaco and the more practiced and refined nodal information networks of Bali’s water temples can offer a new way forward.

We have immediate recent experience of the limi­tations and high risk involved in high-level and large-scale management of global financial systems, and we also have abundant evidence of how equally, if not more, complex systems have been successfully de­scribed and sustained through changes that defy abili­ties to forecast. It would benefit everyone if our best understanding of indigenous methods of describing and manipulating both social and ecological systems were more widely and deeply shared across disciplin­ary boundaries and with global thought leaders and policymakers.

Bali’s nodal temple network is not an accident. It is a paradigm that is worth repeating in as many places as possible. There is already indication that replicating it in the Gran Chaco has gained traction—this initiative simply needs greater support to build a more exten­sive network and many redundant connects through the enormous ecosystem that it represents.


Photo Credits:

“Map of Nodal Networks in Bali,” Thomas A. Reuter

“Bali Temple Scribes,” Steve Lansing

“Rice terraces near Gunung Kawi, Bali,” Mike Kopetski

“Parapeti Up River-Down River Network, Gran Capitan Bonifacio Barrientos, Isoso,” Alejo Zarzycki

[1]. D. Laven et al., “Evaluating U.S. National Heritage Areas: Theory, Methods, and Applica­tion,” in Environmental Management 46, no. 2 (2010): 195–212.

[2]. D.E. Booher and J.E. Innes, Planning with Complexity: An Introduction to Collabora­tive Rationality for Public Policy (New York: Routledge, 2010).

[3]. J.S. Lansing and J.H. Miller, “Cooperation, Games, and Ecological Feedback: Some Insights from Bali,” Current Anthropology 46, no. 2 (April 2005): 328-34, at http://www.u.arizona.edu/~jlansing/J._Stephen_Lansing/Publications.html.

[4]. J.B. Alcorn, A. Zarzycki, and L. M. de la Cruz, “Poverty, Governance and Conservation in the Gran Chaco of South America,” Biodiversity 11 (2010): 39-44, at http://www.tandfon­line.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14888386.2010.9712645.

[5]. E. Ortiz, A. Mendez, A. Zarzycki, and J.B. Alcorn, “Fox Walker on the Parapeti River, Bolivia: The Origins of How We Guarani Live in Íví,” in Pre-Columbian Landscapes of Cre­ation and Origin, ed. J.E. Staller (New York: Springer-Verlag, 2008), 161-202, at http://www.springerlink.com/content/978-0-387-76909-7.

[6]. J.S. Lansing, Priests and Programmers: Technologies of Power in the Engineered Land­scape of Bali (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007).

[7]. Ibid., 113.

[8]. Ibid., 117.

[9]. See “The Goddess and the Computer: Anthropology and Real-Life Problems,” at http://www.anthro4n6.net/bali/watertemples.html.

[10]. J.S. Lansing et al., “A Robust Budding Model of Balinese Water Temple Networks,” World Archaeology 41, no. 1 (2009): 110-31, at http://www.u.arizona.edu/~jlansing/J._Stephen_Lansing/Publications_files/World%20Archaeology%202009.pdf.

[11]. Lansing and Miller, “Cooperation, Games, and Ecological Feedback.”

[12]. Lansing et al., “A Robust Budding Model of Balinese Water Temple Networks,” 19.

[13]. Ibid., 18.

[14]. According to the Stockholm Resilience Centre, “Resilience is the long-term capacity of a system to deal with change and continue to develop. For an ecosystem such as a forest, this can involve dealing with storms, fires and pollution, while for a society it involves an ability to deal with political uncertainty or natural disasters in a way that is sustainable in the long term.” “What is Resilience?,” December 18, 2007, at http://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/research-news/2015-02-19-what-is-resilience.html.

[15]. Lansing and Miller, “Cooperation, Games, and Ecological Feedback.”

[16]. J. Barnaby et al., “Indigenous Decision Making Processes: What Can We Learn from Traditional Governance?” The Arctic Governance Project, December 17, 2009, at http://www.arcticgovernance.org/indigenous-decision-making-processes-what-can-we-learn-from-traditional-governance.4667318-142902.html.

[17]. Ibid., 7.

[18]. D.E. Booher, “Civic Engagement as Collaborative Complex Adaptive Networks,” in Civic Engagement in a Network Society, ed. K. Yang and E. Bergrud (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2008), 111-48.

[19]. H.P. Huntington, “Using Traditional Ecological Knowledge in Science: Methods and Applications,” Ecological Applications 10, no. 5 (Oct. 2000), 1270-74, at http://www.tsimane.org/NSftraining/Huntington%20trad%20knowledge.pdf.

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