Thursday, October 1, 2009

Sukawatis vs. The Man

I'm in Anthro 104 - Cultural Antrophology - this semester. Most of the class so far has consisted of depressing statistics about how women are always oppressed and probably always will be. I'm no women's studies major, so I didn't find this terribly enlightening - but there was one horror story that I did pick up on. In Bali, there is an indigenous tribe of agricultural peoples called the Sukawati. They had a beautiful and ancient culture that revolved around ideas similar to Aristotle and eastern philosophies. Unfortunately, they were brutally disrupted when the USSR deemed that they were not productive enough, and were not doing their part to serve the rest of the members of the country - selfishly producing only what they needed to survive, so they decided to force the Sukawatis to grow higher yielding type of engineered rice. Now, one thing we take for granted as US citizens is the ability of our farmers to farm year after year on the same plot of land. This is a relatively new ability of humans, and requries a huge amount of capital and technology. To cope with the problem of overfarming, some less technologically-heavy societies, such as the Sukawatis, use a process of crop rotation to let the land heal. This is no easy process, and they even had extensive cultural practices - rituals, holidays and temples - dedicated to regulating and smoothing out the complex process of crop rotation in a society of thousands. When the new rice was implemented, its shorter growing period threw off all of the tables, rituals and customs these people had known for centuries, and their food production industry crumbled.

What I noticed when I heard this story was something I head noticed from almost every instance of government interaction - their inability to deal with spontaneous orders. Notice that the problem of the Sukawatis didn't arise because of a failure of communication, since even the Suwatis didn't know the purpose of their cultures, or the underlying structure or meaning to their water schedules, since they were both produced by the same invisible hand method, over hundreds of years, without the direct intention, planning or well-meaning of any individual that could be asked. The problem with most government interactions isn't that they haven't been done by the right people, it's that they can't be done efficiently by any human, since their underlying structure and purpose is beyond the scope of any one humans comprehension.


  1. Interesting anecdote. I'm sure there were many similar scenarios throughout the Soviet Union, where the central government made demands of states they had acquired just years prior, that the state couldn't possibly meet.
    Just shows that government doesn't always know what's best.

  2. Actually, there was another society in Siberia that herded reindeer that was nearly destroyed by the USSR. They made them settle down in one area, made the children go to school and told them to raise more reindeer to be sold on the market. They did this to them to make them easier to tax and regulate (this is what we were told in class, no joke). A lot of families were split up because of it.