07 July 2012

This is an amazing book about people organizing to solve common problems


Institutions, incentives, and irrigation in Nepal by Paul Benjamin, Wai Fung Lam, Elinor Ostrom, and Ganesh Shivakoti:

There may be in excess of 100,000 distinct farmer-managed irrigation systems in Nepal, each with their own fascinating history of how farmers cooperated to develop a common resource that would benefit them all. … Farmers have identified sources of water and irrigable farmland, found the capital and companions to do the work, and constructed the systems. They and their descendants have governed and operated them. Farmers have often assumed considerable risk in irrigation investments, not just in the usual way we view risk in investment--where you could loose your shirt--but where you could also loose your life. Cutting canals along a steep slope from the source to the planned service area is not easy and lives have been lost. …

For centuries, Nepali farmers have developed their own knowledge and shaped and reshaped their mountainous and often perilous terrain. Leveling paddy fields on steep slopes, making bunds, constructing headworks, building irrigation canals and ditches, setting and adjusting field canals--all this does not just happen. Individuals conceptualize possibilities; they talk about their ideas; they decide what to do first and who should do what; they argue, have conflict, and settle disputes; they build and they rebuild; they cope with floods, landslides, and droughts; and in the process they create physical and social artifacts.

  Social artifacts are as necessary for the construction of physical artifacts (the paddy fields, the headworks, the canals, etc.) as the sticks, stones, earth, and, more recently, cement and gabion wire they use. Social artifacts are the rules and principles they use to organize their going concerns. This social capital is productive capacity that is created by the application of these rules and principles among individuals who know how to make them work. … Anyone who has bothered to take their eyes off the gleaming Himalayas will be impressed with the incredible amount of work that has gone into the construction of so much on the hillsides of Nepal. The social artifacts that stand behind that construction, however, are not so easy to see. One may see farmers at work, but not the social capital that helps them coordinate what they do. One must search more deeply to reveal the underlying social structures so essential to the accomplishment of their tasks. These are, in turn, even more deeply embedded in the accumulated knowledge organized and transmitted through language and culture giving expression to the fundamental complexities with which the farmers work.