The rice terraces in Bali look almost otherworldly. For over a thousand years, local communities have cut into the sloping volcanic mountainsides in order to farm. What appear at first to be emerald-green steps in the landscape reveal a sophisticated irrigation system called subak that takes advantage of the natural watershed: Rains leach minerals from the volcanic soil and an underground canal system brings water and natural fertilizer to the rice. The result, says Julia Watson, a landscape designer and Columbia professor, is some of the most biodiverse and productive rice-growing land in the world.
Watson first visited the subak seven years ago when she began researching her new book, Lo-TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism, which dives into the history, philosophy, and engineering behind climate-resilient infrastructure developed by indigenous people: “those who have evolved a cumulative body of multigenerational knowledge, practices, and beliefs of the environment in which they live,” she tells Curbed.
As Watson argues in her book, such “traditional ecological knowledge”—the “TEK” in Lo-TEK—could unlock more sustainable solutions to solve crises of housing, resource management, farming, water treatment, and more. She says her book isn’t about prescribing solutions; rather, it analyzes the building techniques and philosophical underpinnings of indigenous communities through the lens of architecture, providing a more accessible read than the anthropological approach usually found in academic journals. She hopes it inspires ways of designing infrastructure that are less environmentally destructive and more attuned to natural ecology.
“There are so many stories and narratives that talk about ecosystem relationships, and we need to reengage with them,” Watson tells Curbed.
Lo-TEK explores 18 indigenous communities, organizing them by the type of landscape each inhabits: mountains, forests, deserts, or wetlands. Case studies include the living root bridges created by the Khasi in Northern India; the waffle gardens of the Zuni tribe in New Mexico; aquaculture around the floating villages of the Tofinu people of Benin; the qanat underground aquifers in Iran; and the mudhif reed architecture of Iraq. Watson approaches each of these case studies like a cultural anthropologist and an architect, laying out the different spiritual relationships each community has with its environment, the history of how they created their engineering techniques, and detailed diagrams that explain how the techniques work.
Watson sees her book as today’s version of the Museum of Modern Art’s influential Architecture without Architects exhibition of 1964, which discussed the merits and sophistication of vernacular design from the past—design that architects at the time had dismissed in favor of modernism.
“There are so many nature-based technologies that aren’t documented, recognized, and pushed in the engineering and design fields as solutions,” Watson says. “And these are culturally, ecologically, and economically resilient solutions.”
When Watson arrived in Bali, it wasn’t the sublime emerald-green landscape that struck her the most. It was the spiritual relationship between the terraces and the community of farmers who manage them: They are inseparable.
“It’s all a sacred landscape,” Watson tells Curbed.
Temples dedicated to water deities, overseen by priests, are situated throughout the rice terraces at important points for water distribution. In meetings about how to manage the nearly 50,000 acres of terraces, the voices of everyone—from the highest level of society to the lowest—are heard.
In the 1970s, Indonesia’s participation in the “Green Revolution” threatened the subak farmers’ way of life. The government imposed new laws requiring all rice farmers to use high-yield varieties of rice and artificial pesticides and fertilizers to increase production. They also instituted a “plant as often as possible” mandate, ignoring the subak’s synchronized planting strategy.
The change had catastrophic effects: failed growing seasons, diminished biodiversity, and degraded soil structure. Fertilizers in runoff damaged nearby coral reefs. Ecological collapse of the subak terraces seemed imminent. In the 1980s, the Balinese government recognized the problem after research by the anthropologist Stephen Lansing (who Watson interviews in her book) and restored some of the subak’s traditional water practices. In 2012, UNESCO designated the subak as a World Heritage Site. The hope is that global recognition of the cultural significance of this landscape will help preserve the farmers’ way of life and repair the damaged landscape.
“Nature-based communities don’t have a voice because [modern] governance structures do not have a place for their voices,” Watson says. “These ways of living with the land can disappear so quickly when they’re seen as primitive, not innovative.”
A similar situation occurred beginning in the 1970s in southern Iraq, where for 6,000 years the Ma’dan, or “Marsh Arabs,” have built soaring vaulted structures and temporary floating islands using nothing but reeds and mud dredged from wetlands along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Their cathedral-like buildings, called mudhifs, represent indigenous engineering passed down from 4,000 B.C. on how to co-exist with a landscape defined by water. Five hundred thousand people once lived in the marshes, but because of ethnic cleansing under Saddam Hussein and upstream water diversions, the marshes have been largely drained and only a few thousand people remain, nearly erasing 6,000 years’ worth of proven knowledge about how humans can live symbiotically with the land.
Today, humans have an adversarial relationship with our environment, as the impacts of anthropogenic climate change—extreme heat, catastrophic flooding, sea level rise, and mass extinctions—show. Naturally, there are competing philosophies on how best to address the problems.
Take fire management. Today, bushfires in Australia, ignited by dry lightning, blaze out of control, leading to 24 million acres scorched and and the death of an estimated 1 billion animals. Australia’s Aboriginal people once set “cool burns” to selectively eliminate plants and trees and maintain balance in the landscape so that when a natural fire occurred, the destruction would be minimized. Colonization changed the fire management practices in Australia. A Queensland-based fire ecologist studied bushfires between 1881 and 1981 and found that after 1919—when the government markedly moved away from indigenous fire management practices—there was an increase in the size and frequency of fires.
In California, some fire ecology experts say a century of fire suppression contributed to the deadly wildfires of the past few years. While Native Americans once regularly burned forests and grassland, the Forest Service tried to extinguish flames as quickly as possible. While the Forest Service does ignite controlled burns, experts say the agency doesn’t do it enough. Meanwhile, 32 percent of all homes in the state are built in the “Wildland-Urban Interface,” an area that is the most vulnerable to wildfire.
There’s a pervasive belief that new high-tech interventions will come to the rescue, but that formula isn’t working. For example, the $14 billion worth of levees constructed after Hurricane Katrina are already sinking. We can’t keep building the same way. Of course, New Orleans can’t be reconstructed out of reeds, but perhaps there’s a way to rethink future development that takes a longer view.
“We respond to disaster; we don’t think of preventative measures,” Watson says. “And understanding ecosystems is about prevention and having a deep relationship with the land that you’re working with. It’s survival through symbiosis, not survival of the fittest.”
For example, the Bheri Wastewater Aquaculture system developed over the last century by the Bengalese residents of Kolkata, India, cleanses 700 million liters of raw sewage every day. Wastewater flows through a series of ponds that contain anaerobic bacteria and fish. Wastewater from the ponds is used to irrigate vegetables grown on the banks of the ponds. According to Watson, the system saves about $22 million per year on the operating expenses of a conventional wastewater plant. Plus, the resulting aquaculture—which is safe to eat—goes to local markets and saves on transportation costs.
“There are so many different technologies around the world and we have a small, limited understanding of what technologies can be applied in the environment, and it comes from a particular view that’s high-tech and industrialized,” Watson says. “You can’t fix a problem with the same tool kit that caused the problem. We need something else.”