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Of fractals and rice fields



June 20, 2017

Some stunning new science detailing exactly how Balinese rice growers achieve close to maximal harvest yields has been published, and the results may surprise you; it’s all down to naturally occurring fractals on the paddy fields.

A team of scientists from the Nanyang Technological University and the Medical University of Vienna and the Santa Fe Institute set out to study the ins and outs of Balinese rice terraces. These impressive structures made over centuries by terracing hillsides have long delighted tourists but are now equally set to delight fanatics of fractals as well.

One of many rice terraces in Bali


Led by Stephen Lansing and Stefan Thurner, the team studied two main constraints on cultivating rice in the region – water availability and pest damage. While farmers upstream have an advantage in an abundance of water availability, farmers downstream are limited by the upstream farmers’ practices. Pests are able to move between different terraces when crops are planted at different times, but when farmers act together and plant at the same time the pest load is drastically reduced.

The solution is obvious – plant at the same time to increase yield by limiting pests, but with the limited availability of water this isn’t possible. The natural system that has emerged in light of these constraints has stunned scientists. Through cooperation between upstream and downstream farmers to share water over greater areas, natural fractal planting regimes emerged that yield very close to maximum harvests, all without any central regulatory authority or planning whatsoever. All decisions are made at a local level.

Lansing puts the emergence of a natural fractal system that not only shares resources affectively, but optimises yield and pest control so effectively by saying:

“What is exciting scientifically is that this is in contrast to the tragedy of the commons, where the global optimum is not reached because everyone is maximising his individual profit. This is what we are experiencing typically when egoistic people are using a limited resource on the planet, everyone optimises the individual payoff and never reach an optimum for all.”


But it seems the Balinese have done exactly that.  The discovery was confirmed when the team used satellite imagery of various regions to see how the fractal planting patterns emerged through the growing season. Stefan Thurner added:

“Fractal patterns are abundant in natural systems but are relatively rare in human-made systems.  The system becomes remarkably stable, again without any planning. Stability is the outcome of a remarkably simple but efficient self-organised process. And it happens extremely fast. In reality, it does not even take ten years for the system to reach this state.”

This self-organising between farmers and the surrounding ecology, creating a stable environment and an abundance of food, potentially has a lot of lessons for modern sustainable food production.  Long before permaculture emerged as the global gardening trend it seems the Balinese discovered it without even realising it.


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