The cooperative idea as an important contribution to the cultural heritage of humanity

In the footsteps of Elinor Ostrom in Switzerland and Sri Lanka

by Dr rer. publ. Werner Wüthrich

As it does every year, the “Verein Jugendberatung” (Youth Counselling Association) in Zurich invited students, parents, teachers and members to an event at the beginning of the new school year. The association mainly offers learning support for Tamil pupils. This time the focus was on the idea of mutual help – in all areas of life. I was invited to present a highly topical subject – the cooperative idea. Two young women translated the lecture into Tamil – in a committed and lively way – with the help and participation of the audience. Tarmina is attending a modern language grammar school and Vanusha is apprenticed as a computer scientist. My presentation was illustrated with impressive pictures from Valais and Sri Lanka and met with great interest. On this sunny Saturday afternoon, the hall at the Fluntern meeting place was filled to capacity – for the lecture which is reproduced here in its entirety.

In 2009, Elinor Ostrom received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for her book “Governing the Commons”. The Professor of Economics and Politics had discovered that people all over the world have long since had to solve the problem of how to deal with scarce goods that everyone needs – such as water, fish stocks in the sea or grazing land for livestock.
Should such goods be divided among private individuals or should the state regulate the distribution from above? Ms Ostrom discovered that the benefits for everyone and also the economic success are greatest if citizens are able to solve such questions locally in a cooperative manner. She visited many countries – such as Spain, the Philippines, Japan, California, Switzerland, and also Sri Lanka – and she talked to the population and asked them how they had solved such issues in the past and how they solved them at the time. And she also investigated why, in some cases, they had not been successful.
In 2012, the UN proclaimed the “Year of Cooperatives”, thus honouring cooperatives with their 800 million members in over 100 countries worldwide. Getting to know cooperatives is also the aim of this input. There are opportunities to solve problems through cooperatives also in Swiss cities – as for example in the numerous housing cooperatives. Every fourth rental apartment in the city of Zurich is a cooperative flat.

Ms Ostrom visits Switzerland and Sri Lanka

In Switzerland, Ms Ostrom visited the mountain Canton of Valais. The large valley is embedded in mountains up to 4,600 meters high on both sides. Right down on the valley floor runs the Rhone, which is fed by a mighty glacier, the Rhone Glacier. The Rhone always carries enough water, so that there is no problem with the water supply at the bottom of the valley – about 500 meters above sea level. However, people have also settled on the steep mountain slopes on both sides of the valley and in the side valleys – at an altitude of up to 1,800 metres. They have built numerous villages here, where life – at first sight – is not easy. Everywhere paths are steep and impassable, and often there is no water. But these mountain villages had one big advantage: life there meant freedom. Their location offered protection from predatory attacks and kept foreign warlords from occupying their land. That was very important to the Valaisans.
The Valais is a sunny place. Many things grow and flourish there, wine, apricots and vegetables. Milk and cheese are produced on numerous alps. But one thing is scarce in the mountain villages – and that is water. And wherever there is a lack of it, major problems arise, especially for agriculture.
Ms Ostrom has also visited Sri Lanka. The beautiful country is indulged by nature with a rich flora and fauna. Sri Lanka is famous for its tea, a large part of which is exported all over the world. But of vital importance is the cultivation of rice. Rice is a staple food for the population. Here also, water is a problem. Its adequate supply for their fields is as important for the rice farmers in Sri Lanka as it is for the farmers in Valais. If there is no water, their fields become silted up, weeds grow, and possibly their whole harvest is spoiled.
Ms Ostrom travelled to Valais and Sri Lanka to find out how farmers managed or failed to provide themselves with an adequate supply of water. Let us accompany her on her journey.

First to Valais

Ms Ostrom visited the mountain village of Törbel, situated at 1,500 metres above sea level – about 1,000 metres higher than the bottom of the Rhone valley. She asked the inhabitants how they had solved the water problem. There is water in Törbel, to be sure, but frozen in the glacial ice far up at an altitude of 3,000 to 4,000 metres. These glaciers feed several mountain streams flowing into the valley. The inhabitants face the difficult task of collecting this water, diverting it and distributing it fairly among their various settlements and their extensive pastures.
The inhabitants of Törbel and other mountain villages have solved this demanding task by building numerous “Suonen”. This is the name of the water pipes which have been constructed from wood or dug into the ground. These irrigation channels run along the steep slopes or are sometimes suspended from vertical rock faces. It is, however, important to monitor these pipes permanently, as they often clog or break down after a thunderstorm or because of rockfall. For checking purposes the residents have often built a rattling device into the pipes. When the water flows, a regular knocking sound is heard. The residents know that everything is fine. If it stops, it means that the water is no longer flowing. The cause of the disturbance must be sought and remedied immediately.
Ms Ostrom learned that in Valais there is no state authority that regulates the water supply from above. Instead, the inhabitants in the villages arrange this themselves – in a free and democratic way. They meet in village assemblies, discuss the issues at hand and make suggestions on how to solve them. The tasks are distributed and carried out by the inhabitants themselves whenever possible. In spring, for example, the entire working population meets for the so-called “Gemeinwerk” (voluntary work). The many pipes and also the paths that were damaged in winter have to be repaired and cleaned. The organisation and the rules are written down in the village constitution, which only the citizens themselves may change. – This is how a cooperative is created. There is a lot of discussion, everyone has a vote and everyone can participate in the decision-making process. Everybody helps and feels jointly responsible – and it has been like this for a long time now.
The inhabitants of Törbel have also organised the alpine economy in a cooperative manner. In summer, the farmers drive their cattle up to the alps, which they manage together. Here too, the issues at stake are solved in a very similar way to those concerning the water. For example, there is a rule intended to prevent the alpine pastures from being overused: “A farmer may only drive as many cows to the alp as he can feed with his own hay in the winter months”. The first written village constitution in Törbel is more than 600 years old.
Ostrom was impressed by the cooperative structures she found in Törbel and other villages. She wrote a report which is only five pages long (Ostrom, Elinor. Verfassung der Allmende (“Governing the Commons”). pp. 79–85 in the German edition, Tübingen 1999). Things were so clear, that it was possible for her to actually only briefly report that in many places the cooperative system had been working well – and not only in the area of water supply – for centuries. We find cooperative structures and procedures also in Swiss politics. Today, citizens can vote directly on laws and factual issues, as well as submit initiatives, not only in the communes, but also in the cantons and the federal government.

Then to the rice farmers in Sri Lanka

Ms Ostrom also visited the area of Gal Oya and inquired how the water supply worked there (Ostrom, op. cit., pp. 204–225). There is a history to this. The country was conquered by the English in 1825. Before that the Portuguese and Spanish had already been there, because this island in the Indian Ocean is of military and economic strategic importance. The English immediately recognised the importance of this country and they quickly started to build an administration and infrastructure. They built a railway and established plantations for tea cultivation. This was a good way to earn money. Their engineers also built canals and dams for the rice farmers. If everything worked out – according to their plan – two to three harvests a year would be possible, so that the farmers would be able to pay their taxes.
But a lot of things did not work out. The British engineers built canals and dams. But they did not care about the everyday use and the essential maintenance and care of the water conduits. That was no longer their concern – it was the responsibility of another agency. So it was no wonder that there were problems early on. Colonisation often brushed aside the local people and their way of life. The new masters organised a lot of things, but they did not involve the population.

Gal Oya

When Sri Lanka became independent after 1948, the system stemming from colonial times was continued more or less unchanged in some areas. Various countries provided the young state with development and reconstruction aid. This included an extensive irrigation project in the Gal Oya region, from which some 19,000 rice farmers were to benefit. Project managers from the American University of Cornell accompanied this endeavour and wrote reports. Responsible for the water supply were the Ministry of Agriculture in Colombo and partly also the Ministry of Finance, which was interested in the taxes. Government officials developed programmes and plans and set up committees to implement them. To do this, they hired paid irrigation officials to guide and supervise the farmers. But as it was a system similar to that of the British, it did not work well.
The farmers tried to flood their fields with as much water as possible. In this way they could prevent weeds from spreading, which would otherwise have to be painstakingly removed. If the inflow dried up completely, this would spoil the whole harvest. However, individual rich farmers were given preference because they had good relations with the committees or even with the government. This poisoned the mood and made efficient cooperation among the farmers impossible. Water conduits often clogged and sewers had to be repaired. Yet nobody felt responsible. The reports say that there were often no gates at all to distribute the water to the different farmers. The control and measuring systems were also faulty, so that some farmers received water and others did not. There were water thieves who illegally tapped water from intact canals. They were usually not reported because of their knowing someone with the authorities or in the government well. Occasionally individual fields were even irrigated with self-built, illegal canals and nobody did anything about it.
In addition, tensions arose between the population groups. The rice planters in the lower fields were often Tamil-speaking settlers, while those in the upper fields were resettled Sinhalese. If the flow of water from top to bottom was disturbed, the lower fields were poorly supplied. This led to quarrels and even to violent clashes. It was always the others who were to blame. – Obviously it was not possible to build up an irrigation system that really worked.

What was to be done?

What was this due to, and what was to be done? These were the questions the managers of the irrigation project in Gal Oya asked themselves. They soon realised that money alone was not enough to solve the problems. It made no sense to simply install new water pumps or build new canals. They would have to succeed in introducing a new culture in which the farmers themselves made sure it worked – as in Valais. The farmers would have to cooperate with each other voluntarily, because their own affairs were concerned. And they would also have to be prepared to engage themselves free of charge, to make sure it worked. But: How do you accomplish this goal when the mood among the farmers is poisoned and there is violence and controversy? Should the authorities create a new law and appoint officials to enforce it, from above? The project leaders knew that this was not the way. The English had already tried that. Instead of this, they thought, we must create a new culture in which the farmers themselves take responsibility. And we cannot leave this task to the authorities, who have so far only patronised the farmers. A new approach is needed.
The people in charge of the project had an idea: We are going to look for people from the region, and they will be able to establish contact with the farmers. We will train them and prepare them for their task. They will visit the farmers and ask them where the problems are and how these things could be done better. They will tackle the problems directly together. Only – where do we find such people who are willing and able to do this? Sri Lanka has a relatively good education system. The project leaders went to secondary schools, high schools and colleges and won over the school directors for their project. They inspired young people, who they then trained in a six-week course and prepared for their task.
The plan was demanding: the young people visited the farmers and sought to talk to them. In a second step, they formed discussion groups with ten to fifteen farmers and searched for solutions together. As soon as contact and trust was established, the first steps were taken to solve problems with the water supply in this new way. The farmers themselves were to take responsibility and voluntarily commit themselves to this because it is their own business. – As a later step, larger meetings were held together with the authorities to decide on the rules to which everyone in the region must adhere.

First results

The project was a start. Time and again there were setbacks. So it was not unusual for some of the young people to back out and go their own ways when they had good prospects of a good job. But the project managers were not discouraged. They were convinced that this was the way to go, and they did not give up. Would they succeed?
Ms Ostrom also reported on this: “During my inspection I observed fifteen Tamil and twelve Singalese farmers who had just finished cleaning the canal. The intensity of the conflicts was decreasing. Farmers stated that not a single dispute over water allocation had arisen. […] All in all, the Gal Oya project represents an impressive turnaround in a system where there had been little hope of persuading the farmers to cooperate in water use and maintenance of the field canals. [...] The irrigation ministry officials gradually changed their basic attitude towards the farmers. The former elite – rich farmers with good political contacts – gave up their resistance.”

The cooperative idea – an important contribution to the cultural heritage of humanity

Cooperation in freedom and equality is the basic idea of the cooperative. People join forces as they have similar interests and are in contact with each other. They pursue a common goal – in our case, to ensure a water supply for everyone. They consult with each other, seek solutions and consider how they want to proceed. Rules are decided on in a democratic way. Everyone has a voice. The organisational framework is discussed and recorded in writing. The various tasks are distributed. Thus, an association’s board is needed, which is responsible for the daily business. There must be a cashier who manages the finances and an auditor who controls them. Once a year the members of the cooperative meet for the general assembly and approve the work of the association’s board. They can ask questions and request information. In this way they help and manage themselves without being patronised from above and without anyone giving orders and everyone having to obey. – This is how a cooperative is created and operates.
This approach corresponds to human nature and has evolved in many places in the world – not always identically – but often in a very similar way or form. However, it is important to note that cooperative structures do not develop by themselves – the example of Gal Oya has shown this. They have to be learned, and sometimes this requires an impulse from outside, because obstacles from the colonial era have to be overcome.
Ms Ostrom shows in her book that it is possible to create a liberal culture even in countries that have been enslaved and patronised by their colonial masters for many centuries. Any form of domination and power structures is poisonous and disturbs or even prevent the emergence of such a culture. Those who are used to everything being determined from above and to not even being asked for their input, must first learn to think for themselves and to seek solutions in a democratic way – for themselves and for others. But this is not easy. That is what the project managers in Sri Lanka had to learn. But they stuck to their basic idea and were not discouraged. The success in Gal Oya proved them right.
The example from Sri Lanka is a lesson and is part of that message to the world, for which Elinor Ostrom was rightly awarded the Nobel Prize.
* * *
In the discussion that followed, many members of the audience took the floor. Some of the Tamil fathers, who follow the political events in their home country closely, confirmed Elinor Ostrom’s report. The positive example of Gal Oya was well known, they said – but there were not many similar instances. They pointed to the situation after a war which had lasted for decades. Many problems still needed to be solved and tensions reduced.
Special attention was paid to the new one-hundred-franc bill issued by the Swiss National Bank SNB. 133 million of these bills are being put into circulation. Water is the main element pictured on them – on the front of the note it is presented as the elixir of life, together with the helping hand as a symbol of Switzerland’s humanitarian aid, and on the reverse we see a suone from the Ayent area (VS). In this region, 80 per cent of the fields and fruit crops are still irrigated by these traditional conduits. 

Source: Ostrom, Die Verfassung der Allmende (Governing the Commons). Tübingen 1999

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