Cultivating traditions in the jungle and by the ocean: Not everything is sacrificed to tourism on the vacation island of Bali. Meet salt farmers, seaweed farmers and cocoa growers
Sun, sky and ocean are all dazzlingly bright against the black lava sand of Bali. “Here it is,” Pak Kaping calls over the roar of waves breaking on the shore. Kaping, a slightly built 52-year-old, gestures toward the beach, his workplace. His weather-beaten face is radiant as he talks about how his family has been earning a living for centuries: by extracting sea salt in the fishing village of Kusamba on the southeast coast of Bali. Even Kaping’s great-great-grandparents worked as salt farmers.
His example reveals many things about Bali: that ancient traditions survive on the Indonesian island – even if fewer and fewer people still cultivate them. Tourism is flourishing, and those Balinese who speak English tend to prefer working in restaurants, hotels and as tourist guides to battling the elements. In the 1990s, more than 50 families earned their living with salt, today, only 15 of them remain. However, Kaping’s example also shows that export offers opportunities to those still extracting salt from the ocean, harvesting seaweed and growing cocoa. That’s because in the organic markets of cities around the world, the produce of small farmers is booming. And it demonstrates that Hindu faith and spirituality continue to shape the lives of small farmers, never mind about big business.
Kaping has gone back down to the water, as he has already done several times since dawn today, across his shoulders, a wooden pole with a leather pail suspended at either end. He fills them in the waves and hauls them laboriously up a slope. Now he splashes the water onto the sandy ground. Kaping’s wife is kneeling where the sun has dried the mixture of sand and saltwater and is shoveling the glittering black mass into wooden baskets, which she will later carry into one of the work cabins, where her daughter is standing, pouring fresh water over the sand hill over and over again, to wash the salt out of the sand and dry it once more in the scorching heat. Kaping hurries to one of the flat tables where the salt that’s almost ready is lying, a viscous, gleaming paste. “Have a taste!” he shouts, sticking his finger into it. It tastes … salty, of course.
Twenty kilograms, that’s Kaping’s daily harvest. Stored in 50-kilo sacks in one of the gloomy cabins, the salt is sold to spas in Japan and to gourmets in France. “I pray to the gods that the sea level won’t rise,” says Kaping. His cabin beside the ocean and the sand fields on which the salt dries are the foundations on which his life is built. To make sure his prayers are heard, he strews blossoms and rice on the beach and beside his 17 evaporation ponds every day, morning and evening.
Wayan Sudarta also appeals to the gods each morning, when he takes offerings to a sacred rock out in the ocean at low tide. “I pray for it to stay dry,” he says. Rain is bad for the seaweed, he says, explaining that cloudy water affects its quality. Standing up to his knees in the waves, the 47-year-old skeptically surveys the sky – gray storm clouds and some drizzle. Sudarta works as a seaweed farmer on the northeastern tip of the small island of Nusa Lembongan, 15 kilometers south of Bali. From his seaweed fields – and with a good pair of binoculars – he could see Pak Kaping on the beach in Kusamba.
Sudarta has a broad back and a wide grin. He looks like a farmer, but in fact he’s a businessman. He has 25 local seaweed farmers working for him. Flip-flops on his feet, he makes the rounds of his vast water fields during this afternoon’s low tide, while a little old woman hauls one garland of green seaweed after another out of the water and lays them on the wooden boat beside her. She’s helping to bring in Sudarta’s harvest. “With my grandfather, I was the first on the island to plant seaweed. I was 11 at the time,” he recalls. The seaweed changed everything in his village; the villagers at last earned money. Before that, they had lived solely from fishing, but that brought in so little that bitter poverty reigned. Today they profit – like Bali’s salt farmers – from the worldwide demand for choice raw materials.
They send most of the seaweed to Japan, where the they are needed by pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. The rest ends up in restaurants in Hong Kong, says Sudarta, heading for his house beyond the beach. His wife works at the hospital, his elder daughter is at school, and during the day, he looks after the youngest himself – and in between times, prepares a fresh load of seaweed for planting out. He plops down onto a plastic chair in the shade, reaches for a line with one hand, and with the other, fishes one gleaming seaweed shoot after the next from a basket and knots it to the line. He breaks off a piece; it snaps like a twig. “That’s how it should sound when the shoots are very young,” he says.
He loves his job and is proud of what he and his grandfather have built up. But the seaweed business is facing problems. “It used to take two weeks for the seaweed to ripen,” Sudarta explains, “today it’s six.” This he attributes to climate change, explaining that as temperatures rise, the nutrients in the water change and seaweed growth becomes poorer. Added to this, prices have fallen drastically. In the mid-1990s, he could command the equivalent of roughly 1.70 euros per kilo, today, just 40 cents. A second source of income had to be found, so Sudarta joined with four other families and bought a motorboat to bring tourists from Bali to their island. “Who better for the job than us seaweed farmers? We know the weather, the water, and the currents hereabouts,” he says. They optimistically called their boat Glory Express and painted a little crown over the name.
The people at Big Tree Farms are determined that the cocoa and coconut business should make enough money for no one to have to switch to tourism. They process cocoa beans and coconut blossoms not far from Ubud in the center of Bali island, inside a building that resembles a large, filigree temple with walls of woven bamboo strips. A bittersweet fragrance seeps through to where the air outside is still damp from the last rain shower. The U.S. citizens Ben Ripple and Frederick Schilling are the forces behind Big Tree Farms. The two entrepreneurs already recognized the demand for organic produce from Bali back in 2003. Ripple lives with his family just a few minutes’ drive from the production site, while Schilling, who earned himself a fortune selling an organic chocolate start-up to the American candy giant Hershey Company, is now back living the USA. Both want to prove that sustainable agriculture is not only possible on Bali, but also profitable.
Cocoa butter, chocolate, coconut syrup – Big Tree Farms is constantly expanding its product range. The company sells products to confectionery companies all around the world. Nova Indriani, 29, shows us the production premises. She takes us to a press that uses a secret method to process cocoa fat until it becomes cocoa butter.She points out devices in which cocoa beans are broken down into tiny splinters. And she explains how nectar for syrup is extracted from coconut blossoms. She has to raise her voice when the grinding machine behind her starts making a deafening noise as it grates the cocoa beans into a tough, damply gleaming mass. The eggshell-colored, cast-iron machine bears a “Made in Switzerland” plaque and dates from the early 20th century – none of the technology here is newer. “We didn’t want to replace people with machines,” Indriani yells above the dim. The company employs 190 people, and at the end of the production process, each product is packaged and labeled by hand.
By Balinese standards, there’s nothing special about coconut and cocoa, the plants Big Tree Farms processes. They grow wild beside any parking lot, in the jungle around the corner, and close to the Ayung River, the longest on the island. Wherever you look, there are dozens of shades of green, leaves rustling in the wind, coconuts swaying in the palm trees, and in a small clearing, the cocoa pods with their yellow, green and black markings. Nowhere is there any sign of Big Tree Farms possibly running out of raw materials. Nevertheless, in the middle of it all, we spot another offering: orchid blossoms, stapled onto a tree trunk. “That’s left over from last week’s national holiday,” Indriani explains, “it’s our way of giving thanks for the good harvest.” A harvest that will soon be going out all over the world from Bali.