Whale swimming - photo by Guille Pozzi - photo by Guille Pozzi

From Bali: Nusa Penida

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Black Magic Island: Part I

Black Magic Island dockThere exists a solemn rite that every Balinese Hindu is expected to complete at least once during this lifetime. They must make a special pilgrimage to “Nusa Penida”, the black magic island, to visit a particular temple whose energy provides negative balance to the positive side of divinity. At one time Nusa Penida was inhabited by ghouls, demons, and dark spirits, including one of the most feared evil spirits in the local mythology: I Macaling, the spreader of sickness and disease. Penida (or priests) of the neighboring Gelgel kingdom and the island of Bali were sent to cleanse the island and banish I Macaling.

It was this metaphysical battle of light and dark that gave the island its name. 

Painting for TempleI Macaling was not completely subdued; his influence is formidable when he is angered. Those on the mainland blame the small landmass, just an hour’s boat ride from the cosmopolitan bustle of Bali, for disasters like floods and the proliferation of disease.  Negative associations don’t stop at black magic: the island was also the penal colony for criminal outcasts in the 18th century, and is generally thought to be dry and inhospitable. Why would it be so crucial to visit such a tainted place? The Balinese spiritual belief system, a unique hybrid of Buddhism, Hinduism, and animism, conceptualizes the universe in terms of balance, and respects both good and evil as equally necessary and mutually present. It remains then that the island is an important spiritual destination — but only when religious holidays dictate attendance.

Nusa BeachI arrived on the shores of Nusa Penida this past summer, and when I hopped out of the boat, my feet were enveloped by warm, crystal clear waters, lapping softly onto ivory sand, speckled with pearlescent and crimson seashells. Bunches of unusual tropical fruits sat cool and inviting in the shade of the numerous warungs, or food stalls, along the beach. The wooden structures themselves were equally as snug and colorful in their seemingly endless arrangement, tapering off beneath the shadows of verdant cliffs. Mt. Agung, the tallest peak on Bali, filled the sky with quiet authority to the North, across a sea whose placid surface would occasionally scintillate with a rush of flying fish and betray the existence of kaleidoscopic reefs below. Exploring inland, I was greeted with more invigorating views, more revitalizing beaches, and a wealth of engaging, curious people. It would seem that the “curse” of Nusa Penida had actually become a blessing, and that this was one place on earth that, as the program manager of the conservation efforts on the island would put it, still had hope.

This profound optimism, shared by locals and ex-pat conservation volunteers alike, is the result of a unique blend of remarkable characteristics that are rarely encountered in synchrony elsewhere.

Elderly ManFirst of all. the island is a biological treasure-trove. The landmass is well known as an unofficial endangered bird sanctuary, and its surrounding waters have a stellar reputation among divers who can spend hours absorbed in the commotion of healthy and flourishing coral reefs. Scuba divers commonly encounter large marine species such as giant mantas, the Mola-Mola fish, and whale sharks. Recently, the area has garnered the attention of scientists eager to follow up on claims that previously un-catalogued species, like legless lizards and colorful species of crab, scuttle about undisturbed and “undiscovered”.

Secondly, the island’s relative isolation, the importance of traditional spirituality, and its lack of energy-intensive infrastructure foster a relatively tranquil atmosphere almost completely devoid of Western development. Hope exists in the kind-natured mentality of the local people, the area’s visible disconnect from many of the larger spoils of Westernization, and the almost complete lack of tourist infrastructure. I would even go so far as to say that this rare combination of immense natural beauty, inadvertent isolation, and cultural integrity have the ability to inspire people to believe there are places where capitalism can occupy a drowsy backdrop to more substantial principles of subsistence-living, environmental protection, and community.

StarlingThe organization on the island most inspired by its potential is small but hardy, much like the birds they rehabilitate. The Friends of the National Park Foundation (FNPF),is a non-profit organization founded by veterinarian and Bali native Bayu Wirayuda. Operating within the philosophy of community-based conservation, FNPF’s mission calls for the protection of local wildlife while simultaneously nurturing the people that respect conservation practices. The idea is to create relationships that by virtue of the welfare of individual life forms improve the wellbeing of the collective. Such a partnership has flourished in favor of one of Bali’s most charming birds – and its national emblem – the Bali Starling.

In his 2012 TED Talk, Dr. Bayu related his personal relationship with the Starling. His father, who had been a police officer, once confiscated several of the milky, plump birds, and Bayu, who admittedly spent an unusual amount of time around pet birds as a child, boldly asked if he could keep one himself. The answer was no, and his father explained, “These birds are illegal to own.” One Bali Starling can fetch up to $3,000 on the black market, a sum that can replace months of labor, and a figure poachers readily brave imprisonment for, Due to the insatiable demand for this bird’s capture, only ten Bali Starlings existed in the wild in 2005. Now, just seven years later, 200 Starlings fly freely on the island, and census reports from 16 separate locations continue to be positive. Nusa Penida is also a haven for Java Sparrows, Sulphur Crested Cockatoos, and Mitchell’s Lorakeets.

Village girlsEnsuring island-wide participation in the sanctuary program was not a simple task. All forty-three villages were required to agree to an “awig-awig”, or a regulation that would be adhered to by virtue of local customary law. And, in true island fashion, it was a process drawn out by lengthy visits and return-visits to each village — which were often interrupted by practicalities such as ceremonies and deteriorating roads – which spanned a length of two years before consensus was reached. In return for the communities’ official and pain-stakingly organized vow to protect the birds, FNPF provides islanders with a library, school supplies for disadvantaged students, traditional Balinese dance classes, English classes, weekly clean-up days, free saplings of various tree species such as coffee and teak, and most recently, an array of organic community gardens, which I will address later.

Eco-tourism has also been suggested as a sustainable livelihood venture for local residents, but hasn’t yet “grown wings”. Given eco-tourism’s track record for inviting more garbage than good to previously undisturbed areas, the lack of widespread tourist infrastructure could be of more value to the island and provide space for an array of alternate livelihoods to be developed. (In the meantime however, foreign investors are already prospecting for plots of land that are suitable for modern resorts and spas, a process which has instilled a sense of anxiety in residents who don’t want their land to become another “Kuta”, an increasingly commercialized and touristy hot-spot on Bali, where the 2002 bombings took place.)

Kuta Night lightsThe almost utopian qualities of this island are not unmarked by burdens, however. The local economy is almost completely reliant on seaweed harvests, where financial benefits are accumulated much farther down the production line, leaving people impoverished and dependent on a fluctuating market. Conversely, subsistence crops are noticeably absent, and Nusa Penida is forced to import almost all of its food supply from Bali. In a world where self-sufficiency is becoming increasingly necessary due to changing, unpredictable climates and the rising cost of fuel, the hope and optimism that Nusa Penida portrays in terms of environmental and cultural preservation will be tested by its very foundation: the sandy, limestone-based soil that narrowly blankets the land. Introducing organic crops, which are risky ventures in and of themselves, in an environment that does not easily lend itself to agriculture, asks a lot of families already living hand-to-mouth. FNPF is convinced however that the programs have potential, and has launched ten pilot projects across the island – a topic that will be explored more in depth in the next entry.

Drying seaweed Earlier this year, in January, Nusa Penida experienced unprecedented poor weather that consisted of thunderstorms, floods, tornados, and seas so tempestuous that food shipments were delayed. Dire circumstances such as these could increase in frequency as global warming progresses, transforming the people of Nusa Penida from rural villagers into “climate refugees” a categorization that, according to the Association of the Advancement of Science, is predicted to claim 50 million people by 2020.

Seaweed BedAccording to Balinese-Hindu spiritual teachings, any energy with the potential for destruction has an equal and opposite potential for creation – a capacity that even a force as formidable as I Macaling inevitably possesses. This island currently occupies a gray space, as all communities do, lingering on the threshold of poverty, impending development in whatever form it will take, and quite possibly the elusive symbiotic, natural existence with the environment that so many imagine and search for. Here will play the eternal struggle between creation and destruction that mirrors the condition of life from the dawn of time. Personally, I am one of those who hope the people of Nusa Penida and their land weather storms, both literal and figurative, with the resourcefulness for which the Balinese are so famous, and with the blessings of the gods.




Black Magic Island, Part II

Altaire Cambata Garden (Justin May)Multicolored quarter-sized candy wrappers, amassed by the fist full, were slipping through my gloves on my thirtieth trip to the trash bag in the corner of the lot. I crouched again, my dirty knees hovering above the aged, twisted plastic, the remnants of a bygone lunch I had yet to excavate. Ten other swift and lively pairs of hands were similarly occupied: digging, manning hoes, rakes, and shovels, or tossing mounds of grass and earth over stonewalls on the periphery, and occasionally pausing to wipe beaded brows. We had already relocated cumbersome hunks of limestone, yanked out innumerable, sturdy weeds with stubborn rhizomes, and now we were tilling the earth only to find trash compacted thick as roots, extending at least a meter downward.

We were in the middle of a garbage pit; a mini landfill for the junior high school directly before us windows framing curious faces, bemused with disbelief as we toiled in a forgotten corner of their campus.

MikeIt was hard to imagine that in just a few days this yard – teeming with the remnants of a thousand snack times – would be transformed into an organic garden and teaching space, and yet, that is exactly what happened.

The work was being headed by young adults from around the world, volunteering for the Friends of the National Park Foundation (FNPF) on a small island off the coast of Bali, Indonesia. The island is a biological and cultural treasure, basically immune from all the trappings of Western culture, minus a conspicuous waste management problem. Mike Appleton, a long-time volunteer of FNPF, told us when we arrived that we would be lending our time to the new organic garden project on the island. Having received the funding to sow and reap ten pilot plots, Mike wanted to show islanders how a garden could be started literally anywhere. Hence the candy-wrappers.

What is particularly interesting about this plan is that the island, Nusa Penida, is veiled in porous, limestone-based soil which is notoriously difficult to cultivate . There is also a lack of local agricultural know-how. Long-term farming cooperatives never took root on the island. This spit of land off the coast of mainland Bali is where prisoners were thrown during the Klungkung dynasty; a sort of Alcatraz for political prisoners, delinquents and thieves — and even evil spirits.

Instead, over the years, island-wide subsistence based farming became absent in the face of a somewhat lucrative and steady production of seaweed: the cash crop of the island. The majority of food eaten on the island is imported regularly from Bali – minus mangos, coconuts, and jackfruit, which appear in copious amounts during their respective seasons – and recently, the exchange has been strained…

Palm PutrIn January of 2012, Nusa Penida was hit with unusual and destructive weather patterns. The FNPF center, based around sea level and about a kilometer from the tide, was completely flooded, while a small, freak tornado whipped through the interior forests of the island. The twelve kilometers of sea between Bali and Nusa Penida became rough, blustery and treacherous. Food shipments typically arriving by boat were delayed. Such unpredictably severe storms, combined with rising fuel costs, have Mike concerned and islanders anxious about future food security. If Nusa Penida, the poorest district in the Klungkung regency of Bali, cannot find more self-sufficient pathways for food procurement, the health of the people may be at risk. This is especially true if climate change projections are correct and tempestuous weather becomes an increasingly formidable intruder.

On the bright side, the track record of planting on Nusa Penida is a good one. In an effort to reforest areas of Nusa Penida that were cleared during its history as a penal colony, eighteen different tree species have been planted in numbers of about 18,000 a season since 2009. There have been high rates of success: around 80% of all saplings survive. FNPF constantly monitors the health of reforestation sites and quickly resolves any threats to growth. For example, in the summer of 2009, newly planted seedlings were withering away due to a continuous and unrelenting heat wave that had begun in March of that year. FNPF was resourceful: various amelioration techniques were employed, including watering the plants, loosening the soil, and administering mulch. As a result, the plants survived.

Break GroundIn an effort to capitalize on the importance of the sense of community ownership of their local environment, mass planting events are often scheduled to correspond with Hindu rituals during which flora and fertility are especially sacred themes. The ancient Hindu philosophy of Tri Hita Karana breathes meaning into FNPF’s presence and practices on the island, a philosophy that literally translates as three harmonies: harmony between people and God, people and people, and people with the environment.

Some flora and fauna on the island are considered sacred in and of themselves. The orange coconut, prized for its color, is reserved for use only during important Hindu ceremonies. Trees wrapped with the meaningful black and white checkered saput poleng cloth, representative of the binary forces of the universe, are thought to contain plant spirits. These ethereal layers of reality, combined with community benefits provided by FNPF, such as education scholarships for local students and a community library, foster a copacetic relationship.

Similar protocol has been used to stimulate the budding organic farming venture. Before ground is even broken, nearby villages are invited to attend a meeting describing the location and benefits of the gardens. Information on organic composting and agroforestry are offered at the FNPF center, and those with the desire to begin their own organic gardens are provided with training and the necessities to get started. FNPF Headquarters maintains a nursery packed with thousands of free saplings – teak, papaya, and coffee plants are popular selections. Once products in the nursery and the pilot gardens become ripe, locals are encouraged to harvest the yields and distribute them to friends, family, and neighbors. In the long run, Mike hopes that introducing organic farming can transform farming habits, improve nutrition, lower food prices, and possibly offer alternative revenue to the seaweed farming industry.

Nusa PenidaFarmers collect an average of 40 to 50 tons of seaweed each harvest, but significant price fluctuations impact their profit margins. Several different seaweed species are harvested on Nusa Penida. Spinosum ranges in price between Rp 2,000 and Rp 2,900 per kilogram (around 0.20 USD), and cottoni between Rp 4,000 to Rp 5,300 per kilogram (around 0.50 USD). After the harvest, which happens around every 35-45 days year round, farmers lay their seaweed under the sun for two to three days, depending on the season. During the wet season, drying can last up to a week.

Dried seaweed is sold to traders, who sell the crop to Surabaya, East Java, and other large industrial centers for processing before being exported. This stage is where the real value adding takes place. Some seaweed will be processed into food, while some will end up in high-end cosmetics or pharmaceuticals that can sell for hundreds of dollars with profits accumulating at the end of the production line. Overall, the seaweed industry has had a positive impact on the island, but there is a worry that exclusive dependence on a volatile market leaves farmers economically vulnerable. Diversifying livelihoods by selling organic produce, and introducing subsistence agriculture could help Nusa Penida become more resilient and self-sufficient.

Putu wifeDuring a conversation with a man named Putu who lived in the village of Crystal Bay, I asked if he planned to use any of the resources from FNPF this summer. He led me to his house, and showed me progress he was making on an ornate, stone temple in his backyard. Hints of geometric spires and Hindu gods were slowly but surely emerging from the concrete. It was coming along nicely. “If I had more time, perhaps I would go to FNPF for plants like coffee or some herbs. For now, I am very busy building this temple for my family.” The roads on Nusa Penida are badly paved, crumbling, and marred with potholes, making the trek to FNPF a long and tedious one. Other residents of Nusa Penida cited financial risk as a disincentive for growing organically. However, plans to deliver saplings to peoples’ doorsteps and the successful harvest of pilot gardens may convert more islanders in the coming months.

“Everyone between the ages of six and sixty can climb a coconut tree in this village,” the temple-builder remarked with a smile. Nearby, his wife was stirring a large vat of coconut meat. In just a few hours, the mixture would yield several bottles’ worth of an unmolested, virgin coconut oil. No chainsaws, electricity, or chemicals were used during the process. This mentality of maintaining a holistic relationship with the nature already exists in various forms throughout Nusa Penida. It maintains a reputable status as an unofficial bird sanctuary – the Bali Starling, technically extinct elsewhere, thrives undisturbed among the coconut trees — and sensational diving haven flanked by the bleached, empty coral around mainland Bali. These signals bode well for the future of their organic agriculture sector.

Although the island struggles with poverty, crumbling roads, and a lack of waste management infrastructure, FNPF is quietly transforming Nusa Penida into a sustainability model that could inform similar island communities across the planet. It is rather remarkable that 43 villages that largely live hand-to-mouth can agree upon a customary law to protect endangered birds that would normally be sold on the black market for thousands of dollars. It is inspirational to hear from young people that, although they have to find work on the Balinese mainland, they come home to see their families every weekend and want to protect their homeland from the unplanned development they see in nearby tourist hotspots. It is enchanting to walk among ancient Banyan trees, clad with checkered cloth and animate with spirit life. Most of all, it is humbling to encounter people who understand the irreplaceable connection humans maintain with encompassing ecosystems. These lessons have a place beyond the shores of this island.

C BaySystematically throughout history, those in power have removed elements of the sacred from the natural world in order to turn mountains of the gods into artificial canyons striped for gold. Even in a secular reality, how can we disregard the merit inherent within billions of years of evolution in favor of technologies and ways of being that destroy the very processes that sustain us? For 95% of human history, humans lived in communion with the earth as nomadic foragers. Now partitions between humans and nature, both culturally and unconsciously erected, blind us to the answers we so fervently seek in the face of food crises and climate change. Anyone who believes nature to be simple and passé has never regarded a scintillating, kaleidoscopic coral reef at dawn, delicately arranged in spiraling layers and pulsing with a masquerade of buoyant vivacity against which the most technologically advanced high-rise neighborhoods pale. Perhaps those who view the earth as an expendable rung in an ever-advancing linear quest toward the “modern” have never beheld this rhythmic microcosm, this immaculate apotheosis of life. Amongst chaos, nature is most resilient in the state of equilibrium. It is how we survive, slowly spinning within a verdurous marble in the sparse, life-less expanse of space. Is it, then, such a flawed model to emulate? It certainly resides within the philosophy of permaculture and organic farming. If anywhere has a chance of successfully adopting these both equally new and ancient farming practices, it is the unique island of Nusa Penida.

All photos courtesy of Justin May and Interwoven

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