Bali’s new Village Ecotourism Network provides an alternative to mass tourism.
Wayan Ari and Gin Simpson
Ibu Soma balances precariously on a small wooden stepladder. It wobbles a little, but she is practised at this. Rolling up her sleeves, she reaches into the tree and claims her tiny prizes one by one. They are sunset-coloured capsules, which she will sun-dry and husk, revealing the perfect coffee beans within. Her daughter picks some of the lower beans and slowly they begin to fill their basket. The work is methodical, and made even more meditative by the peacefulness of the forest-gardens around them. The silence is interrupted only by birdsong. From far off, however, come the sounds of footsteps. Eventually a small group of visitors round a bend, pattering quietly in damp undergrowth and murmuring softly. They are headed by Gede, one of Bu Soma’s fellow coffee farmers, and a local eco-guide. They stop to admire Bu Soma’s harvest, and soon the little patch of garden is filled with chatter and laughter.
Pelaga is one of only four villages in Bali’s budding Village Ecotourism Network (JED). Like the other villages in the network, Pelaga villagers were prompted to take part in JED after halting government plans to ‘develop’ the village as a mass tourism attraction. The community decided instead to try doing tourism their own way — a way that wouldn’t change the face of Pelaga, nor upset the routines of its farming community. Rather, JED visitors blend into the landscape and become part of the village for the day, fitting in with the local pace and way of life. In Pelaga, this means wandering around, and learning about, the village and its mixed forest gardens, where wild forest is interspersed with planted chillies, lemongrass, cinnamon, clove, cocoa and, of course, Pelaga’s king crop, organic coffee. The local guides can give first hand accounts of life in the coffee business, inspiring any guest to look more appreciatively into their morning cup. Far from the hit-and-run culture of mass tourism found in much of Bali, this is tourism that means something to the locals beyond financial reward — JED provides a space for the villagers to present to the world their Bali, unrelated to the distorted international image of ‘paradise’ promoted in tourist brochures. It also enables some control over tourism for the Balinese. For too long they have been tourist ‘objects’, profiting investors from outside Bali, while they have been left with the ecological and cultural fallout that so often follows mass tourism.
Four villages working together
JED is only now beginning to flower, after being established in 2002 and having struggled through the economic impact of two bombs. The concept grew from a collaboration between Yayasan Wisnu, one of Bali’s oldest environmental NGOs, and the four villages with whom they had just finished natural resource mapping. The villages and the NGO are now the five equal shareholders in JED. One of the happiest participants in the initiation process was Pak Mangku, a respected elder and priest from Tenganan village. Tenganan is well-established on the tourist map as one of Bali’s oldest villages, retaining a culture quite different from the rest of Bali. For decades Pak Mangku had watched tourists come in and out of the village, escorted by external tour guides who knew little of Tenganan’s rich history or culture. They left a small donation at the gate, sauntered in, looked around and left, leaving the Tenganan residents completely on the sidelines in their own village. Pak Mangku’s first mission within JED was to develop trekking routes. Tenganan is surrounded by one of Bali’s most intact remaining rainforests, full of species invaluable to Tenganan’s ceremonial life. Pak Mangku is amongst those who know the plants best. Back in the village, he and the others who have done training to become local guides now relish the opportunity to explain how the philosophies of harmony and balance at the heart of village custom are reflected in their weaving. They share their concerns for the future of the village. Of course, the general tourists with the big travel agencies still come to Tenganan, but their experiences are not as rich as that of those who spend their day as the guests of the residents. Neither do they have the sense of satisfaction of JED visitors, who know they have contributed something to the village. As JED is owned and managed by the villages, all the profits from a JED trip remain in the visited communities. The local guide on duty and the women who cook the meals are paid a fee, and similarly those whose lands were crossed by the visitors receive a small contribution. The rest of the profits are shared between the temple, the village council and a conservation fund, to ensure that the whole village receives benefit, not only those directly involved.
There are two other villages in the JED network: Sibetan village and Nusa Ceningan island. Sibetan is the princess of JED, perched daintily at the foot of the volcano Mt Agung, and beautiful from all sides. However, the 1963 eruption of Agung blanketed Sibetan’s farming lands with ash and dust, rendering them almost useless for most forms of agriculture. Luckily the snakefruit (salak) plant was able to grow in the ash, and it has saved the village economy. The residents of Sibetan have become snakefruit seed-savers and specialists, and they make this fruit, with its brown snake-like skin and white flesh, into Bali’s only snakefruit wine. Visitors are invited to taste the wine with their lunch, which is also largely prepared from local organic ingredients. While trekking around Sibetan, visitors have spectacular views over green mountains and valleys all the way to the sea. Visitors can can also enjoy Sibetan’s cool tranquillity during a home stay.
Nusa Ceningan Island, in stark contrast to Sibetan, is hot and salty. This is the place for sea lovers. The majority of the population here are seaweed farmers, and the patchwork seaweed plantations surrounding the island emerge at low tide. Nusa Ceningan Island has a siesta culture, with the farmers working early in the morning, resting in the midday sun, and then going back to their plantations in the late afternoon. The really keen visitor can get up at dawn to squidge through the muddy sand and see how the farmers tie new cuttings onto their frames to start the next crop. Those on a more leisurely schedule can stick to the daytime activities. They can snorkel over the gorgeous reef on the island’s north-east, explore the coasts and hills for views over neighbouring islands (including mainland Bali) and chat with the locals on bamboo podiums. The residents always recommend a trip to the western tip of the island for sunset, when the waves crash dramatically onto cliffs and thousands of swallows come out of the caves below the cliff to look for their evening meal.
Working toward the future
JED villages are special places, although calling them ‘paradise’ would downplay the difficulties they face. All JED villages have their problems. Tenganan frets about how to regain the younger generation’s interest in their heritage. People worry about environmental issues, such as erosion in Pelaga and salinity on Ceningan. Add to these problems the temptation to sell land, as is happening all over Bali. Investors and government continue to pressure villagers. Yet involvement in JED has helped the villagers view such pressures as an affirmation of the value of their natural and cultural resources. The villagers continue to fight to maintain the beauty and value of their natural surroundings, the strength of their culture and traditions, and their ability to pass on what they have worked for to their children. The villagers aim to use JED to diversify agricultural incomes, encourage the passing of knowledge through the generations and, when the tourism income increases, provide capital to spend on carrying out small-scale environmental programs.
It is early days. The network members still have to do much planning together, which they do in six-monthly meetings. In the coming year they must review the social and environmental capacities of the villages and discuss where to direct their conservation funds. Finding ways to compete with the marketing prowess of the major travel agencies is always a challenge, as is covering operational costs on a low budget. Yet despite the obstacles, JED villagers have a strong desire to develop sustainable incomes from their resources and share their insights with visitors. Yayasan Wisnu and its network partners wish to demonstrate a viable alternative to exploitative mass tourism in Bali, and invite you to participate.
All JED visitors have a memorable experience and their message to other travellers is clear — until you’ve experienced JED, don’t think you’ve ‘been to Bali’ yet.