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Nusa Lembongan, Indonesia – In the early 1980s, seaweed farming was the main industry on the Penida Archipelago, three sun-kissed islands off Bali’s southeast coast.
But just as aquaculture was about to take off, the striking square seaweed patches that checker-boarded the islands’ bays and inlets faded away.
“When I first came here in 2010, you could see the patches everywhere and smell seaweed drying on the side of every road,” said Valery Senyk, assistant manager at Batu Karang Resort, the archipelago’s first luxury hotel. “By 2016, the only farms that remained were in the channel dividing Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan islands. By 2019, there were none left at all.”
The end of seaweed farming was a symptom of Indonesia’s tourism boom, which saw visitor numbers rocket from seven million in 2010 to 16 million in 2019, according to Statistics Indonesia. Since Batu Karang opened in 2005, land values on the islands have increased up to 20 percent each year. Thousands of Chinese day-trippers and hundreds of Australian surfers visited every day, providing jobs that offered regular wages and far easier working conditions than aquaculture.
But with the global tourism industry paralysed by the coronavirus pandemic and 13 million tourism workers now unemployed in Indonesia, seaweed farming in the Penida Archipelago is back in vogue. “When COVID-19 hit, the locals reverted immediately back to it,” Senyk said.
Before the pandemic, Kasumba, who like many Indonesians goes by only one name, was Batu Karang’s purchasing officer. Now she is one of an estimated one thousand islanders who spend their days knee-deep in seawater and busy planting, harvesting and hauling baskets of seaweed.
“My grandmother was a seaweed farmer, but I never did it before because I studied accounting in university,” Kasumba said. “It’s really hard work but I am lucky to do it. There are no other jobs here now. Without it, I might not have money to eat.”
Kasumba says she likes working outdoors and the communal aspect of the job, but she notes the returns are poor. “Between five of us we earn only $200 to $300 a month,” she said.
Her neighbour Kadek also says he earns much less farming seaweed than in his previous job as a reservation clerk at the Tamarind Resort Nusa Lembongan. “Before I made $200 a month and partied with my friends on weekends,” he said. “Now I have to work seven days a week just to earn $50 a month. I haven’t had a Bintang [beer] since March.”
Ari, a shopkeeper who used to earn $5 in profit for every T-shirt sold to tourists, now earns only $33 a month tending to a small plot of seaweed. And her return keeps on shrinking. “Last month, they paid us 13,000 rupiahs (88 cents) for one kilogramme of dried seaweed. This month they are paying only 10,000 rupiahs (68 cents),” she said of the middlemen who resell the commodity to factories in China and Vietnam where it is refined into carrageenan, an additive used in the food industry for its thickening and stabilising properties.
When Ari asked why the price was going down, the middlemen attributed it “too much competition” between farmers in Penida and “exporting problems” associated with lockdowns.
Djusdil Akrim, the owner of Bosowa, a carrageenan factory in South Sulawesi Province, Indonesia’s seaweed farming hub, says diminishing returns for farmers on Penida are not a symptom of oversupply or lockdowns.
“Seaweed exports from Indonesia are growing more than 10 percent a year,” he said. The estimate is corroborated by data released by the Indonesian Marine Affairs and Fisheries Ministry that shows exports of fishery products increased seven percent in the first half of 2020 compared with the same period last year, with seaweed identified as one of the top four commodities.
The problem in Penida, Akrim says, is that the industry is unregulated. “The government is never thinking about industrial cultivation, so what we are left [with] are small farmers trying to survive,” he said. “In the Philippines, seaweed farmers have formed unions and have bargaining power with Chinese buyers. In South Korea, they’ve turned seaweed farms into tourist attractions where people pay to see how the product is cultivated. But even here in Sulawesi where there are 200,000 seaweed farmers, there is no collaboration between business and government.”
Akrim says formalisation of the industry in Penida will not be possible until there is consistent supply. “In Sulawesi, seaweed farming is different. Tourism never increased so fast like in Bali, so we never had conflict between farming and tourism where lots of the areas for farming were taken over for tourism,” he explained.
Farmers in Penida confirmed mass tourism had made it impossible to grow seaweed in the channel dividing Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan islands. “About five years ago, everyone gave up on seaweed because it wouldn’t grow well anymore,” Kasumba said.“I think it’s because all the diving boats affected the environment.”
Another farmer who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity blamed the row of now-empty bars and restaurants lining the channel for releasing sewerage straight into the water.
In 2017, when Bali’s Mount Agung volcano experienced a series of small but significant series of eruptions and tourism dropped by two-thirds, many islanders on the Penida Archipelago returned to seaweed farming.
“They started thinking if they depend only on tourism, their income will not be stable,” said Muhammad Zia ul Haq, seaweed sector coordinator at Rikolto, an NGO supporting small farmers in Bali.
“So we talked to them about combining the two activities,” he explained. Women learned how to make food and drinks out of seaweed to sell to tourists while the local government provided them with seedlings and the rope to make the netting the seaweed grows on.
“But when tourism returned and the government assistant ended, the farms were not maintained and farming stopped,” Haq said.
To help prevent the same thing from happening again, Rikolto has now joined forces with Evoware, a Jakarta-based startup that makes food wrappings from seaweed.
“I wanted to make a product that raises awareness of plastic rubbish but in a different way, and seaweed seemed perfect,” said cofounder David Christian. “Indonesia is one of the largest seaweed producers in the world. Seventy percent of our country is ocean and we can plant it everywhere. It also absorbs carbon and releases oxygen into the atmosphere, so it’s very eco-friendly.”
Evoware’s flagship product, Ello Jello, is a disposable and edible cup made from seaweed that comes in four different flavours and can be used for cold drinks. But uptake has been limited. The company can only produce 500 units daily and is yet to crack the code for heat-resistant disposable coffee cups – 16 billion of which are used each year, according to the Earth Day network. “More research and development is needed to make them heat resistant and for mass production,” Christian says.
Adds Rikolto’s Zia ul Haq: “We need good government policy and support from big manufacturing so the price of seaweed-based plastic will decrease.”
Djusdil Akrim offers a more immediate solution for the seaweed farmers of Penida.
“So far they only export raw seaweed to China,” he said. “But if they had a carrageenan factory in Bali, they could cut out the middlemen and add value to their products. The government would also benefit. When we export seaweed to China, they don’t pay any tax. But if it was processed in Indonesia, the government would earn export tariffs.”
But Akrim is not holding his breath and expects seaweed farming to die off again in Penida the moment tourism returns.
Certainly, the islanders have no plans to continue farming any longer than they have to.
“I am hoping to go back to my old job as soon as I can,” said Kasumba.
Her neighbour Kadek shares her views: “I think everyone will go back to tourism because it is more profitable,” he said. “Only the old people will keep on working here because they have no other skills.”
– With reporting by Lala Samsura