Category Archives: Eco Bali

Food of the gods on the island of the gods….

Chocolate truffles at Alchemy, photograph courtesy Suki Zoe

The magical world of raw chocolate

A few years ago my  friends had a ‘decadent dessert party’ and we all took along a dessert of our choice, not surprisingly there was a lot of chocolate – including my own triple chocolate cheesecake. What had started as a very chilled affair suddenly turned into a mad crazy night of dancing, I assumed we were all on a  sugar rush, it only occurred to me recently that we were more likely high on chocolate.

Few foods can evoke such passion, sensuality, comfort and addiction.  What is it that makes chocolate so special?

Legend has it that the first cacao beans came from paradise and lent wisdom and power to the person that ate them.  Deep in the tropical rainforests of central America, ancient Mayans  used ground cocoa beans in wedding rituals and for healing magic. To the Aztecs it was known as the food of the gods; and it is said that the  god Quetzalcoatl, was  kicked out of paradise for giving chocolate to the human race.

Most of us have experienced the ‘feel good factor’ of chocolate, its smooth exotic taste known to induce feelings of euphoria, even its aroma is enough to promote feelings of well being and happiness.  But if you are reading this while munching on a Mars Bar, its time to think again. While mass produced store bought confectionery might taste good and have a small amount of nutritional benefits,  this is sadly outweighed by vast amounts of chemicals, refined fats and sugars.

Raw chocolate, on the other hand provides a dose of pure natural goodness and is packed with magnesium, antioxidants and  a taste far superior to anything you will find on a supermarket shelf. In its purest form chocolate contains  an abundance of Tryptophan, a substance which triggers a reaction in the brain and creates a feeling of elation and giddiness. It is also packed with  Anandamide a name derived from the Sanskrit word ananda, which means bliss. Also known as the love chemical, Anandamide induces feelings of euphoria…. just like falling in love. While cooking and processing chocolate destroys much of its natural goodness, raw chocolate is healthy for the mind, body and soul.

Raw Chocolate cake at Alchemy, photograph courtesy of Suki Zoe

A number of places in Bali are now making raw chocolate, but Alchemy, a quirky health cafe in Ubud has the best,  with its  gleaming refrigerator shelves stocked with a dazzling display of cakes, candy and chocolates that don’t just taste good, they are good for you. The slabs of dense chewy chocolate bars are seriously ‘to die for’ (or at least to ‘drive to Ubud for….’) I also love the homemade bounty bars filled with fresh shredded coconut, the dark peppermint infused Stevia Mint Drops and the coconut dusted truffles. Bali Buddha also has a good selection, including lovely heart-shaped chocolate truffles, while Desa Seni serves up a tasty range of energy balls – just the thing after a yoga session. The raw chocolate dream pie at Clear Cafe in Ubud also deserves a mention – it is positively dreamy! It is also worth paying a visit to Five Elements in Mambal, a divine eco retreat offering gourmet raw cusisine that provides one of the most profound dining experiences on the island. Actually, the first time I tried raw chocolate was here and it was a moment I will never forget.

One of the newest venues on Bali’s raw chocolate scene is the inspiring Bamboo Chocolate Factory, also in Mambal (just near the Green School.) The soaring bamboo building rises from a sea of tropical forests and has been created by Big Tree farms who work with local farmers to produce organic ingredients such as salt and pepper, vanilla, cashews and honey.  You can join a tour of the factory, which starts with  a cup of thick and creamy organic hot chocolate to get you in the mood. A guide will then lead you along the labyrinth of bamboo hallways and cavernous rooms, following the trail of the humble cacao bean as it is transformed into a delicious chocolate bar. If images of oompa loompas and rivers of chocolate are flowing through your mind, think again; but if you are remembering the movie ‘Chocolate’, with the beautiful Vianne sensually grinding beans on a stone you are a little closer, but still not thinking big enough.  Actually, the six tonne, 70-year-old Mélangeur is so big it has its own room – with two giant granite rollers that crush the cacao beans (fermented, not roasted) into a thick paste.  Twelve hours later the paste is ready for the conche which turns it into a smooth liquid, while a cold press separates the butter. In the cashew sorting room, nuts are hand selected and trimmed, before making their way into chocolate bars.  Back in the tasting room you can try the fresh slabs of 70% bitter chocolate, which is also on sale, along with cold processed cacao powder, and cashew chocolate nibs. Chocolate-making workshops are planned to start from August so you will be able to create your own sublime concoctions.

cocoa dusted truffles at Alchemy, photograph courtesy Suki Zoe


Desa Seni Magic


At  Desa Seni  the path to well being is scattered with flowers…..

As my friend and resident Kundalini yoga teacher Daphna says, “It’s a place of peace and joy, from the moment you enter any stress evaporates…. it’s a happy place.”

Desa Seni has been keeping me sane for the past two years, a sanctuary that is most certainly my happy place, where I can escape from work and every day pressures, and  lose myself in the beauty of my surroundings and in the ancient practice of yoga. At early morning classes  I  watch the flowers unfurl as I stretch into sun salutations, while sunset classes are filled with the golden glow of dusk and the flickering light of candles against a crimson streaked sky.

I always feel like I am stepping into a fairy tale as I follow the stepping stones that lead through colourful vegetable patches and heavily laden fruit trees. Everywhere I look there is something of beauty that has been thoughtfully placed to create joy ; a quaint wooden bridge, an  ancient dug out canoe filled with flowers, a wooden statue decorated with frangipani, or a carefully labelled tree or plant.

I once spent a weekend at Desa Seni staying in one of the charming antique wooden houses gathered from across the Indonesian archipelago. My beautiful house came with a  written story that detailed its origins, and that of all the antiques that filled it. In the afternoon one of the staff dropped by with fresh fruit and herbal tea and when I woke in the morning there was a traditional Balinese offering placed on my verandah with a card explaining how to make the offering to my own small temple.

Tom, the ever-inspiring man behind Desa Seni describes how he saw the island “blooming and growing” but felt that no one was staying true to Bali. His vision incorporated farming, yoga, unlimited potential for creativity, and integration with the local community. His founding belief , “If we all give back, educate, inspire and nurture, the world will be a better place.” I love that Tom is a man of his word and Desa Seni gives back to the community on so many levels, from being organic and green, to free English and yoga classes for the staff, to organising beach clean ups and to sponsoring worthy organisations such as Sacred Childhood Organisation and initiatives such as Ayu Kita Bicara which raises awareness about AIDS in the community.  Through Kula magazine Desa Seni continues to spread the word and promote like minded people and businesses on the island.

Desa Seni reminds me to always take a little time for myself to reconnect with the magic and beauty of life – something that I sometimes forget. Here I see positive vibrations leading to action, and remember that we can make a difference. Love certainly isn’t all you need – but it’s a great place to start!

Sarinbuana Eco Lodge

At One With Nature

“The beauty of the  Eco Lodge is  that it can be enjoyed on so many levels , hide away from the world in a secluded mountain paradise, or put yourself out there as you immerse yourself in the nature, culture and  community.”

With a picturesque setting on the slopes of Mt Batakaru Bali Eco Lodge provides a genuine haven for those looking to immerse themselves  in nature and to experience the true essence of  Bali.Charming, secluded bungalows with names like Tree House and Jungle Lodge cling to the hillside, wooden verandas offer birds eye views of  steep valley walls blanketed in thick rain forest; far below you can see the sprawling coast of Kuta – so near,  yet  a world away. The first thing you will notice is the bird song– woodpeckers, kingfishers and  parrots are at play in the forest canopy, black eagles streak across the sky ,  the looming peak of  Mount Batakaru creates a dramatic backdrop. Natural building materials include local timber, like coconut and jack fruit,  while floors are made of hand crafted terracotta tiles. Fresh cut flowers, colourful woven textiles, and warm patchwork quilts (the nights are chilly!) create homely comforts.

Being Green

The lovechild of dedicated environmentalists, Linda and Norm Vant Hoff, the lodge is about as  ‘eco’ as it gets, with well documented  green credentials, including the ‘Responsible Tourism Award’ in 2007 and 2010 ( The tenets of sustainability, low impact building techniques , effective resource and waste management, are all faithfully adhered to, everything is in perfect balance with nature; but we sometimes forget that there is more to the environment than  physical factors.  From Norm and Linda’s point of view,  an eco lodge is “Sustainably connected to the natural, built and social environment”; and the lodge has become a valued  extension of the village and community of Sarinbuana. While you enjoy the magical surrounds, delicious healthy cuisine and a range of activities, you can also relax in the knowledge that   your stay  here contributes to the local economy on a number of levels: The lodge employs  26  staff from the village and have trained locals as trekking guides and massage therapists. Ongoing community projects include extensive tree planting, free English, martial art and football classes for village children, the sponsoring of a university student; and ongoing additions and  improvements to the school. It also  acts as a role model for responsible tourism; promoting low impact activities, with an emphasis on walking, bike riding, and swimming in the waterholes. Enormous value is placed on the preservation and promotion of  local culture, with popular workshops providing genuine insight into everyday life in Bali and the chance to learn traditional skills.   Learn Balinese Calligraphy, Indonesian language, and how to play a traditional instrument, or join the  village ladies who teach the art of  creating beautiful temple offerings, table settings, and cooking;  while Pak Ketut, a remarkable and inspired wood carver (responsible for  the ornate carvings in the bungalows) shares his craft and his wisdom.

A walk in the garden

When Norm and Linda first took over the property it was dominated by wild grass and coconut trees,  eighteen years on the gardens are flourishing with over 100 edible and medicinal plants. The garden tour is a   fascinating and informative journey with Manager, Putri, pointing out all manner of herbs, spices and plants, and explaining their traditional uses. Look out for the fiddletip ferns  – they make a great salad served with shredded coconut and Lombok chili, while the dainty  ginger flowers are equally tasty.  Much of the produce served in the restaurant is picked fresh from the garden, or sourced locally, including coffee and cacao, and home made ice cream is flavoured with the vanilla that grows here. A meandering path leads down to the water holes passing sweetly perfumed orange trees, dense thickets of mulberry  bushes ,  dangling passion fruit vines and a plethora of heliconia. Wooden benches and open air pavilions are scattered about the property, ideal for yoga, meditation and soaking up the silence. If you are feeling more energetic take an early morning hike up to the top of Batakaru, the track leads through the largest rainforest in Bali, home to luwak (civet) leopard cats and monkeys, emerging at a peak with  view stretching over to Lombok and Java .

The beauty of the  Eco Lodge is  that it can be enjoyed on so many levels , hide away from the world in a secluded mountain paradise, or put yourself out there as you immerse yourself in the nature, culture and  community.  Make sure you spend some time with Linda and Norm so you can learn about their various eco projects around the island, including saving the Bali Starling, permaculture, solar energy.  For Linda the Eco lodge has provided “A chance to give back” but she makes it clear that she gets back as much as she gives.  For her the greatest joy is, “To be connected to the environment, the people and the  land,  making a living and a life with local people who are incredibly talented.”  Here the Balinese concept of life, known as Tri Hata Karana is firmly in place – the three forces of happiness – harmony with god, harmony with man, harmony with nature.

Sarinbuana Eco Lodge

Mount Batakaru, Tabanan, Bali

Bombastic plastix


from this



to this.....


They are handed out gleefully by cashiers the length and breadth of the island, used once and abandoned. Their fate − to float down rivers, ride the waves, wash up on the beaches or smolder in black smoky fires.…. In Bali there is no escaping  plastic bags.   But there is always hope, and a small company called Bombastic Plastix  is hard at work turning plastic trash into  funky fashion accessories.

Recycled products often get a bad wrap (no pun intended) because they are produced poorly with little thought for design. But Bombastic Plastix has turned recycling into an art form and their products – bags, purses, wallets,  are attractive in their own right, regardless of their ‘greenness’. Let’s face it, most of us want to do our bit to save the planet but there is nothing wrong with looking good while we are doing it.

It all started a few years ago, on Bombastic founder, Sam Miller’s kitchen floor. He was a man on a mission, armed with an environmental conscience, a keen sense of design, a heap of plastic bags and an iron. Through trial and error he discovered a way to fuse plastic bags into sheets of plastic fabric, which form the base of all his products.  “Its hardly like we are using all the plastic in the world,” he tells me, “but at least we are using some of it; and we are taking something that has a service life of 30 minutes  and converting in into something that lasts years.”

Check out the website, its great fun and really informative, and you will love Sam – he is one super cool dude!

Into the wild; Sumatra

The jungle rises steeply in front of us and we cross the river balanced precariously on a dug out canoe. The wall of dense green foliage looks impenetrable but a narrow, muddy trail has been carved out and the ranger leads us to a small clearing and a feeding platform. We only have to wait a couple of minutes before an orangutan comes swinging gracefully through the trees. It’s a female, and her scrawny baby clings on tightly as she stuffs bunches of bananas into her mouth and scoffs handfuls of milk from the rangers bucket.

drinking milk

Gunung Leuser National Park, Northern Sumatra is one of only two places in the world where orangutans can be observed in the wild. The Bohorok rehabilitation centre operated here from 1973 – 2004 and saw 200 orangutans rescued from captivity and reintroduced to the forest, joining the wild population estimated at around 2000. The feeding platform is the last vestige of the program and is a ‘fall back’ for any semi wild orangutans struggling to find food.

Hanging around

Coming back down the trail we see a huge male sprawled across a thick branch and further on another female hanging nonchalantly from a tree trunk. I chat with the ranger who says that he has the best job in the world. He tells me of the day his father died and as he sat weeping in the jungle, an orangutan appeared and embraced him. “Sometimes the orangs are more human than humans,” he says.



When I first visited the park in 2000, volunteers would carry the newest arrivals like backpacks up into the forest to teach them how to find fruit, build nests and even how to climb trees. The furry, comical creatures and the charmingly quirky village of Bukit Lawang captured my heart and I dreamed of returning to work as a volunteer. But one dark November night in 2003, a flash flood sent a 10 meter wave roaring through the valley destroying everything in its wake. The orangutans, high in the trees survived but more than 300 people died that night and much of the village was washed away, including 400 houses, and 35 guest houses. The road to recovery has been long, but five years on Bukit Lawang, quirky as ever, is once again flourishing and these days is far cleaner, more attractive and more environmentally conscious. There is a spirit of renewed hope and I don’t experience the aggressive hustle of last time, instead, as I walk up the river looking for a room people smile and say “Welcome. Thank you for coming”, and I know they mean it.

DSC03363the river seperates Bukit Lawang from the National Park

DSC03421 the garden inn

The most atmospheric place to stay is at the top of the village, near the entrance to the national park, the guesthouses are thoughtfully constructed, blending seamlessly with the jungle. I stay at Garden Inn, an extraordinarily pretty place filled with tropical blooms, the family is kind and the evenings are candle-lit and filled with the mellow strains of acoustic guitar. I accidentally  leave some mangos on my verandah one afternoon and get invaded by a troop of cheeky monkeys who have a bit of a party on my porch!  Nearby is the Jungle Inn, where carpenters have been busy weaving the art and form of the jungle into the furniture which is gnarled, twisted and vine like. Tables are carved from single tree trunks and the walls are a mosaic of river pebbles. They call it the ‘go with nature style.’

DSC03386 the jungle inn


Late one afternoon I sit by the river, dark thunder clouds tinged with the rosy glow of sunset hang over the forest. A king tree soars majestically above the jungle canopy, according to locals these trees are protected by the spirits of the jungle and almost impossible to chop down. I gaze across the river, scanning for wild life and right on cue, an orangutan emerges through the undergrowth and sits down on a river stone, seemingly lost in thought, until 3 cheeky monkeys start throwing stones. She takes a swipe at them and then ambles back into the trees.


With dramatic scenery, prolific wildlife and plenty of ambience, Bukit Lawang is a really pleasant place to stay for a few days. The river is great for swimming or floating downstream on a tube, there are a number of trails leading into the forest, and the Friday market is buzzing. Local  food is fresh, flavorful and wholesome. Dishes are simmered and served up with an array of whole herbs, such as bundles of lemon grass, assorted leaves and sticks of cinnamon.  Dadar, a specialty, are green pancakes, naturally coloured by jungle leaves and cooked with brown sugar and coconut. Best of all is the jungle tea, a herbal concoction that is said to be good for stimulating the blood. The Jungle Inn version comes unstrained and swimming in licorice, star anise, various leaves, nutmeg, seeds, and chunks of ginger.

DSC03811 jungle tea

Most tourists go trekking, often spending  a night or two in the jungle. Orangutans, monitor lizards, gibbons and monkeys are common sights, but the park is also home to sun bears, tigers and elephants, although these are pretty illusive. A guide is mandatory and those operating out of jungle inn are particularly good. Imbued with the spirit of the jungle they are knowledgeable, responsible and also good fun with many stories to share.



Two days climbing through the steaming jungle seems like a lot of hard work to me  ─  An elephant trek sounds infinitely more appealing, and so I find myself heading north to Tangkahan, on a motor bike with Rinto, one of the Jungle Inn guides.  He has warned me that the road is bad, but road is too kind a term for what is in fact a muddy, potholed and very bumpy trail. The trip can also be done by 4wd or by a rough bus ride from Medan, but the bike ride is great fun and for three hours we pass through rural villages, forests, rubber plantations and sadly, miles and miles of palm oil plantations – the scourge of the jungle. This is true Frontier country, the rainforests here are considered to be the lungs of the earth, but thousands of acres are cleared annually for palm oil plantations which provide quick, easy money. Locals face a dilemma, save the jungle ─ save the world; Or plant oil palms and feed the family?


The tiny and remote village of Tangkahan is a prime example of grass roots conservation where the community rejected the lure of palm oil and decided instead to set up eco-tourism. We cross the river by raft and make our way to the Jungle Lodge, tantalizingly perched over the river. It is infinitely peaceful here, a true wilderness with just four guesthouses and an elephant camp. Of the seven elephants that live here, three came from Bukit Lawang, emerging from the jungle just days before the flood. They were in a frenzied state and refused to go back. Locals were at a loss as to what to do with them, you cant have wild elephants living in the village, so they were trucked to Tangkahan to join the Conservation Response Unit, which uses elephants to patrol the jungle in search of poachers and illegal loggers. It’s possible to join the four-day forest patrol to Bukit Lawang, but I am happy with  a two hour trek.



I ride on Yuni, one of the Bukit Lawang elephants, she is cheeky and playful and her mahout (handler) deftly guides us across rivers, up and down steep muddy slopes and through dense vegetation. Its great to experience the jungle from up high and we stop to sample different fruits and medicinal herbs and leaves. We also see lots of Thomas Leaf monkeys, known as funky monkeys due to their black and white mohawks. Afterwards we wash the elephants in the river. Yuni lies on her side, I swear she is smiling as we scrub off the mud, she then saunters off, disappears underwater and emerges to gleefully squirt us all with trunks full of water. The guides seem to really love their charges and the experience is uplifting, positive and authentic. There are no tacky circus tricks here, although I do get an elephant kiss, when Yuni gently places the tip of her trunk on my forehead, but then Ardana joins in and plants a great big kiss right on my nose, which the guides find hysterical.

DSC03775a double kiss



DSC03761elephant pedicure

I wake early the next morning to birdsong and monkey chatter, my body aches from the bike and elephant rides, so I swim across river to a crevice in the rocks where hot springs bubble up. Completely alone, I soak in the therapeutic waters and soak up the tranquility, until Rinto arrives with a tube and we walk upstream to a gorge and a picturesque waterfall where I get a jungle massage from the pummeling water. We then drift gently downstream on the tube, stopping at Pantai kupu kupu (butterfly beach). Rinto tells me that if a butterfly lands on you it will bring great luck, but as I sit by the river in this hidden paradise, with hundreds of brightly coloured butterflies and dragon flies flitting around me, I already feel incredibly lucky.


DSC03684 Jungle lodge

About orangutans


Millions of orangutans once roamed the forests that stretch from China to Java, now they can only be found in small pockets of Borneo and Sumatra and their very existence lies under grave threat.  In the last 2o years the Sumatran population has decreased from 12,000 to an estimated 6500 and has been classified as “Critically Endangered” by the IUCN, the World Conservation Union.


The Pet trade

Although protected by legislation dating from 1931, which prohibits the owning, killing, or capture of orangutans, they are still in high demand for the pet trade. A baby orangutan can fetch up to $500 in Jakarta and $5000 in Taiwan. A common method for capturing a baby is to track a mother, fell the tree she is in then shoot or club her to death.  Environmentalists say that for every orangutan in captivity at least three babies and their mothers have been killed by poachers or died from mistreatment. Orangutans breed more slowly than any other primate, with the female producing a baby on average only once every 7-8 years. A female will usually have no more than 3 offspring in her lifetime which means that orangutan populations grow very slowly, and take a long time to recover from habitat disturbance and hunting.


Shrinking habitat


It is estimated that the huge forest fires that swept though Indonesia in 1997 destroyed at least 30% of their habitat and drove orangutans to villages where they became easy prey for poachers. Clear felling for rice paddies, rubber plantations and the valuable hardwood trade also forces orangutans out of the forest in search of food. Deemed as agricultural pests by plantations owners, they are often killed.

Indonesia has one of the highest tropical forest loss rates in the world; an estimated 70% of Sumatran forest cover has now been decimated. The Indonesian government admits that the rampant destruction of its forests, estimated at over two million hectares a year has been an ecological and conservation disaster, yet illegal logging and forest conversion remain out of control. Many blame over-logging for the flash flood that devastated Bukit Lawang.

Palm Oil, the biggest threat of all


Now, orangutans face the gravest threat of all and that is an insatiable global demand for palm oil, a popular vegetable oil used in many food products, as well as cosmetics and increasingly in bio fuel. Ninety per cent of the world’s palm-oil exports come from the plantations of Malaysia and Indonesia. The low land forests of Borneo and Sumatra – the last remaining habitats for orangutans, are the areas favored for conversion. Over 80% of the land that has been deforested in Sumatra over the last 20 years can be attributable to the planting of palm oil and all unprotected low lying forest is at risk.


oil palm fruit

Growing palm oil is a lucrative business and the price of crude palm oil has risen steadily. Impoverished land owners see few financial alternatives and many give up their land to become small-holders or to work on the plantations.


oil palms towering over a cemetery

The problem with bio fuel


The biggest irony is the use of palm oil for bio fuel, a supposedly ‘green’ fuel, which has been heralded as a low carbon solution to climate change. Rainforests in some of the worlds most biodiverse eco systems are being clear felled at an alarming rate and replaced by oil palms. This quest for green fuel is actually causing more damage to the climate than the fossil fuels it was designed to replace.  The European Union has set targets for ten per cent of all transport fuel to come from crops by 2020. Currently, over seven million hectares in Sumatra are utilized as oil palm plantations, and the plan is to extend this by a further 20 million hectares.  Fires are used to clear the land, and peat bogs are drained to plant oil palms, a process which releases hundreds of millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide, making Indonesia the third highest contributor of CO2 emissions in the world. Environmentalists claim that currently, more carbon emissions result from deforestation and peat fires than are produced by the entire global transport sector. When a hectare of primary rainforest is cleared it releases around 65 times as much carbon into the atmosphere as can be saved annually by using the palm oil as a bio fuel.


A palm oil processing plant

The use of palm oil in itself is not the problem; the problem lies in the destruction of primary rainforest to grow the oil palms. There is plenty of degraded land available in Sumatra and Borneo, but palm oil companies can increase their profits by cutting down rainforest and selling the timber. The international community needs to demand that oil-palm concessions are not granted in forested areas, and that local retailers and manufacturers only source their palm oil from non-destructive plantations.


What about us?


The thing is its not just about animal lovers and conservationists wanting to ‘save the cute furry animals’. Yes, they are incredibly endearing and anyone who has ever had a close encounter with an orangutan can testify to what a magical experience it is, but the orangutans are just the tip off the iceberg. They are recognized as a “keystone” species for conservation, as they play an important part in forest regeneration through the fruit and seeds they eat.  If they become extinct there will be a knock-on effect on thousands of other species. Including humans, because we cannot survive without the oxygen created by the rainforests.

There is nothing quite like breathing the pure air of the rainforest, experiencing its silence and being imbued with its special energy. My time in Sumatra has inspired me to do everything I can to preserve these rainforests. One step at a time, one word at a time, it might not be much but its something. If this story has inspired you, check the following websites to see what you can do.

SOS Sumatran Orangutan Society

The key lies in education and SOS, the Sumatran orangutan society runs a number of programs to this end, claiming, “The success of orangutan conservation in Indonesia lies in the hands of the local people”.  Their aim is to empower the next generation of Indonesian conservationists through grass roots projects focusing on wildlife conservation. Programs include: Restoring deforested land: Touring educational road shows: The development of a conservation curriculum for schools in North Sumatra: Community forestry schemes to reinforce national park buffer zones and provide sustainable alternative incomes for people living adjacent to natural orangutan habitat: As well as a tree planting program that has seen the planting of over a quarter of a million indigenous tree seedlings to date.


Bio Rock: Saving the reefs

All underwater photography courtesy of Rani E. Morrow-Wuigk

The Indonesian archipelago is home to the richest assortment of coral species in the world, but its reefs are vanishing as global warming, pollution and unsustainable fishing and tourism practices take their toll.

Indonesia’s appalling conservation record is well documented and it would be easy to write yet another article about imminent disaster; but I am sick of all the doom and gloom, because with destruction comes regeneration.  While politicians  and environmental agencies gather in endless global summits and engage in pointless debates about how to fix things,  often the most effective change is happening at a grassroots level, and I knew that somewhere in Bali someone would be doing something to save the reefs.

I find my story in the north of the island, in a humble village that sits in the shadows of the mountains. Just meters off  Pemuteran’s  black sandy shore lies the  Karang Lestari (Everlasting Reef) Project, one of the largest and most ambitious coral restoration projects in the world. A reef that had badly damaged is once again thriving due to a unique technology called Bio-Rock, which uses electric currents to stimulate the growth of coral.

I have no idea what to expect, but this is unbelievable, a kind of futuristic underwater fantasy world. Fifty large steel structures span over 1000 feet and take the form of a caterpillar, a whale, an igloo, a dome, a tent, and a  flower,  all covered in a profusion of brightly coloured coral. Hundreds of tiny blue fish hover above the dome, bat fish flitter amidst the flowers. I see starfish, lionfish, a school of snapper and cheeky little Nemos everywhere. Soft pastel corals sway in the current and purple tipped table corals sprawl across the metal bars. The reef surrounding the structures is also thriving, everywhere I look I see life and vibrant colour. Natural power is the plan for future structures (which includes a Goddess rising from a lotus.) Reef Seen Aquatics Dive Center have already set  things in motion,  sponsoring two structures, a bio wreck and a giant turtle that are powered by solar panels.

Bio-Rock utilizes Mineral Accretion Technology which stimulates the growth of naturally occurring calcium carbonate, the substance that forms coral. Low levels of electric current (dc) are rigged to the structures which are then planted with coral fragments, minerals are attracted to the coral, the coral adheres to the structures and grows at an accelerated rate of up to five times. It also produces a veritable super coral that is hardier and more resistant to changing water temperatures and pollution. Healthy coral brings fish, and when combined with a ‘no fishing’ policy, it acts as a breeding ground thus replenishing fish stock for outer reefs.

Back on land, I spend time with Komang the Manager of the Bio-Rock centre, he has been involved with the project since its beginning and his dedication and insight is inspiring. He tells me that, “Bio-Rock is good because it brings the tourists, which bring money to the community, and it also brings fish so it keeps the fishermen happy.” Herein lies the true significance of the project because along with reef restoration came social and economic rejuvenation.

Traditionally Pemuteran was one of Bali’s most impoverished fishing villages. During the nineties tourists started to trickle into the area drawn to the stunning reefs. But in 1998 double catastrophe struck; El Nino sent warm currents across the globe causing mass coral bleaching; and the Asian economic crisis sent waves of starving itinerant Indonesian fishermen into Pemuteran, where the bounty was plentiful. They were armed with  dynamite and cyanide (used to stun fish to gather for aquariums) and the peace was shattered by exploding bombs.

All too often conservation conflicts with traditional resource users. How do you tell a starving fisherman that he cannot take the fish? Komang says that he couldn’t blame the fisherman because “They were only looking for this time, not the future.”  They didn’t know any better. The key to sustainability is education, and the availability of viable alternatives, and behind the scenes a group of colourful characters had been providing this.  Chris Brown the owner of Reef Seen Aquatics and a long term and well loved resident had worked tirelessly with the community  and village leaders to instill the need for sustainability and was joined by Pak Agung, the Balinese owner of  Taman Sari resort; and Rani and Narayan, ardent divers who were former members of a large religious community.  Chris tells me that “You have to take things slowly, so that they get done quickly and slowly but surely the fishermen understood. In a unique turn of events Adat (traditional) law was applied to create a no fishing zone and the Pecalang laut (marine security forces) were formed to chase of the cyanide fishermen.

Encouraged by community  efforts to conserve the reef, more colourful characters entered the scene; Dr Tom Goreau, an impassioned Jamaican marine biologist and Professor Wolf Hilbertz the German scientist who had discovered Bio-Rock. Together they had formed the Global Coral Reef Alliance and  donated their time and energy to Pemuteran, the first structures were placed in the sea in 2000. Karang Lestari has received numerous environmental awards and Government recognition, however it has been entirely sponsored by private donors and operates on the tightest of shoe string budgets. Recent initiatives include the opportunity to ‘Sponsor a baby coral’ and the establishment of PET (Pemuteran Environment and Community Trust) whereby divers can make a voluntary donation of RP 20,000 or more.

Similar projects have been attempted in other locations but without the support of the community are doomed to failure. A key to the success of Karang Lestari has been the implementation of other projects that enable the community.  Chris initiated the recruitment of ‘Reef Gardeners’ who are trained to maintain and protect the reefs, and a Turtle Hatchery which  protects sea turtles and their eggs. The Pemuteran Foundation, PET, and private tour operators also support these and various other programs aimed at education, tree planting and clean water.

To say the village is prospering would be an overstatement, but life for its inhabitants has improved dramatically. As  Komang tells me,  “Now no one is hungry.” Fishermen have been converted from hunters to protectors and have seen that conservation means more fish. Villagers have learned that by protecting the sea they benefit financially because the restored reefs bring tourists which create jobs and business opportunities, which in turn gives access to education and health care. Everybody wins!  It might just be one reef and one community, but it’s a step in the right direction and  Pemuteran acts as a model for fishing and diving communities everywhere.

For more information or to make a donation check the following websites, or take a trip to Pemuteran and see for yourself….

soul surf project Bali

My latest writing job is doing environmental features for Insight Magazine – its a great mag and am really proud to write for them, it also creates some interesting work assignments. This is the soul surf project Bali, a Dutch foundation that works with orphanages here on the island. First the kids are given environmental classes and have to take part in beach clean ups.  Armed with greater awareness of the environment and their impact on it, the kids are  rewarded with surf lessons and the chance to participate in surf competitions, turtle releases and art workshops.

I spend the morning on the beach with a group of kids, its their first surf lesson and they are pretty excited and there is lots of laughter and splashing about.  The girls are shy at first but are soon riding waves with as much enthusiasm as the boys; everyone encourages each other. Marieke, the project manager and  I watch from the shallows, she tells me “Surfing provides the orphans with an escape from their normal routine and creates a sense of accomplishment, of  yes I can do this.” One of the boys whizzes past us, catching a wave right to the shore and we all cheer as he does a little victory dance.