Reconnecting People with the Land in Bali

A new social enterprise provides both a hands-on introduction to regenerative farming and an immersive trek through the island’s hinterland.

Passing through rice fields outside Pererenan, the starting point of the Astungkara Trail. (All photos courtesy of The Astungkara Way)

As the morning mist settles and a soft outline forms around the distant summit of Mount Agung, a farmer in a conical hat peddles his bicycle down a trail that meanders past fields sown with cassava and corn. Ducks peck at the earth in search of worms and snails, and glints of sunlight refract off waterlogged rice paddies before cascading into rays.

I’m at Subak Uma Lambing, a vast green carpet of agricultural land to the southwest of Ubud, Bali’s spiritual capital. Home to a community of 250 farming families, the subak — the term refers to the water-sharing collectives that underpin the island’s ancient irrigation system — is also the base for an ambitious social enterprise called The Astungkara Way, which champions regenerative farming while giving visitors an opportunity to reconnect with nature and learn something about traditional food cultivation.

It’s the brainchild of Tim Fijal, a Canadian teacher who has dedicated his career to moving education from the classroom to forests and fields. “After seeing a TED Talk in 2010 about community-based learning by John Hardy [co-founder of the Green School in Bali], my wife and I sold our house in Vancouver on an impulse, moved the family to Indonesia, and landed a job at the Green School,” he recalls. “It was great at first, but after a while I realized they were not quite there yet in terms of community engagement because the school was trying to strike a balance between conventional education and the great unknown of a wall-less learning environment. So I spent the next 10 years trying to figure out how to bridge the gap between the local and expatriate communities.”

Tim Fijal helping to harvest rice in the paddies of Subak Uma Lambing.

One of Fijal’s solutions was the Kul Kul Connection, an outdoors school-within-a-school based in part at Subak Uma Lambing that brought together expat students from the Green School and their Balinese counterparts to study regenerative farming. “I believe we should all be more aware of where our food comes from and have closer contact with nature, especially at this juncture of our species’ history on this planet,” Fijal says.

Last year, as the economic fallout from the pandemic took its toll, Kul Kul Connection was downsized. So Fijal and five other members of his team left the Green School to start their own venture that supports local farmers’ transition to regenerative farming, encourages Balinese youth to return to the field, and facilitates hands-on farm-based learning for kids and adults. Visitors to Astungkara Way’s Regenerative Farming Learning Centre at Subak Uma Lambing — the bamboo pavilion opened earlier this year with financing from the Emirates Red Crescent — learn about the Balinese principle of Tri Hita Karana: harmony among people, nature, and the divine. They also get their hands dirty plowing, planting, and harvesting rice, and have time to just sit and listen to some local perspectives.

“Most tourists who come to Bali, they want to forget about life in the city and relax in a five-star hotel,” says Lala Maelani, a 22-year-old Green School graduate who is forging a career as a solar-panel installer and who currently volunteers at the center. “But to see the real Bali you need to come out to the fields because Indonesia is an agricultural country. What you learn here is a true representation of Balinese culture — things you’ll never see at a hotel.”

Fijal’s most recent initiative is a guided coast-to-coast walk dubbed the Astungkara Trail. Stretching 132 kilometers from Pererenan on Bali’s rapidly urbanizing west coast to the rural idyll of Seririt in the north, the route passes through fields and bamboo forests and gorges over the course of 10 days, with between two and seven hours of walking each day.

Inspired by ancient pilgrimage routes like Japan’s Kumano Kodo and the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain, the trail is designed as a low-impact immersion into rural Balinese life with a focus on people and communities that are taking regenerative action.

The Astungkara Way’s first Regenerative Farming Learning Centre.

“Our team started exploring the island and found a retired agronomy professor growing 1,400 organic dragon fruits all by himself; a young Balinese couple who quit their tourism jobs and returned to their ancestral village to farm; and a community fighting to preserve their bamboo-weaving culture,” Fijal says. “These became stopovers for the walk.”

Another stop along the route is Taman Beji Griya, a mazelike canyon with waterfalls and sacred caves that is a pilgrimage place for Balinese Hindus. After taking part in a purification ritual with a high priest, walkers spend the night on a bamboo sleeping platform next to a stream that flows through verdant rice terraces. Dinner, cooked by locals, is wholesome, organic, and vegetarian. On other days, they are shown how to harvest and prepare their own food and forage for edible plants along the way.

“People come to Bali because it’s so beautiful with the temples and mountains and rice fields,” says Rosarmy Ramirez, a Venezuelan living in Ubud who joined the Astungkara Trail’s maiden trek in July. “But for most tourists, the only connection they have with the Balinese is as service staff — waiters, drivers, and so on. On Tim’s walk, I got to connect intimately with Balinese people because every day we ate with local families in their homes. It was the most beautiful experience I’ve had in Bali.”


The Details

The Astungkara Way offers learning programs and field trips for adults and children at Subak Uma Lambing, a 30-minute drive from downtown Ubud. Ten-day treks on the Astungkara Trail take place monthly and cost about US$700 per person, including food, drinks, basic accommodation, and guides.


This article originally appeared in the September/November 2021 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Back to the Land”).

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