Traveling Bali’s Back Roads with Village-Based Ecotourism

  • A seaweed farmer in the shallows off Nusa Ceningan.

    A seaweed farmer in the shallows off Nusa Ceningan.

  • Sorting coffee beans by hand in Pelaga.

    Sorting coffee beans by hand in Pelaga.

  • Seaweed farming is the mainstay of Nusa Ceningan’s economy.

    Seaweed farming is the mainstay of Nusa Ceningan’s economy.

  • At home with a Pelaga coffee farmer.

    At home with a Pelaga coffee farmer.

Click image to view full size

Above: Rice terraces and coffee plantations surround Pelaga village.

A network of Balinese villages is putting community-based tourism on the map

By Johnny Langenheim
Photographs by James Morgan

In a little glade hemmed by coffee bushes, Gede Wirartha is blowing bubbles. He has broken the stem of an otherwise unremarkable plant and is breathing clusters of tiny spheres from the sap. “It’s a children’s game,” Wirartha explains as a warm breeze wafts the bubbles skyward. With a shrug, he adds, “Kids these days don’t play it so much anymore. They prefer PlayStation.”

Wirartha’s knowledge of the flora surrounding his village, Pelaga, in Bali’s central highlands, is encyclopedic—a folk wisdom passed down through the generations. “This is called biyung,” he tells me later in my tour, plucking a leaf from a low shrub. “It’s good for boils. And this,” pointing to another bush, “is mer, a type of thyme whose leaves close at dusk to remind farmers that it’s time to go home.”

Pelaga is one of four villages that make up Jaringan Ekowisata Desa (“Village Ecotourism Network,” or JED), a cooperative that aims to channel the benefits of tourism directly back to Balinese communities, while providing visitors with a substantive rural experience. Another is Sibetan, set in the foothills of Mount Agung, the island’s highest and most venerated volcano. Sibetan is perhaps best known for the cultivation of snake fruit, which some enterprising Germans recently taught locals to turn into a sort of tropical schnapps. Nusa Ceningan, a somnolent isle of fisherfolk and seaweed farmers, is also part of the network, as is Tenganan, a walled village dating back to the 11th century whose residents, known as the Bali Aga—literally, “original Balinese”—are renowned for their pre-Hindu customs and distinctive double-ikat weaving technique.

A grassroots tourism association launched in 2002 with the help of local environmental NGO Yayasan Wisnu, JED only really took off a few years ago, thanks in part to an entry in Lonely Planet’s Bali guidebook. The driving force behind the network, however, is manager Gede Astana, a veteran of one of the island’s biggest tour operators, who joined JED in 2006. “I really liked what they were trying to do,” he tells me. “The project was initiated by the villagers themselves—they are my employers. They wanted to be able to manage their own resources and they’ve achieved that. Seventy-five percent of profits go to the villages, and the rest is for management and operational costs.” In a tourism industry dominated by private-sector interests, JED represents a radical departure.

Pelaga is the most visited of the four JED villages, all of which derive their main income from agriculture. In Pelaga, that means export-quality Arabica coffee, which villagers sell to a wholesaler in Java. As we amble through the maze of trails that crisscross the village’s plantations, Gede Wirartha tells me it was the Dutch who introduced coffee to Indonesia in the early 18th century, and that Pelaga was where it was first cultivated on Bali. He himself is a smallholder. But as he unravels the ecology around us, another of his roles emerges: that of custodian. This is what singles out the JED experience from other tours that like to tout their cultural credentials. The network gives you access to the inner workings of places by the people who actually live there and who have a stake in protecting it. “Every year in Bali, 200 hectares of farmland are lost to tourism and real estate development,” Wiratha tells me. “There may be profit, but what about the next generation? Once the land is gone, it cannot be brought back.”

Visit Pelaga, situated far from the crowds of Kuta and Seminyak some 1,100 meters above sea level, and your first impression will doubtless be the sheer beauty of the surroundings. Central Bali is like one vast garden of orchards, plantations, and rice fields, spread across an undulating landscape punctuated by volcanic peaks. You’ll be greeted in Pelaga’s bale subak, a large thatch-roofed pavilion that acts as the administrative center of the village’s subak association, which coordinates the irrigation of the paddies. (Pelaga’s subak comprises 170 families, and like all such associations, it involves a complex cycle of rituals reflecting the tripartite Balinese principal of Tri Hita Karana—roughly, “three paths to prosperity”—which advocates balance between people, nature, and god.) You’ll be served local coffee laced with cinnamon from an earthenware pot steaming over a wood oven, before setting off on a tour of the coffee plantation or, if you’d rather, a longer three-hour trek that takes in a waterfall and some fine views. The lunch is a buffet-style interpretation of the classic Balinese rijsttafel, a sampling of dishes—minced pork satay, peanut-sauce salad—that rely on organic ingredients grown or raised in the near vicinity.

Not everything is scripted, however, and it is these scenes that linger in the memory. Like the boy and girl I see swishing at dragonflies with straw brooms, collecting the stunned insects in a jar for later use in lawar, a spicy salad. Or the old woman raking smooth a carpet of cream-colored coffee beans that are drying in the sun, while her husband carves sandalwood beams for a family shrine.

If it all sounds improbably pastoral, it really is that way. But there are challenges, too, when working within the framework of a cooperative. “It can take a long time to get certain initiatives approved,” concedes Gede Astana. “And some habits are not easy to change—rubbish disposal, for example. Waste here used to be organic, so we just tossed it away and it would be naturally recycled. That doesn’t work with plastic.” Pelaga’s roadside garbage strikes a slightly jarring note, but there are moves underway to combat it, including regular cleanups and educational programs. Marketing can also be a challenge for JED, since local travel agents have no real financial incentive to promote the villages. But Astana says the network is now being promoted by one of Bali’s more forward-thinking operators, Smailing Tour, and by companies in Britain and Finland that champion responsible travel.

That the JED model is a sound one seems to be borne out by the number of villages in Bali that are eager to join; Gede Astana expects membership to swell from four to 20 in the next few years. The cooperative has set up another organization in response to this demand, to help villages develop the infrastructure and knowledge—including English-speaking guides and public conveniences—required to qualify for JED certification.

After Pelaga, I head to the island of Nusa Ceningan, the lesser-known neighbor of touristy Nusa Lembongan, just off Bali’s east coast. Here, concerted action by the community kept out a development consortium that was seeking to purchase the entire island and fill it with star-rated hotels. “We’re now trying to draw up a strategy for managing the island based on our own sustainable principles,” says my guide I Gede Lama as we eat a lunch of freshly caught tuna, purchased from some fishermen we stumbled upon during our morning tour of the 300-hectare island. Fishing, unsurprisingly, is a staple industry here, but seaweed farming is the mainstay of Ceningan’s economy. At low tide, villagers drag their skiffs into the shallows and fill them with the Euchema cotonii and spinosum grasses, harvested here for export as ingredients in the cosmetics and food industries.

After making the 45-minute crossing from Bali by speedboat, visitors to Nusa Ceningan usually spend the night at a lodge in the island’s hilly interior. Activities include canoe trips out to the seaweed farms, snorkeling, and a moped tour of the island that takes in the rugged beauty of its western reaches, which receive a constant battering from the high swell of the Lombok Strait.

The packaging of culture is inevitable with mass tourism, and in Bali, visitors typically encounter it through carefully choreographed performances. You won’t find anything staged at any of the JED villages. But that doesn’t mean you won’t witness a temple ceremony or even a more intimate rite of passage in someone’s home. It really just depends on what’s happening that day.

“Next week, the pandanus-leaf wars are taking place in Tenganan,” Gede Astana tells me as I bid him farewell back on the Bali mainland. “You should come.” I’ve heard of this ancient gladiatorial ritual, unique to Tenganan, where young men do good-natured battle with thorny pandanus leaves and woven shields, often drawing blood. “You can even join in if you like,” Astana adds with a laugh. I tell him I’ll go—but only to watch. I prefer my cultural immersion to be as painless as possible.

For more information about the Village Ecotourism Network’s tour programs, visit or call 62-361/737-447. Trips range from US$75 to US$130 per person.

Originally appeared in the August/September 2010 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Bali by the Back Roads”)

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