National Geographic Society Newsroom

Nusa Penida: Black Magic Island, Part II

By Altaire Cambata All Photos Courtesy of Justin May/Interwoven   Multicolored quarter-sized candy wrappers, amassed by the fist full, were slipping through my gloves on my thirtieth trip to the trash bag in the corner of the lot. I crouched again, my dirty knees hovering above the aged, twisted plastic, the remnants of a bygone...

By Altaire Cambata
All Photos Courtesy of Justin May/Interwoven


Multicolored quarter-sized candy wrappers, amassed by the fist full, were slipping through my gloves on my thirtieth trip to the trash bag in the corner of the lot. I crouched again, my dirty knees hovering above the aged, twisted plastic, the remnants of a bygone lunch I had yet to excavate. Ten other swift and lively pairs of hands were similarly occupied: digging, manning hoes, rakes, and shovels, or tossing mounds of grass and earth over stonewalls on the periphery, and occasionally pausing to wipe beaded brows. We had already relocated cumbersome hunks of limestone, yanked out innumerable, sturdy weeds with stubborn rhizomes, and now we were tilling the earth only to find trash compacted thick as roots, extending at least a meter downward.


FNPF volunteers clearing the lot behind the junior high school


We were in the middle of a garbage pit; a mini landfill for the junior high school directly before us windows framing curious faces, bemused with disbelief as we toiled in a forgotten corner of their campus.

It was hard to imagine that in just a few days this yard – teeming with the remnants of a thousand snack times – would be transformed into an organic garden and teaching space, and yet, that is exactly what happened.

The work was being headed by young adults from around the world, volunteering for the Friends of the National Park Foundation (FNPF) on a small island off the coast of Bali, Indonesia. The island is a biological and cultural treasure, basically immune from all the trappings of Western culture, minus a conspicuous waste management problem. Mike Appleton, a long-time volunteer of FNPF, told us when we arrived that we would be lending our time to the new organic garden project on the island. Having received the funding to sow and reap ten pilot plots, Mike wanted to show islanders how a garden could be started literally anywhere. Hence the candy-wrappers.


Mike Appleton, long-standing manger of FNPF's projects on Nusa Penida


What is particularly interesting about this plan is that the island, Nusa Penida, is veiled in porous, limestone-based soil which is notoriously difficult to cultivate . There is also a lack of local agricultural know-how. Long-term farming cooperatives never took root on the island. This spit of land off the coast of mainland Bali is where prisoners were thrown during the Klungkung dynasty; a sort of Alcatraz for political prisoners, delinquents and thieves — and even evil spirits. (Read Part I for a more in-depth explanation.)

Instead, over the years, island-wide subsistence based farming became absent in the face of a somewhat lucrative and steady production of seaweed: the cash crop of the island. The majority of food eaten on the island is imported regularly from Bali – minus mangos, coconuts, and jackfruit, which appear in copious amounts during their respective seasons – and recently, the exchange has been strained…

In January of 2012, Nusa Penida was hit with unusual and destructive weather patterns. The FNPF center, based around sea level and about a kilometer from the tide, was completely flooded, while a small, freak tornado whipped through the interior forests of the island. The twelve kilometers of sea between Bali and Nusa Penida became rough, blustery and treacherous. Food shipments typically arriving by boat were delayed. Such unpredictably severe storms, combined with rising fuel costs, have Mike concerned and islanders anxious about future food security. If Nusa Penida, the poorest district in the Klungkung regency of Bali, cannot find more self-sufficient pathways for food procurement, the health of the people may be at risk. This is especially true if climate change projections are correct and tempestuous weather becomes an increasingly formidable intruder.


Saplings are free for the taking at the FNPF headquarters


On the bright side, the track record of planting on Nusa Penida is a good one. In an effort to reforest areas of Nusa Penida that were cleared during its history as a penal colony, eighteen different tree species have been planted in numbers of about 18,000 a season since 2009. There have been high rates of success: around 80% of all saplings survive. FNPF constantly monitors the health of reforestation sites and quickly resolves any threats to growth. For example, in the summer of 2009, newly planted seedlings were withering away due to a continuous and unrelenting heat wave that had begun in March of that year. FNPF was resourceful: various amelioration techniques were employed, including watering the plants, loosening the soil, and administering mulch. As a result, the plants survived.

In an effort to capitalize on the importance of the sense of community ownership of their local environment, mass planting events are often scheduled to correspond with Hindu rituals during which flora and fertility are especially sacred themes. The ancient Hindu philosophy of Tri Hita Karana breathes meaning into FNPF’s presence and practices on the island, a philosophy that literally translates as three harmonies: harmony between people and God, people and people, and people with the environment.


A resident of Nusa Penida breaks the ground at an organic garden pilot plot


Some flora and fauna on the island are considered sacred in and of themselves. The orange coconut, prized for its color, is reserved for use only during important Hindu ceremonies. Trees wrapped with the meaningful black and white checkered saput poleng cloth, representative of the binary forces of the universe, are thought to contain plant spirits. These ethereal layers of reality, combined with community benefits provided by FNPF, such as education scholarships for local students and a community library, foster a copacetic relationship.

Similar protocol has been used to stimulate the budding organic farming venture. Before ground is even broken, nearby villages are invited to attend a meeting describing the location and benefits of the gardens. Information on organic composting and agroforestry are offered at the FNPF center, and those with the desire to begin their own organic gardens are provided with training and the necessities to get started. FNPF Headquarters maintains a nursery packed with thousands of free saplings – teak, papaya, and coffee plants are popular selections. Once products in the nursery and the pilot gardens become ripe, locals are encouraged to harvest the yields and distribute them to friends, family, and neighbors. In the long run, Mike hopes that introducing organic farming can transform farming habits, improve nutrition, lower food prices, and possibly offer alternative revenue to the seaweed farming industry.

Farmers collect an average of 40 to 50 tons of seaweed each harvest, but significant price fluctuations impact their profit margins. Several different seaweed species are harvested on Nusa Penida. Spinosum ranges in price between Rp 2,000 and Rp 2,900 per kilogram (around 0.20 USD), and cottoni between Rp 4,000 to Rp 5,300 per kilogram (around 0.50 USD). After the harvest, which happens around every 35-45 days year round, farmers lay their seaweed under the sun for two to three days, depending on the season. During the wet season, drying can last up to a week.


Aerial view of Nusa Penida. The patchwork designs off the coast are seaweed plots. Photo courtesy of Google Earth.


Dried seaweed is sold to traders, who sell the crop to Surabaya, East Java, and other large industrial centers for processing before being exported. This stage is where the real value adding takes place. Some seaweed will be processed into food, while some will end up in high-end cosmetics or pharmaceuticals that can sell for hundreds of dollars with profits accumulating at the end of the production line. Overall, the seaweed industry has had a positive impact on the island, but there is a worry that exclusive dependence on a volatile market leaves farmers economically vulnerable. Diversifying livelihoods by selling organic produce, and introducing subsistence agriculture could help Nusa Penida become more resilient and self-sufficient.

During a conversation with a man named Putu who lived in the village of Crystal Bay, I asked if he planned to use any of the resources from FNPF this summer. He led me to his house, and showed me progress he was making on an ornate, stone temple in his backyard. Hints of geometric spires and Hindu gods were slowly but surely emerging from the concrete. It was coming along nicely. “If I had more time, perhaps I would go to FNPF for plants like coffee or some herbs. For now, I am very busy building this temple for my family.” The roads on Nusa Penida are badly paved, crumbling, and marred with potholes, making the trek to FNPF a long and tedious one. Other residents of Nusa Penida cited financial risk as a disincentive for growing organically. However, plans to deliver saplings to peoples’ doorsteps and the successful harvest of pilot gardens may convert more islanders in the coming months.


Putu's wife and daughter cook coconut oil


“Everyone between the ages of six and sixty can climb a coconut tree in this village,” the temple-builder remarked with a smile. Nearby, his wife was stirring a large vat of coconut meat. In just a few hours, the mixture would yield several bottles’ worth of an unmolested, virgin coconut oil. No chainsaws, electricity, or chemicals were used during the process. This mentality of maintaining a holistic relationship with the nature already exists in various forms throughout Nusa Penida. It maintains a reputable status as an unofficial bird sanctuary – the Bali Starling, technically extinct elsewhere, thrives undisturbed among the coconut trees — and sensational diving haven flanked by the bleached, empty coral around mainland Bali. These signals bode well for the future of their organic agriculture sector.

Although the island struggles with poverty, crumbling roads, and a lack of waste management infrastructure, FNPF is quietly transforming Nusa Penida into a sustainability model that could inform similar island communities across the planet. It is rather remarkable that 43 villages that largely live hand-to-mouth can agree upon a customary law to protect endangered birds that would normally be sold on the black market for thousands of dollars. It is inspirational to hear from young people that, although they have to find work on the Balinese mainland, they come home to see their families every weekend and want to protect their homeland from the unplanned development they see in nearby tourist hotspots. It is enchanting to walk among ancient Banyan trees, clad with checkered cloth and animate with spirit life. Most of all, it is humbling to encounter people who understand the irreplaceable connection humans maintain with encompassing ecosystems. These lessons have a place beyond the shores of this island.


Crystal Bay, a beach on Nusa Penida


Systematically throughout history, those in power have removed elements of the sacred from the natural world in order to turn mountains of the gods into artificial canyons striped for gold. Even in a secular reality, how can we disregard the merit inherent within billions of years of evolution in favor of technologies and ways of being that destroy the very processes that sustain us? For 95% of human history, humans lived in communion with the earth as nomadic foragers. Now partitions between humans and nature, both culturally and unconsciously erected, blind us to the answers we so fervently seek in the face of food crises and climate change. Anyone who believes nature to be simple and passé has never regarded a scintillating, kaleidoscopic coral reef at dawn, delicately arranged in spiraling layers and pulsing with a masquerade of buoyant vivacity against which the most technologically advanced high-rise neighborhoods pale. Perhaps those who view the earth as an expendable rung in an ever-advancing linear quest toward the “modern” have never beheld this rhythmic microcosm, this immaculate apotheosis of life. Amongst chaos, nature is most resilient in the state of equilibrium. It is how we survive, slowly spinning within a verdurous marble in the sparse, life-less expanse of space. Is it, then, such a flawed model to emulate? It certainly resides within the philosophy of permaculture and organic farming. If anywhere has a chance of successfully adopting these both equally new and ancient farming practices, it is the unique island of Nusa Penida.

If you too are interested in becoming a citizen eco-reporter, contact Izilwane at:

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Voices for Biodiversity
Voices for Biodiversity (V4B) is an online conservation media magazine that shares the stories of people from around the globe in order to help all species survive and thrive together. The e-zine is a gathering place for those who believe that humanity’s health and well-being depend upon the health and well-being of other species and the ecosystems that support us all. Voices for Biodiversity shares the stories of eco-reporters from around the world, using the ancient human art of storytelling to connect people with each other, other species, and the natural world. The magazine’s goal is to alter human behavior in such a way as to connect the human animal with the global ecosystem in order to stem biodiversity loss and arrest the sixth extinction of species taking place in this time, the Age of the Anthropocene.