Lembongan seaweed (Zwijgers, 2005)

This article by was originally published in Archipelago Magazine (2005) by Tineke Zwijgers after a trip to Lembongan in 2004, and republished online. It discusses tourism on Lembongan and seaweed farming. See source & references below. The original Dutch text can be found here.

Seaweed production on 'playground' Nusa Lembongan

zwijgers04Image left: seaweed cultivation in Strait between Lembongan and Ceningan (Dorien Koppenberg, 2004)

Every day, between eleven and three, the small island of Lembongan is a veritable cauldron. Tour operators of nearby Bali bring in hordes of tourists to the island for a day of 'fun'. When tourists have left, Lembongan becomes quiet once more and the inhabitants devote themselves to their main source of income: the cultivation of seaweed. This is an impression of the quiet island of Nusa Lembongan. "Lembongan is like the Bali we knew forty years ago", say tour operators who offer day trips and overnight stays on this island located so close to Bali. For twenty hours a day we can image this very well. For example, late afternoon, walking to the rugged cliffs on the south side of the island along deserted roads, enjoying fruit juice in an abandoned seaside restaurant. Or watching the sunset around the many seaweed plantations where we feel like foreign invaders amidst hardworking islanders. Or, early morning on the beach, watching the arrival of the fishing boats and the marketing of the catch. During these moments, Lembongan feels truly authentic, with beautiful nature all around, perhaps like Bali was before the many beach hotels were constructed. But at half past ten in the morning, we notice large catamarans and motorboats looming in the distance. They stand out menacingly in stark contrast to the gigantic Mount Agung in Bali in the background and even during the low season they bring in hundreds of tourists daily to Nusa Lembongan. Half of the day guests will be brought directly to the monstrous pontoons, equipped with waterslides, attached to the seabed in one of the bays. From the pontoon tourists go snorkelling, parasailing, take trips on banana boats and/or glass-bottom boats. The other half of the day visitors get into smaller boats and land on the beach ready for a trip to the mangroves or the village. After lunch they change location on the island, and between three and half past three they return to Bali. During the hottest hours of the day, we - regulars guests - choose to relax around the hotel pool. One is never bored, as there is always the charming panorama of the sea and the beach and the excitement of swarming multitudes of day visitors. At half past four we stretch ourselves feeling relaxed. Lembongan is ours again. Now it's our turn.

Harvest time

zwijgers01Image right: 'kotoni' seaweed, Eucheuma cottonii (Dorien Koppenberg, 2004)

Nusa Lembongan (nusa is Balinese for "island") is one of three islands southeast of Bali. The other two are the even smaller Ceningan and the larger Penida. They are located more or less in between Bali and Lombok, and nature resembles that of both Balinese peninsula Nusa Dua as well as South Lombok: arid and rough, with high cliffs. The rocky and sandy soil is not suitable for rice cultivation or other large-scale cultivation. This is the reason why the inhabitants of the islands, who until recently led an isolated existence, for a long time suffered poverty and even starvation. Then, some thirty years ago, someone came up with the idea of introducing seaweed farming to the island. Seaweed at that time was emerging as an ingredient in making cosmetics (such as soap, shampoo and body lotion) and as a binder for use in food and medicine (agar-agar). The circumstances along the coast of Lembongan, Penida and Ceningan proved very suitable for cultivation of seaweed: the water has a constant temperature of 25-27 degrees Celsius and the difference between high and low tide is not too big. Moreover, the investment for 'farmers' was modest. There was plenty of room for seaweed production in the island's seawater. In order to plant new stock, after the harvest, you only need to collect suckers from the harvested product. Since then, about ninety percent of the residents of the three islands live from the proceeds of seaweed cultivation. The rise of tourism, at the beginning of the nineties, has had little or no effect on seaweed farming. Many people gain an income by working in a hotel or restaurant or have started small businesses. However, not so long ago, they deserted these activities when their help was needed in harvesting and sorting seaweed, as this proved to be much more profitable. Nowadays, a number of companies from Bali operate luxury resorts on the island and the local hotel staff are expected to fulfil their day or evening shifts before returning to their seaweed beds. These people, however, still have their share of duties in the family business. Seaweed cultivation is not very labour-intensive, and there is always something to be done before the eight-hour working day is quite over.

To and fro


Image left: Strait between Lembongan and Ceningan (Dorien Koppenberg, 2004)

The last tourist catamaran disappears from sight and we walk from our hotel Nusa Lembongan Resort on the beach to rent a moped at a restaurant. It is low tide and we decide to take a look at the seaweed fields on the other side of the island. On Lembongan, most fields are located in the narrow strait between Lembongan and Ceningan. The seabed does not fall dry at low tide and the shallow reef that seals off the strait on the western side, prevents the currents from getting too strong by which crops would be dragged away. Yesterday, we visited the place when the tide was high. The darker colours of the seawater hinted at the presence of the fields, but there was no activity in or around the water. That has now changed. Either on foot or in proas, people go back and forth between the beach and the now clearly visible seaweed fields. They carry jam-packed baskets on their heads or shoulders or have loaded their boat full to the brim. To us laypersons, this activity doesn't make much sense. People with full baskets walk to and from their fields. Should the weeds after treatment perhaps be returned into the sea? A passing boy eagerly explains seaweed cultivation. "The seaweed suckers are strung on lines and attached to bamboo poles underwater. This is the basis of new crops. It takes about four to six weeks until they mature and can be harvested. The mature seaweed is dried in the sun for three days and then sold. The suckers are used to start this process all over again. The farmers directly have new 'sowing seed' and there is a complete harvest on average once every five weeks. The harvest is exported to both Java and abroad and Hong Kong is a major customer."

Bland candies


Image right: seaweed candies advertised (Dorien Koppenberg, 2004)

We climb up from the beach, where on a sandy open space between small houses tarpaulins, rags and seaweed are left to dry in the sun. There are two types, a large green type named kotoni and small red one called pinusun. The green type is best quality and yields some 3,500 rupiah (€0,35) per kilo. Farmer receive about 2,000 rupiah per kilo for the other type. Currently, a family earns between 500,000 and 1 million rupiah per month, depending on the size of their fields. In today's Indonesia, this is not bad at all, especially when you consider that every family has someone with a job in the tourism industry and many men go fishing at sea during the night. The fact that a large part of the people here has managed to escape poverty, becomes apparent when we make a trip around the island by moped. Many islanders live in brick houses with beautiful Balinese gates to their yard. At a store we see a sign advertising seaweed souvenirs: candies and dodol. We buy a pack of coloured dodol sticks and try them. Their taste is little more than bland! It's like chewing on a mouthful of gelatin. A real shame this is the only seaweed souvenir for sale here. A nice bar of soap, a bottle of shampoo or lotion, for sale in the Body Shop and De Tuinen in the Netherlands, would find solid demand with all the tourists who come here every day, but they would have to be recognisable as a souvenir of the seaweed islands!


Early next morning we arrive on the beach. Not only is it the 'golden hour' for making beautiful pictures; around seven o'clock the beach is really the place to be for the people of the village. In swarms the narrow fishing boats arrive here with their catch of the night, which is directly traded. Around this time, the public ferry to Sanur is also leaving, crammed with women on their way to a Balinese market. Between them there are a few tourists, who have come to the island on their own and stay in small hotels along the bay. We really enjoy ourselves and can imagine right now that Nusa Lembongan is the 'Bali of forty years ago'. The locals go about their business and ignore us. We are tolerated as long as we don't get in the way. In a few hours, the fishing boats pulled up behind the high tide line will be the coloured backdrop for photographs of Lembongan, with not a single local fisherman or farmer in sight. This daily metamorphosis is a little schizophrenic. We sit down to watch it.



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