A cool afternoon breeze ripples through the swaying palm trees overhead, blowing north out to sea where calm waters gently lap against the rocky foreshore. A group of laughing children chase down an ice-cream motorcycle and beg for frozen treats.
Nearby, a woman shovels sea salt into a bag using a juice bottle that’s been cut in half to make a spade. Her daughter, dressed in pink pyjamas, watches beside her. It’s a bucolic picture of Balinese paradise, but I’m far away from the mega resorts that made Bali’s fortune in the 1980s; here, there is no yoga retreat, cocktail bar or massage stand in sight.
I’m observing all of this from an elevated bamboo lounge with Garri Bernal, the Operations Manager for Sea Communities, a community-based tourism operator in Les Village. It’s a small settlement along the north coast of Bali, untouched by the developed tourism industry further south, and a stop on my Classic Bali trip with Intrepid Travel. Garri reveals that while this setting seems idyllic, the village was once facing disaster.
Up until the turn of the century, the main form of income for most fishing families was catching colourful ornamental fish for the marine aquarium industries in western countries. While trade was lucrative, the practice involved using potassium cyanide to catch fish.
“The cyanide stuns the fish, making it easier to catch them”, explains Garri. “But it’s a very inefficient way of catching fish in that it has a very high mortality rate. As many as 90% of the fish are dead by the time they arrive at the exporter.”
Not only was cyanide inefficient, it also killed the coral the fish relied on. After two decades of widespread use, the practice caused significant destruction to the reef and the breakdown of the ecosystem. Without a reliable food source, the fish simply moved away. By the time the locals realised, it was too late.
In the early 2000s the local fishermen tried to reverse the damage by planting an artificial reef using private donations and government money, but the funds soon dried up. With their livelihoods at stake, the villagers knew they needed to do more to rebuild the reef. This is when Sea Communities came in.
“Sea Communities is a social enterprise. If there is a problem in the community we look at how we can make a self-sustaining business out of the problem, rather than rely on donors.”
“What we did was to create unique programs for scuba divers to come here and help to rehabilitate the reef. They pay for their own transport, lodging, diving gear and so on. It’s just like a diving holiday for them. That’s how we started creating a livelihood for the people here now.”
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What was unexpected was the ever-growing wave of opportunities this idea would bring to Les Village. With diving tourists being brought into rural parts of Bali, the locals needed to learn English so they could properly teach the divers. Sea Communities created a sister program for travelling English teachers with the same pay-your-way model as the diving program. This created new employment opportunities both within the village and in other parts of Bali where speaking English was a necessity for employment.
Not surprisingly, the teachers took word of Les Village home with them and soon schools were enquiring about bringing their students to visit as part of a cultural program. Sea Communities tailored a land-based itinerary for them, featuring musical gamelan lessons and exploring hidden waterfalls. These itineraries caught the eye of sustainable tourism operators, like Intrepid Travel, who began bringing in small groups to learn about the village.
With an influx of new visitors, a raft of supporting infrastructure sprung up. There were now chefs in restaurants preparing meals, and cleaners to look after the accommodation, all locally employed and operated by Sea Communities. The ripple of business opportunities continued to expand: the accommodation is put out on AirBnB during the low season; the village’s location on the Bali Sea was used to farm salt to sell around the island.
All of these spin-off enterprises ultimately came back to the original founding goal – to rebuild the reef. Garri tells me it takes nearly 10 years for a new reef structure to fully develop, and the process has been fraught with setbacks.
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“We cannot dive during the rainy season because of the big waves. So when the season ends and we return to visit the reef, we find many of the corals are dead, covered by plastic. Corals are animals; they need to breathe. When they’re smothered in a plastic bag for a month, they suffocate and die.”
This has led to Sea Communities’ most ambitious project to date: waste management. Garri estimates that nearly 50% of their work is now focused on waste management, with an extruder recently brought in to help shred and recycle plastic scooped from the sea. The team is also looking at improving existing waste infrastructure and educating the community on how to recycle. It’s a huge, hopeful step in the right direction for an island infamous for its rubbish-lined beaches as much as it’s swanky hotels.
“The idea is to develop enough local interest in preserving the reef, rather than extracting resources from it. When we reach that critical point where less and less people want to catch fish, maybe then we can move on.”
Cyanide fishing is now illegal in Indonesia, and while there is still a sizeable number of ornamental fishermen in northern Bali, Garri says the tide is starting to turn as sustainable eco-tourism becomes a dominant player in the industry. Sea Communities is now partnering up with science faculties from prominent universities in Singapore, Australia and China to help improve and measure the reef’s health.
The best news is that the fish seem to be returning, at least slowly. Garri says there’s no way to formally verify it yet, as fish population surveys only started in 2017, but the word in the village is that there’s more fish in the sea, only these fish are returning to a much more complex ecosystem than the one they left. And now there’s a thriving, empowered community living off the reef in a more sustainable way, with education, employment and environmental protection front of mind. Garri smiles at me and from where we sit the future appears so hopeful.
“All of these things are happening. I don’t know where it’s going exactly, but it’s very interesting.”
You can visit Sea Communities on Intrepid Travel’s Classic Bali tour.
Feature photo by Damien Raggatt.