The Soul of Seaweed Farming in Bali

A day in the life

A seaweed farmer in Bali can never have a typical day. The cycle of seaweed farming is set by two key aspects. One, the ebb and flow of the tide. Seaweed can only be farmed when the tide is low, so if it needs to be cropped and the low tide is at two in the morning, farmers must drag themselves from their beds to work under the light of lamps until dawn.

The other is the duration of the growth cycle, which will vary depending on the type of seaweed. The fastest, a brown variant, is 15 days. The longest is 30 days.

farming seaweed_Nusa Penida

The work is tedious and hard. We visited Nusa Penida which still has the largest seaweed operations in Bali, or more specifically, the Klungkung regency.  I chatted to Wayan Suryanta, a local young man, as we stood and watched women and men farm their seaweed.

wayan_nusa penida

Wayan, near the seaweed farm in his village

“My mother was a farmer”, he says, “I helped her after school to help the family.”

“Would you rather have been playing?” I ask.

“No, no,” he says with a practical attitude. “I must help my family.”

smiling seeweed farmer

Today however, he explains, the children no longer want to help. There are too many modern distractions – mobile phones, things to do and bands to talk about. Life as a child in Penida is very different to even a few years ago when Wayan was growing up. Even I have seen it. Every child has a cell phone, which opens up a new world in Jakarta…music, fashion…the normal things that teens are attracted to. With nearly Bali and Nusa Lembongan flourishing under tourism, it’s little wonder that this new world is luring them to a new way of living.

His mother no longer has a crop of seaweed. One are (pronounced ara, which is 10 metres by 10 metres) costs around Rp. 5.000.000 ($500), with some farmers owning as many as ten are. But getting a return on the land is not easy.

One kilo of dried brown seaweed (spinosum) nets from 2.000-4.000 rupiah, about 20-40 cents. This is the fast growing variety. The longer growing species (cottoni) can get up to 12.000 rupiah per kilo but to tie the land up for 30 days must be weighed against frequency of income.

seaweed nets

To make it even more difficult, says Wayan, there is only one buyer on Nusa Penida. With such reliance on him from the farmers, setting pricing is almost in his hands, notwithstanding the global competition which as a business owner, he too must surely face.

Buying and selling farms is done without title. It’s difficult to understand at what point the ownership of land began however according to the Jakarta Post seaweed farming began in around 1984 .  Through drought and famine over the years, maybe the original occupants of the ‘land’ were able to sell it off to other residents who could not farm. This, for the time being, is a mystery to me and I can only speculate.

Much of the seaweed makes its way to China and Japan where it is used for cosmetics. It can be eaten, but the taste is quite different to the finer seaweeds of Japan. First, it must be boiled until it is white, removing the salt. The leaves are quite thick so it isn’t suitable for fine dining dishes, but as a basic meal, it would still deliver necessary nutrients and perhaps have helped families when crop seasons failed.

old seeweed farmer

Wayan reflects on his childhood, helping his mother, who is now retired. They sold their land, which faces onto the back of their home in Ped, the district on the north of the island which is also home to one of Bali’s most important temples, Pura Dalam Ped. Many Balinese will make the pilgrimage to this temple, believing it to be sacred. There were several on the boat we took in the morning, and in the evening, one woman carefully cradled a coconut husk containing holy water as the boat lurched on the late afternoon swell.

Wayan has a sense of humour, and is also a clever young man who has worked for important social and environmental organisations such as the Role Foundation. I stood watching an elderly man carry what must have been a good 30 kilos of seaweed on each shoulder, balanced on his neck by a bamboo stick. I comment at how difficult that must be. Wayan tells me that it is very heavy, and as a young boy, his stick would break.

“From the weight?” I ask. “No.” he smiles, “from carrying too much! I was trying to make less trips!”

Wayan’s mother retired by need. Years of carrying heavy loads is too much for even a fit body to bear, and shoulders, backs and needs give way to pain. She still collects seaweed from the foreshore but no longer wades out into her allotment to care for her own crop every 15 days.


Nearby Nusa Lembongan also supports seaweed farming, however as reported in the Jakarta Globe, the tourism boom on this island has negatively affected it. As with the weaving, they face the problem of regeneration, as young people prefer to work in the more profitable tourism industry, which promises higher earnings than working on tasks that net a return not yet valued by the western world. And of course, the work is easier, faster, with the return guaranteed.

“Young people don’t want to follow in the path of their parents. They choose to work in tourism,” Made Sutra of Jungutbatu village said to the Jakarta Globe while collecting seaweed to be dried under the sun.  The 46-year-old said some older farmers had abandoned areas where they used to cultivate the seaweed, indicating one area currently used to park boats transiting between Nusa Lembongan and Sanur, due to their physical condition.

“Some older farmers are no longer able to work as farmers. They are not as strong as they used to be. Old people like me cannot work in the tourism industry because we don’t have the skills. I can’t even speak English. So I don’t have any other choice than being a farmer.”

Wayan Supratman, another farmer explained that the island’s tourism boom had afflicted seaweed farmers.  The 30-year-old works as seaweed farmer, however has integrated the current trend and also works as a tourist guide.

“Tourism is not always good every day. We experience a low season and a high season.”

Wayan explained that seaweed farming experienced a peak in 2000. Tourism development started in around 2005.

“(Collectively) farmers used to be able to harvest 40 tons per month, but now it has dropped to around 25 tons (* there are 907 kilos in a ton)…”

This is not per farmer. It is a collective effort. Finding accurate figures is difficult, however The Jakarta Post claimed in May, 2012 that crops were also declining due to changes in weather patterns:

“The largest seaweed collector in Nusa Penida, Wayan Nurada, 64, recently lamented the production slump. “We have been seeing reduced production over the past five years. We used to buy some 200 tons of seaweed from the farmers of Nusa Penida and Nusa Lembongan every month. But lately we can only buy around 75 tons per month,” said Nurada, who with his wife, Made Alep, has been ruling the seaweed trade in Nusa Penida since its cultivation started in 1984. 

Seaweed farmer I Made Raja, who owns a 70-square-meter farm in Banjar Bodong, Ped village, acknowledged that he could only harvest half of the amount he had usually harvested in the past. “Especially in the dry season, the seaweed does not grow normally and much of it dies before being harvested,” said Raja, whose monthly production of 400 kg could shrink to only 200 kg. 

Raja, like most other farmers, prefers to replant the buds from his own crop because buying new seaweed seedlings costs too much. A knot of spinosum seed costs Rp 5,000 (US 0.5 cents), while a knot of katoni seed is tagged at Rp 15,000. “For a 70-square-meter plot, I would have to buy 200 knots. I can’t afford that,” said Raja, who earns between Rp 500,000 and Rp 800,000 a month.”  

According to a 2009 survey by The Nature Conservancy, 310 hectares have been dedicated to seaweed farming across the three islands.

Founder of local environmental NGO, the Wisnu Foundation, I Made Suarnatha, also warned of escalating levels of chlorine that may pollute the water surrounding the three islands due to the rapid growth of tourism, especially in the neighbouring Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan.

The growth of villas is encroaching on land with new owners not wanting seaweed farms on the doorstep. Fortunately, Nusa Penida does not yet face this, but without careful management from the Klungkung regency, risks the same fate.

About the islands

Nusa Lembongan is approximately eight square kilometres in size, and is one of islands that nestle closely together. The largest is Nusa Penida, with tiny Nusa Ceningan in the middle. They are separated from Bali by the Badung Strait, which is also known as the dishwasher, due to strong currents that flow southward between the two islands. However these strong waters also help deliver water that is crystal clear, as can be seen in the headline photograph, taken on Nusa Penida near Kutampi Harbour in Ped.

temple_water_nusa penidaThe temple is for the Gods of the ocean, who protect the farms from harm.

The interior of Nusa Penida is hilly with a maximum altitude of 524 metres. It is drier than the nearby island of Bali. The kecamtan by the same name, had a population of 45,178 in the 2010 census, covering 202.6 km2, which has changed little from the 10 years prior. There is little tourism however this is changing and the next few years are critical to ensure that the environment and the people are not adversely effected.

beach_nusa penida

Getting there is by fast boat, which is around 250.000 rupiah for tourists, and 150.000 rupiah for Indonesians or KITAS holders.

The importance of seaweed farming

There are three aspects that I can think of that make seaweed farming important for Bali.

The first is a social need. It provides income for hundreds of families across the three islands. As the children no longer follow in their parents’ footsteps, money is generated from tourism. Should something happen to tourism, there is no fall back plan.

The second is cultural preservation. We travelled with Liza Dawn, Chief Operations Manager for the Role Foundation, who agreed that while we often talk of environmental conservation, we often fail to consider the impact of the loss of the fabric of the communities that draw in tourism in the first place.

netting seaweed

The third is environmental. Seaweed farming helps to preserve coral reefs by increasing diversity where the algae and seaweed have been introduced and  also provides added niche for local species of fish and invertebrates, increasing the production of herbivorous fishes and shellfish in the area. (Zertruche-Gonzalez, Jose A. (1997). Coral Reefs: Challenges and Opportunities for Sustainable Management.)

The conscious traveller

Getting to the three islands carries with it a conundrum for conscious travellers. You must get there by boat, which by their nature consume and pollute. There is a slow ferry but this still carries the same footprints, while the small local boat is far too dangerous for the swirling water of the strait.

There is also the complex issue of tourism versus preservation, which is poignant when an issue like seaweed farming is looked at.

Together, there needs to be a collective vision of building a nation while preserving what makes it unique, special, balancing the needs of the community who want a better life for their children.

Life is simple on Nusa Penida. We met a yoga teacher / naturapath who was there for six weeks to get grounded again, to immerse herself in the culture and give her children quality time with her. The previous night, they had sat with local children tying the seaweed nets. Her six-year old remarked that that was the best part of her holiday so far.

I watched as her young son played with an elderly lady who was stooped from decades of seaweed farming. The two communicated on a totally different realm to adults. No language, just smiles and gestures. It was remarkable to watch as the two interacted as though they were speaking fluently with each other. Her wizened, almost toothless face stretching into one of maternal warmth, even though she had never married and therefore, never had children, something unusual in Bali. She had no family and was cared for by the family of the Warung she lived beside.

old single ladyA resident of Nusa Penida who chatted and played with a young boy on a completely different realm to words or language.

Her tiny house measures no more than two metres square. We speculated how residents could live in a room with only one window that, instead of facing onto the spectacular views, faced into the yard, with no other light or ventilation. But live they do, still with a smile and gratitude for shelter, food and water.  Sustained perhaps, by the visit of a small blonde child, who is in touch with his soul, knows nothing of money or debt or worry, and can communicate without words.

A child who will have forever etched in his mind the authentic experience of Nusa Penida. Not something manipulated to captivate tourists, but a true appreciation for a connection beyond resorts and playstations, and an imprint that will make him one of the new breed of traveller. A conscious traveller, who we hope will help his hosts to continue welcoming us as guests, while preserving all the things that make Nusa Penida and her companion islands truly unique and special.


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Text: Clare McAlaney

Photography: Trish McNeill

Seaweed shot at top: Clare McAlaney

Copyright 2013. No image may be reproduced without express permission of Bali Soul Journals. Please use the contact form below if you would like to use this article for commercial purposes. The full article will be available later in 2013 with interview transcripts and the photography of Trish McNeill.

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