Seaweed’s surge in popularity across the world spells good news for a farming community on an island off Bali. Photographer Putu Sayoga captures their story
Text and photography by Putu Sayoga
As fish stocks plummet in Indonesia’s waters, and erratic weather patterns make for difficult onland farming, inhabitants of Nusa Penida are increasingly cultivating an algae that feeds a multi-billion dollar industry and is found in everyday items such as toothpaste and ice-cream: seaweed.
A key ingredient in medicines, cosmetics and foods such as cheese, among many other products, seaweed has become the financial backbone of this island community just off southeastern Bali, where buoyed plots bob along a 30-kilometre stretch of the island’s shallow waters.
Dubbed a ‘virtuous vegetable’ by environmental experts, seaweed is lauded for being a ‘climate smart’ choice for farmers across the world. As a crop, it is relatively easy to grow: it does not require weeding, fertilisers, forest clearing or heavy use of fuel-burning machinery; it absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere more rapidly than most plants; it has a high oil content and can be converted to biodiesel; and it is not as labour intensive as some land crops.
Popular in Asia, where the vast majority of the world’s seaweed is grown, seaweed farming has proven, in parts, to be a more lucrative and reliable source of income than fishing. However, on Nusa Penida, brokers dominate the market, keeping prices low. Despite global demand far outweighing natural supplies, one kilogram of seaweed on the Indonesian island still only fetches $1 for the farmers – whose work schedule is dictated by the ebb and flow of the tide. Depending on the sea levels, farmers can find themselves wading into the waters during the early hours of the morning, the blazing heat of midday and the afternoon, or the cold of the night.
If the weather is good, seaweed can be harvested after 45 days, then dried for four days on tarps in the sun before being bought by brokers, who ship the supply to Surabaya to be further processed before being exported as part of the $6-billion global seaweed industry.
With an abundance of tropical waters and one of the longest shorelines in the world, Indonesia may soon find seaweed to be its most lucrative marine resource, spurring islanders out of poverty. With an alternative source of income for overfished coastal communities, where farmland is degraded and increasingly scarce, the islanders of Nusa Penida are showing that perhaps it is time to take farming to the sea.
Putu Sayoga, 26, is a freelance photographer based in Bali, Indonesia. His work, which focuses on travel, culture and society, has been published in various magazines in Southeast Asia. He is currently working on a long-term project about an elderly farmer in his village in Bali. For more information please visit: putusayoga.com.
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