In the early 1980s, seaweed farming was the main industry on the Penida Archipelago, three sun-kissed islands off Bali’s southeast coast.
But just as aquaculture was about to take off, the striking square seaweed patches that checker-boarded the islands’ bays and inlets faded away.
In 2016, the only farms that remained were in the channel dividing Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan islands. By 2019, there were none left at all.
The end of seaweed farming was a symptom of Indonesia’s tourism boom, which saw visitor numbers rocket from seven million in 2010 to 16 million in 2019, according to Statistics Indonesia.
Since Batu Karang opened in 2005, land values on the islands have increased up to 20 percent each year. Thousands of Chinese day-trippers and hundreds of Australian surfers visited every day, providing jobs that offered regular wages and far easier working conditions than aquaculture.
But with the global tourism industry paralysed by the coronavirus pandemic and 13 million tourism workers now unemployed in Indonesia, seaweed farming in the Penida Archipelago is back in vogue.
Before the pandemic, Kasumba, who like many Indonesians goes by only one name, was Batu Karang’s purchasing officer. Now she is one of an estimated one thousand islanders who spend their days knee-deep in seawater and busy planting, harvesting, and hauling baskets of seaweed.
Kasumba says she likes working outdoors and the communal aspect of the job, but she notes the returns are poor. “Between five of us we earn only USD 200 to USD 300 a month,” she said.
Her neighbor Kadek also says he earns much less farming seaweed than in his previous job as a reservation clerk at the Tamarind Resort Nusa Lembongan.
“Before I made USD 200 a month and partied with my friends on weekends,” he said. “Now I have to work seven days a week just to earn USD 50 a month. I haven’t had a Bintang [beer] since March.”
Djusdil Akrim, the owner of Bosowa, a carrageenan factory in South Sulawesi Province, Indonesia’s seaweed farming hub, says diminishing returns for farmers on Penida is not a symptom of oversupply or lockdowns.
The estimate is corroborated by data released by the Indonesian Marine Affairs and Fisheries Ministry that shows exports of fishery products increased seven percent in the first half of 2020 compared with the same period last year, with seaweed identified as one of the top four commodities.
The problem in Penida, Akrim says, is that the industry is unregulated. The government is never thinking about industrial cultivation, so what we are left with are small farmers trying to survive.
“In the Philippines, seaweed farmers have formed unions and have bargaining power with Chinese buyers. In South Korea, they’ve turned seaweed farms into tourist attractions where people pay to see how the product is cultivated. But even here in Sulawesi where there are 200,000 seaweed farmers, there is no collaboration between business and government.”
Farmers in Penida confirmed mass tourism had made it impossible to grow seaweed in the channel dividing Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan islands.