Under the volcano, Bali is sinking

A crisis on the slopes of Mount Agung highlights the great fragility of the island paradise

Mount Agung squats like a primordial deity above Eastern Bali, presiding over acre after acre of emerald rice fields and roadside strip-towns where small shrines and moss-covered temples lie cheek-by-jowl with convenience stores, repair shops and open markets.

As the highway rises towards the shoulder of the mountain, the towns become sparser, giving way eventually to tight pine forests—planted on the land left bare by the volcano’s last eruption in 1964 in the vain hope of supplying Europe's now-vanished fad for pine furniture. Over the saddle that joins Agung to Mount Batur lies Desa Ban, a disparate group of small communities stretching from the slopes of the volcano almost all the way to the coast.

When David Booth arrived here in the late 1990s the uppermost villages were barely even on the map, reachable only on foot, or by driving trail bikes along dry river beds—at breakneck speed to avoid sinking into the shifting volcanic silt.

Booth is a frank-talking Englishman and a nightmare to interview, prone to long, branching anecdotes and unrestrained emotion. He tears up at the thought of colleagues lost along the way, or at the human cost of Desa Ban's poverty, measured in shockingly high infant mortality rates and acute malnutrition. As often as not, these moments of reflection merge fluidly into foulmouthed invective directed at the corruption, the greed and the disinterest of local authorities that have contributed to the area's state of neglect.

“Since [president] Suharto went down, no government will do anything unless there’s money in it,” he said.

Over the decades, Booth, a former civil engineer, has charmed and begged and scraped together the resources to bring services to communities on the mountainside. His East Bali Poverty Project is present in each of the small villages delivering basic healthcare and education.

“Bali is faced with a lot of crazy catastrophes in the future. Our groundwater is depleting… Then there is overconsumption. Mass tourism, population growth. This island cannot handle these things at once.”

In his former career, Booth built roads across the developing world; here he oversaw the first concrete stripways that allowed a 4x4 to reach some of the settlements. He has rattled a can around the island's luxury resorts and rotary clubs to get schools built and clean water sources dug, and convinced—or shamed—the government into reopening schools and putting down proper tarmac to link the area to the outside world. The last section of the road crossing the mountain was only finished last year, and getting to the more remote communities still means clambering up suspension-wrecking tracks that wind perilously up the slope.

People are far better off than they were. Many have accumulated small herds of livestock, which they use to store value and make an income. Motorbikes are now everywhere, used to collect forage for cattle and take kids to school. In late 2016, EBPP hired Deni Nugraha, a former aircraft engineer, to help set up a social enterprise making hipster-style bamboo-framed bikes for the ecotourism crowd.

That progress is in jeopardy. Last September, Mount Agung started to shudder and smoulder. The government warned that an eruption seemed imminent and ordered the evacuation of communities around the crater. In total, around 140,000 people were displaced.

Many people simply panicked. In Cegi, one of the villages closest to the crater, schoolteacher Wayan Yasa said that his community only learned about the state of emergency after a resident's relative saw the alert on social media and turned up in a pickup truck. People fled in disorder, abandoning their farms and livestock. Some crept back days later to recover their animals, which they sold at knock-down prices to markets near the camps. Normally they would buy a calf at market, fatten it up and sell it at a decent multiple at the market in Rendang. In the crisis economy, beef cattle were going for less than the price of a calf.

In the early 2000s, Booth estimated that families in Desa Ban had, on average, one cow between two. By September 2017, they had eight or nine each. Now, most of them have none, and precious little cash to buy back their herds. Locals said it could take four or five years to get back to normal.

“It’s not quite back to square one,” Booth said, blowing smoke out of the window of his pickup truck as it weaved between traffic on the way down the mountain. “But they have been kicked in the bollocks. They’re in hospital.”

The emergency in Bali is theoretically drawing to a close. The exclusion zone around the volcano has been scaled back several times since December, and in mid-February all but a few most vulnerable communities were told that they could go home. It is a decision that attracts a degree of derision from local non-government organisations, who believe that it was taken somewhat expeditiously in order to limit the damage to the tourist industry, on which the island has become increasingly dependent.

“They still say that [Bali is rich]. But we think differently. The rich people are rich, but the poor people are poor. Since this event, the poor are getting poorer.”

Counted in cancelled flights and empty rooms, the cost to Bali’s biggest industry could be more than $650 million (£470 million; €530 million), according to the government’s own estimates. It has put a dent in the tourism ministry’s target of 10 million visitors this year.

For those outside of the tourist bubble, the impact could be far more profound. “It’s very challenging,” said Eko Wardani, who has been working on emergency response with PMI, the local chapter of the Red Cross. People have lost their livelihoods on the mountainside, and will need humanitarian support for months to come, out of sight of the tourist trade.

“They still say that [Bali is rich]. But we think differently,” Wardani said. “The rich people are rich, but the poor people are poor. Since this event, the poor are getting poorer.”

Perhaps paradoxically, the recent crisis may only deepen the dependence on tourism. Some villagers in Desa Ban did not come back after the evacuation, but went onto the tourist centres of Kuta and Ubud to look for work. They join an ongoing stream of people. High land taxes, the degradation of agricultural land and indebtedness in rural communities has pushed people to abandon farming to seek quicker cash in hospitality.

Some local experts warn that this is a downward spiral that portends a far greater catastrophe than Mount Agung.

Ade Andreawan and Doni Marmer, from sustainable development NGO IDEP, are worried that the obsession with bringing in ever more tourists into the already over-developed tourist resorts in the south will stretch the island’s resources beyond breaking point.

“Bali is faced with a lot of crazy catastrophes in the future,” Marmer said. “Our groundwater is depleting… Then there is overconsumption. Mass tourism, population growth. This island cannot handle these things at once.”

As he spoke, in IDEP’s idyllic demonstration garden an hour outside Ubud, the sound of drills rattled across the fields from an illegal sandstone quarry down by a nearby river. It is another sign that fast money is winning out in Bali, to the great detriment of many people and to the island’s ecology.

“There is now no low season. There hasn’t been a low season for 10 years,” Andreawan said. Now, when the Australians and the British go back, the Chinese arrive. Low-cost flights have brought the island into the reach of millions more people, all year-round, meaning that it has less time to recover, and the drain on its resources has reached a critical level. Competition has driven down prices to the point where they cannot be sustainable.

The island’s aquifers—the underground water reservoirs that keep it alive—are now below 20 per cent of their capacity, according to recent reports from the Indonesian Geologists Association. Ever-more resorts means ever-increasing water use, and IDEP worries that saltwater may flood into the aquifers, which would be a disaster.

This great fragility below the surface runs counter to the image that Bali has worked so hard to present. The profusion of organic cafés serving turmeric shots and açai bowls, the yoga studios and the spiritual retreats; the Balinese reliance on ‘nasib’—‘fate’—and even the fatalistic way that people drive mopeds as though they are prepared for the afterlife reinforces a sense of spiritual and ecological harmony that disguises a looming emergency.

“It’s just lipstick,”Andreawan said. “Bali is sinking. This island’s support system is really weak, geographically, topographically. It’s really weak.”

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