Written by Alice Sainsbury, Masters of International Community Development
Between July and October 2016, I volunteered with a small social enterprise in Bali for the professional placement component of the Master of International Community Development at Victoria University. My connection to Bali, and love of the natural world, was the inspiration to enroll in the Master and undertaking the placement there was a clear choice. When I was a baby, my surfer father and I moved to Bali, returning to Australia in 1999 just after the Asian financial crisis hit Indonesia and in time for me to attend high school. I’ve read that home is not where you are born, but where all your attempts to escape cease. Bali has been incredibly special to me in this way, and as soon as I could afford it, I came back. I was aware of the pollution problem as a child, but it was not until I returned as an adult that I recognised the enormity. With every visit, the rubbish, the excessive use of plastic and apparent lack of waste management was getting worse and worse.
The environmental landscape in Bali, both physically and politically, has changed dramatically in the last 15 years. The widespread environmental problems are no secret to those who have visited its unique shores. Locals and visitors see the rubbish piling up in the streets, on beaches and riverbanks; they wade through it in the canals and swim surrounded by it in the ocean. It can be smelled burning all over the island, in remote and urban areas alike. Landfill sites are over capacity and Indonesia is the second largest contributor of plastic pollution in the oceans (Jambeck et al. 2015; Herder & Larsson 2012).
Despite Bali’s environmental problems, Balinese culture is intrinsically linked to the natural environment. Tri Hita Karana is the local philosophy of Bali, translating to the three principles of wellbeing: a harmonious relationship between people; between people and God; and people and the environment. The World Heritage-listed Balinese subak irrigation system is a democratic and egalitarian farming practice that reflects this philosophy. There are specific Balinese ceremonies to thank plants and vegetation; a god that represents marine animals; offerings are served to sacred trees; and religious decorations are made from specific natural fibres loaded with meaning about the symbiosis between humans and their natural environment. I needed to know; how could this happen and what could I do about it?
I saw the most potential in environmental education and combatting harmful waste disposal behaviours. The organisation that hosted my placement, Bottle for Botol, delivers environmental education to schools in Indonesia and Australia, focusing on the production of — and harms associated with — plastic, particularly in relation to waterways and the ocean. They provide student-designed, BPA-free stainless steel bottles to students as an alternative to single-use plastic water cups and bottles.
While the day-to-day work of the placement focused on human resources, organisational management and building a policy and process base, I was lucky enough to visit schools in Canggu, Kuta, Denpasar, Mendoyo, Lembongan and Ceningan. I attended a bottle design competition, bottle deliveries, end-of-program celebrations and teachers’ workshops. My frustration with what can seem a dire environmental situation was crushing at times. Witnessing the students’ enthusiasm and joy, watching school staff as they connected the dots between rubbish on riverbanks and toxicity in the fish they ate, was the jolt of positivity I needed when the realities of work became monotonous. Seeing Balinese children sing songs about what they had learned, thanking their Australian partner school for their bottles, and observing students and teachers proudly carrying their well-used bottles, gave me hope.
Bali is more than its impressive biodiversity, more than the kind, respectful, proud local people, more than its complex history and intrinsic traditions. It is much more than the sum of its parts: a place on earth like no other that must be protected. At its aching heart are the plants, animals, waterways, and the sea. The natural environment has shaped the culture, history and landscape, and Bali’s people will ultimately define its future. Being given the opportunity to witness local Balinese who are passionate and excited about environmental sustainability has given me hope that Bali’s environmental future will be pursued with capacity, power and promise. And what is a more powerful lesson than hope?
Herder, K & Larsson, K 2012, ‘The growing piles of waste on Bali: a problem or an opportunity to make money?’, Bachelor of Environmental Social Science thesis, University of Gothenburg, viewed 11 November 2016, https://gupea.ub.gu.se/bitstream/2077/29586/1/gupea_2077_29586_1.pdf
Jambeck, J, Geyer, R, Wilcox, C, Siegler, T.R, Perryman, M, Andrady, A, Narayan, R & Law, K.L 2015, ‘Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean’, Science, vol. 347, iss. 6223, pp. 768-771.
Written by Catherine Elliott, Dode Gargitha and Alice Sainsbury.