While it’s easy to think of Nusa Lembongan and the nearby islands of Ceningan and Penida as tourist hotspots, seaweed farming rather than tourist farming remains the mainstay here and forms the cornerstone of the economies of all three islands. Seaweed farming? Yup — the locals farm the stuff and you’d probably be surprised at just how often you use products using derivatives of seaweed each day. The patchwork farms can be seen sitting offshore just under the surface at high tide and exposed to the elements at low tide, when local farmers descend upon them to care for and maintain their harvest.
After a period underwater, the seaweed is harvested and laid out on tarpaulins on, well, any flat surface other than the road (having it driven over by cars and motorbikes is far from desirable) and partly dried. Once it has dried sufficiently it is sold on to a middleman, who will bale it and onsell it to international commodities traders who send it abroad for processing.
Processing into what? Well you’d be surprised. The seaweed is a source of carrageenans, which are used as a gelling or thickening agent in a vast range of consumer products — and when we say vast, we mean vast. Think toothpaste, pate, ice cream, processed meats, soy milk, diet soda, personal lubricants, air-fresheners and fire fighting foam. First used by the Chinese around 600 BC, their use turned commercial in the 1930s.
So next time you’re planning a romantic date on the cheap — just pack some seaweed as it covers nearly all the bases — including when you kick over those romantic candles and set the bungalow on fire!
You don’t have to watch the boats gliding between the stakes used in the farms, nor the farmers carrying loads of the weed in baskets on their heads for long to realise it’s darn hard work. The farmer we spoke to said the seaweed is dried and she’s paid by the kilogram; she ends up making around 70,000 to 100,000 rupiah per day.
While the processed seaweed you buy in the grocery store can be very pungent, having the beach covered with almost-carrageenans isn’t nearly as painful on the nose as you may think, though you’ll smell the drying seaweed wafting across the islands occasionally — just blame Colgate.
From a practical perspective, it means that the beaches where farms are located can be treacherous for swimming if there’s surf. It’s easy to avoid the stakes in calmer waters, such as along the calmer waters of Jungut Batu beach on Nusa Lembongan; we saw one guy risking it in the shallows of the surf near Secrets break on Nusa Ceningan but it looked a bit hairy to us.
The working farms definitely lend a colourful character to the islands and make for photogenic scenes, particularly at sunset. Of course, ask if you’re going to take a photo of somebody at near range, it’s just good manners to ask; we’ve found the people here friendly and welcoming to interest in their work.
Like many things, only the cheapest part of the process is undertaken in Indonesia. The seaweed is baled locally, but the expensive processing — we like to imagine a huge gizmo with bales of seaweed falling in one side and toothpaste oozing out the other — is all undertaken offshore, well away from Indonesia, which is a shame as these families here are doing an awful lot of hard work for, in the scheme of things, very little reward.
So next time you’re brushing your teeth, about to make a baby, tuck into a bowl of ice cream or fight a bushfire, spare the hardworking seaweed farmers here a thought!
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.