But next time the Bypass is flooded and you're stuck in muddy water halfway up your tires, think of the E word. The glorious coral reef you snorkelled 25 years ago is a bleached skeleton. The once-pristine river near your house is now the colour of bad coffee. What about that steep bank in your garden that caves in after a heavy rain, or the edge of the ravine that creeps eerily closer to your property line year by year? The E word again.
Erosion due to poor land management and illegal logging is remorselessly nibbling away at Bali's rice fields, roads and slopes. It's washing away tonnes of precious topsoil, muddying streams, threatening mountain roads and choking coral reefs.
This is a very recent phenomenon. For about 1000 years, Bali's ancient water conservation and irrigation systems were among the most effective in the world. A complicated network of irrigation channels moved water from one terrace to the next without disturbing the land. Until chemical fertilizers and pesticides were introduced to farming in Bali about 40 years ago, the rice fields supported complex ecosystems of ducks, fish, eels, snakes, frogs, bats and literally millions of insects. As these creatures lived, ate , bred and consumed one another - isn't it nice to be at the top of the food chain? - the nutrients and by-products stayed in the fields. Filtered through a thick biomass (decaying plant and animal residues), one source of water could irrigate dozens of fields and still be clean enough for use by the village at the bottom of the hill for washing, cooking and bathing. Erosion, which is caused by the speed of water moving across land, was slowed by the biomass in the fields, which was constantly breaking down to create rich topsoil.
Those of us who were in Bali 20 or 30 years ago remember watching farmers ploughing their fields with buffaloes, up to their thighs in rich mud. Today they plough shin-deep in the subsoil, the topsoil long since washed away. What happened? When chemical pesticides and fertilizers came into common use about 40 years ago, up to 90% of the extraneous life in the rice fields died off or migrated to richer feeding grounds. The organics-rich topsoil, no longer bound together by billions of micro-organisms, began to float away with the irrigation water, ending up in the rivers and eventually the sea. The chemicals, which are water-soluble, add no fertility to what remains of the soil.
Up to a couple of generations ago, no Balinese would go out and randomly cut down a tree, even if it was on his own land. According to the adat or social law, tree-cutting was a community decision, to be discussed with elders who understood the impacts of deforestation. Today, the buzz of the chainsaw can be heard even in national parks. The soil on these newly-bare slopes is quickly washed into rivers in heavy rains.
Bali's two main economic foundations are its agricultural and tourism industries. Erosion seriously harms them both. What can be done to slow erosion and turn the situation around? Widespread education and community responsibility is a long process. A quick-fix option could well lie with a modest grass that's being used experimentally at several sites on Bali (and many other parts of the world) with excellent results.
Vetiver is a tall grass with matted roots up to 3 meters long. It grows very quickly and in ideal conditions a single shoot can multiply to 1,000 plants in a year. These stay in a dense, non-invasive clump, slowing monsoon run-off and preventing erosion. Vetiver is a tolerant plant which can survive drought, flooding and salinity in a wide range of climates. When planted on steep slopes, vetiver roots not only stabilize the ground, but the long leaves capture topsoil washed from higher elevations and accumulate a fertile terrace of new land behind the plants.
Richard Wendt, consultant to the East Bali Poverty Project and advisor to Yayasan Mack, first heard about vetiver's properties from herbalist Melanie Templer. "I obtained a few plants from Flores and experimented with it my own garden," he recalls. "I found that vetiver grew very quickly, was easy to control and propagated very well. In two years I've taken about 10,000 plants from those original shoots."
Richard then assisted the East Bali Poverty Project to source and plant 80,000 vetiver shoots to stabilize the edges of many dirt tracks between the remote hamlets on the steep and sandy slopes of Mount Agung and Mount Abang. Torrential rains followed by intense dry seasons destroy roads quickly in this area, but vetiver proved effective in a single season.
Heavy rains here constantly wash away the gravel and sand on the equally steep farmland, which meant the inhabitants could only farm meagre crops of corn and cassava. The project then bought a further 400,000 vetiver shoots to reduce erosion and prepare trial organic vegetable gardens in four hamlets, initially for the 213 children enrolled in their integrated education projects. These have quickly grown into hedges which are controlling erosion and creating natural terraces of arable land. The organic particles captured here hold more water for a longer period of time, creating an environment which attracts the bugs, frogs and other creatures that build living soil. Within a few years these barren slopes will be fertile and green, and the malnourished families who live here will be growing a wide variety of nourishing crops to consume and trade.
In Indonesia, vetiver grass is also a very cost-effective option for infrastructure maintenance. Instead of using cement, rocks and bricks to stabilize steep roadside slopes, hills and bridges, strategically placed vetiver hedges will perform the same function at a fraction of the cost.
Besides its value in stabilizing slopes and creating new farmland, vetiver provides a number of intriguing new products. Vetiver oil, obtained from the roots of the plant, is popular in aromatherapy and as a perfume. The dried roots are woven into the aromatic table mats available in Balinese markets. These, along with the products of the East Bali Poverty Project, repel moths and other pests when stored in closets.
How can vetiver benefit you? Steep banks in your garden will be stabilized in a few months. Its sharp leaves discourage snakes from passing through the plant, so a vetiver hedge around your garden should dramatically decrease the number of slithery visitors, should you find these alarming. Termites avoid it. I don't mind snakes and my house is made of brick, but I'm planning to plant vetiver around my patio to deter the cheeky rats who chew through my stereo speaker wires like spaghetti; rodents are repelled by vetiver oil.
To purchase vetiver products, learn more about the plant or obtain shoots for your garden, visit the East Bali Poverty Project's Bunga Café outside of Ubud. Call first to ensure there are shoots in stock at (0361) 419741.