I celebrated National Day at Puri Lumbung in Munduk again this year. The rustic hotel is built among rice fields, clove trees and flower gardens high on the edge of an ancient caldiera. The view spills down to the north coast and Java’s Mount Meru beyond. The air is crisp and cool, and perfumed with the aroma of cloves.

This community hardly existed a century ago. A small number of indigenous people were already living there when five families from Klungkung arrived about 200 years ago, fleeing a succession conflict with the royal family. These few households were already in place when the Dutch, seeking relief from the summer heat of their administrative capital Singaraja, began to build a few holiday cottages in Munduk beginning in the early 1900s. The Dutch brought their unique colonial architecture to Munduk, and planted their traditional export commodities: coffee, cocoa, cloves and vanilla.

The ancestors of Pak Nyoman Bagiarta were among the early Klungkung settlers in Munduk. The village grew around their family compound as more farmers and traders arrived and settled, cleared land and planted crops. By the 1920s Munduk was a prosperous little village. When the war came, the Dutch left and markets for local crops contracted. Then the price of coffee collapsed in the 1950s and the Sukarno government mandated that the coffee plantations be replaced with cloves. Munduk slumbered on into the 1990s, its     economy very depressed. The new tourism boom in the south, which started in the mid 1980s, was already drawing people away from the village.

Bali’s nascent tourism industry was focused on the Nusa Dua model of a five-star, gated tourist community that kept the real Bali at arm’s length. Pak Nyoman, by now Director of the Hotel and Tourism Training Center in Nusa Dua, observed the negative economic and social impacts of concentrating tourism in the south and became one of Bali’s first proponents of responsible tourism.

Over time and against industry opinion, he slowly created the plan of developing Munduk, his birth village, into an ethical tourism destination. Pak Nyoman felt instinctively that there was a market for a more authentic tourism experience and built a few lumbungs. Traditional buildings are a common architecture theme in Bali today, but 25 years ago the idea was considered crazy.

“I believe Puri Lumbung was the first eco-tourism destination in Bali,” he said. “The ‘responsible tourism’ jargon hadn’t yet been invented, but in 1992 we were already conserving water and electricity, building with local materials, reducing solid waste, recycling plastic, composting kitchen waste,       using local foods and hiring and training locally long before these practices became mainstream.”

At an elevation of between 500 and 1200 metres, Munduk’s average temperature is a refreshing 20-30C. The town, which now has a population of about 6,000, has become a popular retreat for tourists and Bali’s expats. Puri Lumbung now has 50 simple rooms and employs 100 people, by far Munduk’s single greatest employer. Its kitchen purchases vast quantities of fruit and vegetables from local producers to feed its guests.

My previous visits had also been during the clove harvest. With about 700 hectares of the surrounding slopes planted in clove trees, the crop has traditionally been an anchor of the local economy. The best buds are picked and dried for the spice trade, lower quality goes to flavour the ubiquitous clove cigarettes and the fallen leaves are distilled for essential oil. The dangerous task of picking the cloves while climbing frail ladders has historically been done by seasonal workers from Klungkung and Java.

But last year’s heavy, unseasonal rain ruined the cloves and this year’s abundant crop is hanging in fragrant clusters in the trees, unpicked.

“Tourism has improved in Klungkung and the workers don’t want to pick cloves any more,” Pak Nyoman told me. “There aren’t enough pickers from Java, and local people don’t want to do the work. So it looks like this crop will be lost.”

Not only are agricultural workers hard to find, but the hotel finds it difficult to attract skilled staff to work there. The young people of Munduk are gravitating to Denpasar to work in shops, or moving to other areas to attend high school.

“Everyone wants a white collar job, even though they have no skills,” says Pak Nyoman. “We need to find way to make agriculture more prestigious and more profitable. By introducing farmers to new skills and food technology and finding bridges to market, perhaps the agriculture sector here can be saved. Otherwise, what will it look like in 2 years?”

We sat together over cups of local coffee and gazed out at the steep mountainsides covered with clove and coffee trees. A lot of the coffee crop was also rotting on the trees this year, and that which was picked was sold for a low price because the quality was poor.

Adding value locally to the cloves and coffee would bring a significant increase in cash to the community, but the learning curve will be steep even if people were interested. These crops both happen to be very labour intensive. Coffee must be selectively picked so only the ripest red cherries are used, then fermented, dried and sorted by size so the beans roast evenly. Cloves are dangerous to harvest, then each clove must be snapped off the cluster by hand and sun-dried.

Theoretically the farmers could learn to harvest the coffee more carefully, ferment and dry it. But their smallholdings are remote from each other and from the village; a project to train them and monitor the process would be challenging. Such a project would require an investment in money and human resources, even if the farmers agreed to take part. Farming communities are traditionally very conservative and resistant to change. But the quality of their crops needs to be improved.

Then there is the issue of the young people who will inherit these smallholdings. Many of them are already planning a future that doesn’t include agriculture. As Pak Nyoman observes and I mentioned in my last column (The Last Straw), there’s been a rapid shift away from manual work. Young people want clean, indoor jobs. And once they leave the farming life, it’s very unlikely that they’ll return.

What does this mean for the future of agriculture in Bali? Almost before we saw it coming, we may already be past the tipping point. Rice fields disappear under hotels, villas and shops and cloves and coffee decay unpicked as young Balinese migrate to urban areas. Traditional labour pools from poorer areas have dried up as local economies improve.

And high on the cool slopes of Munduk, 700 hectares of forgotten clove trees shed their fragrant crop.



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