16 February 2014
Farming seaweed – or fishing for tourists?
Apart from the few children making silly faces and playing with the carcass of a dead dog, the local Indonesian farmers were relatively old men and women – or at least past beyond the prime of their lives. Their ritual didn’t vary, tied to the tide (ha, love that internal rhyme) and harvesting times – patiently attaching seaweed seedlings to lines attached to the bottom of the ocean; diligently harvesting ripe seaweed, sheltered from the sun under their round bamboo hats; endlessly walking back and forth between the small wooden boats and the shore, carrying heavy baskets of green and brown seaweed; and waiting for it to dry during three days, up to seven when it rains.
Unsurprisingly to me, for I had always associated eating seaweed with Japan ever since my breakfast in a ryokan (a traditional Japanese guesthouse) up in Takayama in the Japanese “Alps” (and those marinated sour cherries, yuk), seaweed farming began in Japan at the end of the 17th century. Dare I add only then since I could easily visualise in my mind an Akira Kurosawa film in which such farming would be practised as far back as the Middle Ages? I’m probably too uncultivated (haha) in the agri/aqui-cultural domain to be able to tell what kind of farming was filmed though.
Most of the seaweed grown on the small island of Nusa Lembongan, southeast of Bali, is however destined for the Asian cosmetic industry. One problem though is that tourism on that island took off about ten years ago, drawing more local young people to the tourism industry (remember my surfing pictures?), however cyclical it can be, instead of the more tiring, lower-earnings work as seaweed farmers – although some apparently nonetheless work in both industries.
According to my quick research and because I love data, each farmer collects between half a ton and one ton at each harvest (which occurs five weeks or so), each kilogram bringing in between 2,000 and 8,000 Indonesian Rupiahs (that’s only 17 to 68 cents of a US dollar) depending on the type of seaweed and market fluctuations – so it’s on average a $300 monthly income which is a bit more than the average Indonesian wage, although I haven’t taken into account production costs… and that income is often not enough for farmers to have access to electricity, let alone fresh water. And since there are no processing facilities on the island, there’s no way for local farmers to earn a bigger share of the approximate ten times increase in seaweed price once it reaches international markets (according to prices I could check on Alibaba). I guess I’ll think a bit more about it before going into that business myself...
Teaser: in my next post, we’ll head to a 600-year old Buddhist temple in northern Thailand which would never have been founded save for a (white) elephant.