I Made Suarnatha: Igniting the spirit of ecotourism in villages in Bali and beyond

13 Aug 2012  551 | World Travel News

It has been a decade-long journey for the Network of Ecotourism Villages, locally known as Jaringan Ekowisata Desa (JED), which was initiated by an environment-based NGO, the Wisnu Foundation, in 2002.

Despite ups and downs over the past 10 years, the four villages that are part of JED — Dukuh Sibetan in Karangasem, Tenganan Pegringsingan in Karangasem, Kiadan Pelaga in Badung and Nusa Ceningan in Klungkung — have managed to maintain their existence as ecotourism attractions until this very day. Each has its own uniqueness — Sibetan with its agricultural produce of salak (snake fruit), Tenganan with its abundance of unique rituals and pegringsingan weaving, Pelaga with its coffee produce and idyllic landscape, and Nusa Ceningan with its seaweed harvest. 

Over the past three years, the four villages have welcomed a total of up to 400 visitors per year seeking the experience of the “real way of life” in a Balinese village, without artificial ceremonies or activities.

The reservations are slowly but surely increasing. Each local visitor pays at least Rp 500,000 (US$53) and foreigners pay an average US$75 to tour the villages, with the residents getting around 70 percent of the collected earnings, while the remaining 30 percent is used by the foundation for capacity building and operational costs, including marketing and management support. 

I Made Suarnatha, 50, founder of the foundation, acknowledged it had not been an easy ride for the four ecotourism villages to get to where they are today.

With their burning spirit for ecotourism, their increasing awareness of the importance of preserving their environmental and cultural values, and their ability to receive financial benefit from tourism, these four villages are beginning to serve as role models for other villages, who hope to thrive along with this new development. 

Below are excerpts of Suarnatha’s views on ecotourism villages as shared with Bali Daily’s Agnes Winarti at his newly built Wisnu Foundation meeting area at Jl. Pengubengan Kauh 94, Kerobokan.

Question: How did JED initially begin?

Answer: Since before the Wisnu Foundation’s establishment in 1993, I have been involved in programs for the sustainable development of Bali. The tourist industry is mainly profit oriented, while neglecting all aspects of environmental and cultural harmony. It is such a myth that it will bring welfare for all. The environment and the limited resources of our small island have become major concerns. We are reorienting our focus to support the development of ecotourism by creating village models in JED. We chose these villages based on their own specific biodiversity.

How challenging has it been to develop JED?

Very challenging. Our NGO was initially perceived as an agent for investors or land buyers and the mass-tourism model like in Sanur and Kuta. That’s what the common perception in the villagers’ mind was. Our aim to develop tourism based on the village’s own unique cultural and agricultural potential and capacity was uncommon at
the time. 

It takes remarkable patience to make JED work. This program aims at building the villagers’ perspective of being a dignified host in an ecotourism destination. Most of the residents were unable to imagine how their villages would be able to attract people, especially foreigners. It was long arduous work to raise their awareness and find the biodiversity so they can develop. We’ve had to run capacity building training, continue financial support through funding proposal efforts, finding experts to improve their sanitation system.

It’s challenge to maintain their spirit. It’s also a challenge to convince guests to come.

What are the JED’s indicators of success?

After 10 years, it is not perfect yet. But the fact that these villages continue to operate is an achievement of its own. There was a blessing in disguise from the 2004 Bali bombing when we experienced zero visitors, just like all the hotels on the island, because the villagers managed to move on with their main potential, the agricultural produce, while at the same time recovering their ecotourism programs.

The past three years, we’ve seen recovery and the financial value raised through these villages reached Rp 1 billion. About 70 percent of the money made from the ecotourism programs is enjoyed by the villagers.

Now, ecotourism in villages has started booming, although I’m a little concerned about the management mechanism in other villages.

Are there ecotourism programs involving villages that have succeeded in other countries? 

In Costa Rica, ecotourism is branded green tourism; it’s fully supported by the government. Thailand and Japan are also aggressively developing their ecotourism: one village, one product. 

Have more villages in Bali joined JED? Why?

These four villages will remain as models. But there are many other villages in Bali and beyond showing an interest in following. We have visitors from other villages from Sulawesi, Flores, East Kalimantan, Timor Leste, as well as Cambodia.

We are now establishing an Association of Ecotourism Villages. When we launched it in 2010, 55 villages in Bali joined, including Angka in Tabanan, Sudaji in Buleleng, Selat and Belimbing Sari in the west of Bali and Purba Ayu in the east of Bali. The association is where village communities can share their aspirations and fight for their rights because tourism in Bali is mostly planned by foreign parties that only involve investors and businesses. None of them involve the villagers.

Recently, villages like Jatiluwih have become tourist attractions after being recognized by UNESCO, but the farmers there have not benefitted from it, how will JED respond to this?

Jatiluwih fits very well into our ecotourism prototype. The subak in Jatiluwih, which has become a world cultural heritage, is owned by the farmers. Thus, they have to be informed of their rights so that they are aware of their bargaining position. Mind you, Jatiluwih is very different from usual UNESCO world cultural heritages, which are mostly monuments.

What should the administration’s role be to make ecotourism successful in more villages across the island?

In terms of direct support, there is almost none. However, there has been recognition from the World Tourism Ethics, as seen in Tenganan village, which has welcomed many visitors. We have to be proud of that. However, in this era with globalization and privatization, the government has to learn its proper position and facilitate the rights of the villagers.

Sourced: thejakartapost