The best thing to calm me down, for instance when the world has suddenly turned completely upside down, is to be in nature. So it is my luck that right now, as we have to stay at home, I am living in a place surrounded by rice fields. When stress takes over my body I sit and breathe and look at those waving green stalks. Nature gives me perspective, it shows me what is really important in the grand scheme of things.
In those rice fields, life goes on. Plants do not stop growing, or go in lock-down, and when the government talks about ‘essential jobs’ that have to go on, this must clearly be one of the most essential jobs in the world, not just now, in times of corona and panic, but always: Farming.
We need food to stay alive. And not just any food; healthy, nourishing food, and this current crisis makes it clear how our modern lifestyles weaken our bodies, people that are obese, have diabetes or similar health conditions are vulnerable. This is not the last virus that will hit humanity, and this pandemic resonates with issues I have been pondering this last year in Bali and at the Green School: the future of agriculture and the food industry. Friends who met me in the last few years know me as a writer with a passion for human rights, which I am, but this sabbatical in Bali I find myself at a crossroads. Do I continue with that, or do I go back to an earlier version of myself? As a teenager I wanted to study tropical farming, I loved plants and badly wanted to be back in the tropics of my childhood. But then, I could not see myself as a farmer, my lifestyle has always been nomadic, not grounded in one spot. Later I developed a new passion, and wanted to be a perfumer, but recurring sinus infections in the cold northern European weather ruled perfumery school in Paris out. I ended up studying chemistry, although I can’t really remember why. I specialised in sustainable development, a subject at the time – twenty years ago, gosh I am old - still developing itself, and fascinating.
As life is what happens when you make other plans, I somehow ended up with a job at one of world’s biggest food manufacturers as a product developer for ice cream. Creating new flavours, sourcing fair trade and sustainable ingredients, for ten years it was a dream job until I realised that such a big commercial company, in the end, wasn’t for me. With three young kids we moved to Singapore, I started writing, and that seemed that. But Bali is known to be a place that opens your eyes. It is full of people that want to ‘find themselves’, as I used to sneer, but not me because I knew exactly who I was. Then, of course, Bali slapped me in the face and laughed.
|Green School parents at work in the field, planting|
|Roel weeding: SRI rice production means more weeds!|
|left: Pak Wayan, one of the Balinese farmers we work with|
middle: an agriculture specialist from the Badung government
In Bali, most of the farmers are over 60 years of age. Getting farming to be ‘sexy’ and a popular choice for young people is one of the challenges the island faces. But of the high school students I teach creative writing to, none want to be a farmer, even though many of their grandparents were. These are smart and ambitious kids, that want to be lawyers, doctors and accountants. Their parents work in tourism or run businesses. Why would they work long back-breaking hours in the heat for a pittance, a fraction of what they can make in a cool office?
|Not much easier than the cows...|
Farming these days is not ‘romantic’. Modern farmers in Bali don’t use the farming methods of their grandfathers, they use the methods promoted by the government since the Green Revolution of the late 20th century; a way of production where everyone uses the same hybrid seeds, and an increasing amount of chemical fertiliser as the soil depletes and an increasing amount of pesticides as the unbalanced eco-system gets ravaged by pests and diseases. The resulting grains have less flavour and nutritional value than the rice I remember from when I was young and living in this region.
|Pak Wayan seeding out 'no till' experiment field|
Those older farmers still remember how it used to be. How there were eels and frogs in the fields that naturally fertilised the soil. How the water coming down to the subak from the aquifers in the mountains was clean and not full of nitrates. But they also know there are many people to feed in Indonesia, and that the current population can’t be fed on the low yields those old methods produced. Most people in Indonesia can’t afford to pay the premium for the organically produced rice we grow in our course – we sell it to expats and restaurants, and to Green School that feeds it to our kids. The flavour is amazing.
|Me, happy at harvest time|
If one thing has become clear to me, it is that we need to find a way where we combine the good things of the past, where balanced eco-systems were naturally protected and nature not a threat, with modern methods that allow us to produce enough to feed a growing world population. The courses I did the last year showed me many innovations in agriculture that offer solutions, and also that farmers are keen to join in. The challenge will be to roll these innovations out, to get governments on board, to supply initial investments and guidance. It is something that needs to be done. Because the natural world, the climate, the soil, the water; they are all essential for our very existence. The most essential. We can train doctors and develop vaccines as much as we like, but without a healthy world, we are fighting a losing battle.
|Arthur, a farmer from Brazil teaching agroforestry|
So as I sit behind my laptop, typing as I glance over the screen at the rice fields beyond, I know that Bali raised more questions for me than it can answer. The crossroads we all stand at right now might seem blocked - in a literal sense, as there are very few flights out of Bali and most countries closed their borders – but the good thing is the roads are there in front of us, we just need to decide which one to take. Do we go on as usual, or do we make a U-turn and fix this world? There is one thing my all-over-the place life taught me, and that is that many roads go to the same destination, they meander and cross again, go over hills and hurdles, through streams, deserts and fields of abundance. As long as you go forward, not back, you will get there.
Looking at the farmer ploughing his field behind my house, a slew of white birds behind him picking up the worms he whips up, I feel optimistic. He is essential. Hopefully I can be too.