Friday, 3 April 2020


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. 

My son Tijm at work in the field

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. 

Ploughing with cows, much harder than it looks

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

Green School Bali is not only a school for the kids, it also offers courses for parents, and the first thing Roel and I both did after we arrived was enrol in a rice farming course organised by Kul Kul Connection, the departement at school dedicated to forging connections to the local community. It was such an inspiration that we joined again in the second semester, and I topped it up with a course in syntrophic farming and agroforestry. Suddenly I was that teenager again as I bended over the soil, feet in the mud and hands on the leaves, the hot tropical sun beating on my head and shoulders. I know my rheumatic body and nomadic lifestyle will never make me a farmer but boy, I am so tempted.

Roel weeding: SRI rice production means more weeds!

As we observe the Balinese farmers, listen to experts from over the world, as we toil and chat, ponder and learn, I start to realise more and more what a dire state our food supply is in. Monoculture depletes soil everywhere, wrecks biodiversity, disrupts the climate. Unhealthy lifestyles make people susceptible for diseases, there is an explosion of auto-immune conditions like the one I suffer from, one I know is strongly influenced by my diet. Massive changes will need to be made if humanity wants a future. This current pandemic illustrates that only more clearly. 

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.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Silent Day in Bali

As I woke up this morning and stepped from my bedroom onto the adjoining patio, the first thing I noticed was the sound of the river at the bottom of our garden. Then, twittering birds and cicadas. Today Bali celebrates Nyepi, the Day of Silence. There were no farmers in the field with noisy tractors. There was no music from ceremonies floating over from the village. No revving of GOJEK scooters delivering wares. My own noisy kids were still asleep.

Nyepi marks the new year in the Balinese calender, and its arrival has never been more well-timed in this time of social distancing and isolating. Nyepi is a day of self-reflection, and everything that can interfere with that is banned. So during Nyepi everyone in Bali, Hindu or not, needs to stay home and follow the restrictions: no fires, no electric lights, no work, no entertainment, and, importantly, do not leave the house. Today is a day of rest for ourselves and the earth.

Staying quiet and meditating doesn’t come natural to all. Just now, when my kids played noisily I warned them, only to be met with rolling eyes from Linde. ‘I don’t believe in Nyepi,’ she declared, and when I mentioned respect, and the banjar guards patrolling, she shrugged. ‘What will they do, arrest us?’

Normally, internet and mobile networks are switched off all over the island, and I am not sure I was glad or disappointed when both seemed to work fine this morning. With the current global crisis I could have used a day without any news. A day to retreat with my family in the safety of our home and relax. Our day today won’t be much different from the ones we had the past week. To protect both ourselves and the Balinese we decided to self-isolate a week ago. Initially it felt very surreal, as we noticed the world going on as normal outside. But slowly Bali started to catch up with us, as the government banned large events, and bars and restaurants closed one by one. Isolating isn’t easy for the Balinese, not only because many don’t have the savings to support staying home, but also because religion is such an important part of their lives, particularly at this time of the year.

For months they have been working at their Ogoh Ogoh, large statues of demons in all shapes and colours, that would have been paraded around the island yesterday. The Ogoh Ogoh serve to purify the environment of any spiritual pollutants emitted from the activities of living beings, especially humans. So when the government, wisely so, banned the parades, this was difficult to accept for everyone; surely purification is needed now more than ever. I have to admit even I was disappointed, for months I have been following the progress of the statues, being made in every neighbourhood. Even as an atheist, I can not but admire the dedication and creativeness the Balinese put into their religion.

And now, today, Nyepi. A day of silence at home seems to be exactly what the world needs, and the governor of Bali agrees by edict: Nyepi will last two days this year. A smart move, as the day after Nyepi, New Year’s day, involves a lot of visiting and a kissing ceremony where single youths get together and – kiss. After those two days, life will have to resume to some kind of normality, but what that will look like, no one knows. The situation changes by the day.

We will stay home a bit longer. We are thankful for our comfortable house and pool, for the GOJEK drivers that are out there and tirelessly deliver our orders. For all those working to keep the world running. For the medical staff that puts their own life on the line.

For now, I am enjoying the sound of my kid sweeping leaves, and try to make my greatest worry of the day the matter of how to keep them silent.