I’ve been afforded some pretty incredible travel opportunities in my life, most recently the chance to participate in a three week study abroad workshop in Bali, Indonesia. The course was sociological in structure and intent on questioning the relationship between traditional Balinese culture and the tourism industry that drives their economy. Before leaving, we were asked by our professor to choose a topic that would be the focal point of our research while abroad. I, having been involved with the zoo for close to ten years, chose to look at the environmental effects of tourism and animal welfare throughout the country.
My program was focused in a centrally located town, called Ubud. It, like so much of the country, is surrounded by gorgeous forests filled with banana and coconut trees and valleys that are so beautiful, they’ll make your head spin. While there, I grew to understand and appreciate a new kind of natural beauty. I’ve lived in the Northland all my life, and it will always be lovely, but really, who wants pine when you can have papaya? It’s the kind of landscape that makes you question whether or not it could possibly even exist. It’s also the kind of place that uses its beauty in order to attract and deter from obvious blemishes that are found within.
The environment in Bali is suffering, tremendously. There is garbage everywhere, with the worst problem being the amount of plastic. In the past, the Balinese relied on banana and palm leaf as plates, bags, parcels, etc. which would be dropped and discarded whenever the user was finished. However, the surge of tourism also brought with it an increase in foreign materials, plastic especially, and unfortunately, the change in materials did not bring with it a change of mind. Discarded trash is choking the environment, clogging irrigation systems, being eaten by local wildlife, and poisoning the earth.
There is a belief in Bali that any place which houses an unusual grouping of animals constitutes something sacred. In Ubud, there is a section of forest called the Sacred Monkey Forest, wherein live hundreds of crab-eating macaques. These monkeys are opportunistic omnivores, meaning they will eat nearly anything edible that comes their way. Now one of the most popular tourist destinations in Bali, the monkey forest draws in hundreds of tourists a day, many of whom bring in food for the monkeys to eat. I, myself, walked through the forest twice a day in order to walk to and from town. However, in addition to the fruits and veggies that people bring in and distribute, the monkeys also have access to water bottles, bags, and other harmful materials that they ingest without question. The once sacred monkey forest has now become a tourist commodity, and though the monkeys are friendly and well-fed, they are also subject to the foreign materials brought in to the forest each day.
During my trip, I was able to visit several places of interest to my studies, one of them being the THK (Tri Hita Karana) Environmental group. The main proponents of the group are located in a sustainable coop made from bamboo and human hair-infused cement. They have an earthworm farm to help them compost and irrigate, chickens for food, pigs for pets, and have easy access to their organic red rice farm. The group focuses on three main components of Balinese philosophy that reflect a harmonious relationship between God, people, and nature. Their cause is to help heal the environment and correct the attitudes of local residents, with an emphasis on teaching children the importance of sustainable living. Their hope is that the younger generations will become proactive in the conservation of their environment. To learn more about the THK organization, please visit http://www.facebook.com/pages/Tri-Hita-Karana-Bali/104417314133?sk=info
Another stop on my journey was BAWA (Bali Animal Rescue Association), which is focused on rehabilitating, vaccinating, and spay/neutering dogs and cats in Bali. While there, I met and spoke with several Australian volunteers, all of whom were participating in two week to two year volunteering programs and help to run the clinic and storefront offices. Several years ago, a wide-spread rabies outbreak in Balinese dogs caused a mass panic. To combat the disease, many people started destroying infected animals, which led to a rise in the rat population across the country, and with it brought disease. BAWA stepped in to help battle the disease and help to preserve Bali’s local animal life. Their cause helps to educate those who do not understand how to properly care for animals and also strives to protect the living population of animals all over Bali. To learn more about BAWA, please visit http://www.bawabali.com
What I learned from my experience is that it’s not about eliminating tourism from Bali. International tourism is what the country depends on, and whether you’re backpacking, spa touring, or attempting to eat, pray, and love, I firmly believe that everyone should experience what Bali has to offer. Honestly, most of the BAWA and THK’s volunteers were once tourists themselves, not to mention myself. What’s important is finding a balance that serves to maintain the tourist industry without depleting Bali’s natural beauty. I mean, that’s why people go in the first place. Arriving, I was ignorant; departing, I’m inspired. I want to take what I learned and apply it to my life at home, and I’m lucky enough to be in the perfect position to do just that. My adventures in Bali didn’t end when I landed back in Minnesota. I’ve just started the next leg of the journey.