Indonesia is an astonishing archipelago of around 17, 000 islands, consisting of a range of ecosystems from rainforests to tropical beaches, highland and lowland mountain areas, and even grasslands, all of which contribute to making it the second greatest biodiversity on the planet. The number of endemic species of both plants and animals far exceeds that of most other countries, but it is also being destroyed at a truly alarming rate. The incredible fertility of the soil is proving to be a double edged sword for the country, with their ability to produce a wide array of crops now being exploited by the global market, and vast swathes of the country being given over to destructive mono-cultures.
I visited Bali last year, and was dazzled by the variety of flora there, and I was curious to return to explore some of the less touristy islands, to see for myself more of the problems this stunning array of wildlife is facing. And hopefully, learn a little more about the solutions being implemented. I therefore organise to go and live and work with a permaculture garden near Salatiga, in the East of Java, the most densely populated of Java’s islands.
After landing in Jakarta, I take an 8 hour train to Yogyakarta, and through the window I am immediately introduced to the extraordinary, lush greenness of the country. Acres and acres of vibrant forests and hills blanketed in greenery, pass us by in a blur. Once in the city, it seems the concrete is barely able to contain the earth’s overflowing vitality, and life sprouts from the paving stones, creeping ferns reclaim walls and even the roads are starting to be softly overtaken by green. But the issues are also clear. Every city is strangled by 4 land motorways, clogging the air with pollution so thick you can taste it. Development is fast, unsympathetic and unstoppable. The population is booming, and it needs to be housed. And fed.
I arrive in Salatiga and find a mid-sized town with all of Indonesia’s usual charms and problems. Houses painted in candy-bright colours and ringed by banana trees, all of which is dulled by the grey dust pouring off the traffic speeding past day and night. The permaculture garden is set back, a little walk through some rice fields and heading into the hills. Suddenly, the air becomes clean and sweet, and the traffic roar is replaced the rustlings and chatterings of the forest.
The land looks wild and uncultivated, but it it is in fact, a garden, as the young men running the place are quick to tell me. They are all from Jakarta, passionate, well-educated, and saddened and inflamed by what is happening to their country. They decided that they would take action by showing that another way of living that is beneficial to the planet is not only possible, it’s preferable. So they have set up here, to live a life that is kind to the earth and enjoyable for them. It’s an idyllic prospect.
The basic premise of permaculture is a method of farming that mimics the patterns of nature, meaning it is sustainable, and through continued use, benefits the environment rather than depleting it. Mono-culture, the practice of intensively farming only one crop, destroys the natural ecosystem, as there is not a variety of food available to sustain a broad spectrum of insects and bacteria in the earth. This leads to a gradual depletion of the nutrients in the soil, and a breakdown of it’s structure, meaning it becomes necessary to maintain plant health through chemical means, further exasperating the issue. Mono-culture in Indonesia is mainly rice and palm oil, crops which are causing devastation across the country.
The boys in Salatiga are enthused by their visions of a permaculture future, as they explain their ‘food forest’ to me. It is based on a strictly ‘no-dig’ system, as leaving the soil alone is something they are evangelical about. The soil is left to improve it’s own structure and become rich in nutrients, through the breakdown of fallen leaves and dead insects etc, on its surface. They aid it by planting many nitrogen fixers, legumes such as Calliandra calothyrsus, with its beautiful, pink silken flowers, or pinto beans. The ground is already thick with spiky Mimosa pudica, another member of the Fabaceaea family, with it’s tiny, shimmering pom-pom flowers and peculiar, sensitive leaves.
They plant their forest to include as much height and variety of genus as possible, maximising food for animals and humans, ensuring a year-round canopy for wildlife shelter and a range of nutrients to rot down into the soil. It creates a virtuous cycle of production and once established, minimizes work for the farmers. As the boys continuously tell me, a real forest doesn’t need anyone to look after it, and it supports a much wider range of life than any field of rice or oil palm trees.
The forest is in early stages, so there is still some planting to do. We go out in the blazing heat and I help out with planting Bananas, Jack Fruit, Papayas and Mangos. There are endless Cassava plants, which is being touted as the eco-friendly carbohydrate alternative to rice, as it grows so quickly and is much more energy efficient. The forest is pulsing and throbbing with tangible life, as it should be. The boys live harmoniously with all the surrounding nature, in a simple wooden hut, all their energy provided by solar panels.
The whole experience is affecting beyond measure, really giving me a huge amount to ponder about where I want my horticultural career to take me. If I am going to work with plants, it has to be in a way that is beneficial to the planet, which unfortunately, large sections of the horticultural industry is not. There is an overuse of chemicals in the industry, heated greenhouses which waste huge amounts of energy simply so we can grow plants out of season, and we are becoming increasingly out of touch with the natural patterns. My 2 weeks in Salatiga has taught me how much I want to be a positive force in protecting the planet that produces all these beautiful plants that we admire so much.