Walking down the steps into the Uluwatu cave, there is a natural drainage gully to the left side. As the community above developed, this tiny ravine became a convergence point for rubbish and effluent. A steady trickle came to an impasse as the waste volume increased. The puddle became a pool, a putrid black swamp that would make La Brea Tar Pits look like an inviting place for a dip. The smell of this phenomenonof three generations of neglect and feigned ignoranceis the most noxious chemical warfare of the sort no community can survive.
The mire developed its own seasonal tide, swelling with the peak influx of visitors in the dry season, then purging into the ocean with the wet season rains. The sand became saturated with a biohazard grab bag, the walkway slicked with iridescent poison. Surfers and natives had developed Uluwatu so aggressively it began deteriorating under its own weight. Until one day, one visitor decided to do something about it. Curtis Lowe, 32, of Palatka, FLA, first visited Uluwatu on a visa run from Australia. He saw the need for a solution and made plans to return and contribute to Project Clean Uluwatu, a non-profit organization founded in 2011 by two expat surfers. “One day after a surf I was taking my time in the cave and I noticed the smell and saw it a different way,” he said. “I thought ‘someone should fix this.’ I made plans to come back and do a few months of volunteering. It took two years- or more- to do what I anticipated would take two months.” Lowe did two years of environmental work in the US and Australia after earning his bachelor’s degree in Biology at the University of North Florida. He has since taken over as Project Manager for PCU. It provides surfers, tourists, and local businesses the tools to heal and preserve the community. With no previous experience of how things work in Indonesia, he slowly gained the trust of the right people and got local businesses on board. “It was really hard to get everyone organized and decide ‘Yes, we need to do something about this,’” he said. “You don’t change things that take 10-15 years to develop in a few months.” A hammock swings between surfboard racks on the concrete verandah outside the PCU headquarters, a humble office on the cliff with spotty WiFi, a beer fridge, and a recycled wastewater spigot for the après surf rinse. It’s hardly Greenpeace, but this tiny room is where Lowe works out the logistics of sewage processing and garbage collection for a cliff side community with over 50 small businesses and thousands of daily visitors. “Waste and trash were not priorities at all two years ago,” Lowe said. “It wasn’t really seen as too big a problem. It was also an embarrassing thing that they didn’t really want to talk about in public.”
The local family-run businesses recognized the problem but saw it as collateral damage escorted by economic gain. Steps taken to fix it were half strides, dumping collected trash into rivers, vacant lots and illegal landfills, only sorting the most valuable recyclables. Burn the rest. Let the rains carry it away. We are quick to blame the Balinese for mismanaging the pollution, but the tourists are the primary source of garbage and waste water, up to 10 times as much. We exacerbate the problem and become upset when the locals cannot properly dispose of large amounts of inorganic waste and sewage. Often the most vocal protesters have a foam surfboard underarm. When public attention turns to assigning blame rather than creating solutions, progress stops and slides backward into the pit where it started. “When people try to force the issue with complaints on Facebook none of that really works,” Lowe said. “It almost creates a resistance here. There’s a catch-22 involved with this sort of thing. You need public support. For that you need results. You can’t get results without public support. It’s like pushing a big stone uphill at first.” Without the PCU waste treatment system in place, the area would smell worse than ever and visitors would have to worry about strange infections, possibly even Hepatitis. Most importantly, Lowe expressed grievances about “a shitty vibe here.” Blue Point and Single Fin, two of the largest, most successful businesses sharing a lot overlooking Uluwatu, were the last to get onboard. On Wednesdays and Sundays they draw over a thousand people. Managers had the desire to conform to PCU’s clean standard but progress was limited to discussion. “The original tanks and pipes underground didn’t grow as the business on top grew,” Lowe said. Then one day in July the old waste treatment system reached critical mass and overflowed. Raw sewage ran down the steps below, past every warung, restaurant and shop, underfoot of every visitor, and out into the surf. People were, in a word, discontent, and work to contain the spill began that day. Workers patched up the existing system and routed a temporary overflow pipe into PCU’s treatment tank
to avoid a repeat occurrence. Management still has to approve a larger system, and until they do PCU will meter the overflow pipe and charge by the liter. Lowe explained that this renovation would be a challenge any time of year, but peak season is especially tricky where foot traffic is high and profits are on the line. Lowe considers Uluwatu a case example of ‘the tragedy of the commons’. The theory states that a group of well-intentioned individuals acting in their own best interests will inadvertently act against the collective interests of the community by mismanaging common resources. This can be avoided with proper laws mandating septic systems and garbage collection, rationing resources like clean water and issuing fines for pollution. In fact, the legislation exists, it’s just not enforced. Without an overarching body calling the shots, the local hierarchy has no model to develop around and the community handles itself, well, tragically. “One of the biggest pieces of advice I can give to anyone who comes to Indonesia and wants to be a part of the change is be conscious of where you’re staying and where you’re eating,” Lowe said. “Make it known that it’s something you care about.” He suggested tourists talk to business owners and ask the hard questions without being accusatory. ‘Where does your waste go at the end of the day? Where does the toilet drain to?’ When it becomes a matter of preserving their reputation and upholding their business they will act accordingly. The locals are not lazy; they are ill equipped to manage a tsunami of trash and cannot remove themselves from a community in protest because it is their sole financial prospect. I decided to ask Lowe the hard questions. Where does everything at Uluwatu go? “More than half of all waste is organic. We compost that, the rest goes in concrete bins that are emptied three times a week. My biggest concern is that that trash leaves the community. The organic stuff doesn’t have to leave. It’s useful. But the nonorganic has got to go, and not in the river.” Kitchen grease is basically an oil spill. Not only does it break down slowly, but it mucks up recycling and composting by creating a thick sludge. It can cause fires, back up plumbing systems and make us very sick. When safely collected and filtered, it can also be reused as cooking oil.You can even run a biodiesel engine on it. Getting stuck in traffic would sure smell nicer. Thing is, much of what we discard is useful, and there is a whole industry riding on harvesting and repurposing these resources. It’s called recycling. Eco Bali sounds like a non-profit organization, but they are a viable recycling business, earning cash sorting Bali’s trash. “We don’t just use one of the cheap dudes that drives a truck and will take your trash,” Lowe said. “Eco Bali recycles an incredible amount of stuff, there’s very little left of what we call residue.” Other communities, from Bingin to Balian, can adopt similar sorting practices and form the same partnerships to handle their waste. If they don’t, the next rain will purge nearby rivers and collection points and bring it all back to their doorstep, and the smoke from around-the-clock burning will float over their heads indefinitely. I was curious about the PCU partner carrying away all the hard goods, so I went to visit their facility at Kerobokan north of Kuta. There I met Director Ketut Mertaadi, Educational Program Manager Paola, and their friend and partner Sano, of Greeneration Indonesia, a Jakarta non-profit.