“Televisions are like ‘pisang goreng’ [fried bananas] here” said one seaweed farmer on Nusa Lembongan, Bali, Indonesia when I asked him to describe the impact of seaweed farming. Fried bananas are everyday food in Indonesia, but few Indonesians have the financial resources to afford TV. Just a short jump back into history on the island of Nusa Lembongan, less than 20 years, and it is easy to see how seaweed farming has improved standards of housing, levels of education and the general health of the population… oh yes, and even access to the ‘goggle box’.

On Nusa Lembongan, of the 7,000 inhabitants, approximately 85 percent rely on seaweed farming as their primary source of income, and most of the other 15 percent have some interest in farms. And that’s just the locals – the seaweed farmed on Nusa Lembongan also attracts 500 or so workers from nearby islands during the busiest growing seasons.

Sometimes the harvests are fantastic – in around 45 days it is possible for a 100g section of seaweed to turn into a kilo – then the lines can be bought ashore, most of the seaweed laid out to dry, and the healthiest specimens broken into smaller pieces and retied to lines to be replanted. A farmer can maintain a continuous cycle of planting out new seed, harvesting, drying and selling returning a regular income. However there are many potential problems, and heartbreaks when harvests fail. For example a big rain can cause fluctuation in salinity and temperature, a disease known as ‘ice-ice’ causes the seaweed to break apart and sections float away, big swells can cause problems, and during the wet season it is very hard to dry the seaweed. Plus now there is some competition for the areas in which seaweed can be farmed and dried: tourism establishments around the farms are tolerant of the locals’ livelihood, but they want waterfront property with a nice sandy beachfront, so some farming areas have been closed off.

Not all seaweed farming projects have been successful, or quite as extensively adopted as Nusa Lembongan – the local conditions, be they environmental, social or economic, don’t always support a thriving seaweed industry. Some places just don’t get it together, and there have been numerous failed as well as successful ventures. Nusa Lembongan was one of the first areas in Indonesia to farm seaweed extensively and it has been a model to which many other communities have aspired.

On the Island of Savu, a 14-hour boat trip from Kupang in West Timor, a local co-operative group Ie Rai wanted to establish income-generating projects for the local population. The leader of the co-operative had seen the success of seaweed farming on Nusa Lembongan and figured that given Savu was remote, poor, agriculturally challenged with a lack of fresh water and poor soil, but with a wonderfully clean marine environment, seaweed farming could be an option. The seaweed, though, introduced from Nusa Lembongan in 1986, just didn’t seem to grow. It seems straightforward to just break off a piece and plant it by tying it to a piece of string as they do in Nusa Lembongan, but the plant is fickle; it grows well in some locations and not so well in others. Plus there are always predators to contend with.

When the first propagules (sections) of ‘cottonii’ (Kappaphycus alverezii) were introduced from Bali to Savu in 1986, fish and turtles ate them; a second shipment was destroyed by waves. The Deo Rai, the head of a priestly class responsible for the timing of many aspects of agricultural and religious affairs, was asked to help. He told the locals that the seaweed was not native to the area and had not been ‘welcomed’. First, he maintained, it should not be grown in areas where other local plants grew, so no farms were allowed to be developed by the removal of sea grass beds. Second, it needed to be named. A large ceremony was held with participation from seaweed farmers, government officials and members of Ie Rai. The ceremony included ritual sacrifices of a goat, chicken and pig, which were offered to the sea. The ‘cottoni’ seaweed was given the local name kattu nii, which translates as ‘bat’s head’ in the local language. Once this was done, seaweed farming succeeded and became widely practised – there have been problems of course, but in general things have been going well. By 1999, there were 472 families connected with Ie Rai farming seaweed in Savu, and during my visit in 1999 I found many agricultural farmers who had independently begun to farm the sea.

Duika Burges Watson, a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Tasmania in Australia, is a visiting scholar in the Department of Geography at the University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in England.