Our guest blogger, anthropologist Graeme MacRae, tracks down the source of the “new black gold” that is piling up on the roads of the Ubud.


Try walking or parking around Ubud and you’ll come across piles of black sand and often rocks as well. If you wait and watch, you will see teams of women carrying the sand on their heads, disappearing into little lanes between walls and houses and by tomorrow the pile is all gone.


The sand is used for building more walls and houses – no sand, no concrete. The ongoing building boom in Ubud, of ever-more and ever-bigger villas, hotels, restaurants and shops, means the demand for sand is constant and growing.


But where does it all come from? And why does it just appear?? One morning you go out and there is another pile. Most of it is delivered at night, when there is room in the streets for the trucks to get in and for the sand to be dumped before the morning parking circus. But if we followed the trucks out of town, we’d see them heading back up the hill, to Batur, then down into the crater.


At dawn they start again, prowling the small road that circles the crater floor and the smaller tracks that criss-cross between.  Beside the road are people sieving sand under crude shelters. If somebody flags the driver down, he stops, they load up his truck, he pays them and heads off again. Each day at least 1500 overloaded trucks grind and wind their way up the crater wall to Penelokan, often stalling and unloading until they can move again. At the top, they change gear and speed downhill to Ubud or the coast, where the demand is even greater. Around Ubud, the official price for a truck of sand is about Rp.1.2 million, but if you know a driver, he might deliver it direct for under a million, especially after dark.



“Each day at least 1500 overloaded trucks grind and wind their way up the crater wall to Penelokan, often stalling and unloading until they can move again.”


This black sand, gravel and rocks are from lava flows and blowholes in the side of Mt. Batur.  Since the dazzling white sand from the coral reefs ran out, Batur black has become the new resource to supply the concrete boom, which supplies the building boom, which supplies the tourism/expat boom. This new resource boom is part of an unprecedented economic boom among the previously poor communities on the crater floor. Much of it is ordinary people, digging up their own backyards and anywhere else they can find. But there are larger operations too, also locally owned, with diggers and trucks, excavating open cut pits ten or more metres deep and tens of metres wide. These expand across the landscape, stopping only when they come to a house or road, village or temple, many of which now perch at the top of unstable cliffs.


This is frontier enterprise, classic wild west style – fast, competitive and largely unregulated. As in all resource frontiers, fortunes are made and lost, environments are destroyed and in the end the resource runs out. But in most modern resource frontiers, it is outside corporations exploiting local communities and environments. In Batur, it is the local community fouling their own nest. Why are they doing it and why isn’t somebody stopping them?



“What they are doing is clearly unsustainable but it is also illegal and everybody knows it.” A quarry on the north side of Mt Batur.


Like most backstage stories, this is a long and tangled tale, but briefly: the people of the cratery have always been poor and now is their turn for a slice of the action – for some “grass-roots”, “community based” economic development. What they are doing is clearly unsustainable but it is also illegal and everybody knows it. The local police and army posts know too and would be prepared to stop it, but only if the district government in Bangli asked them to. The Bupati of Bangli is from Batur and one of his biggest vote-banks is in Songan, the village largely responsible for the mining.


The other authority in Batur is the Jero Gede Alitan, high priest of the great temple on the crater rim, but his spiritual jurisdiction extends only over the western half of the crater. He has renovated temples to protect key ecological sites around the crater and planted gardens which nobody would dare violate. Anyone mining in sight of the temple receives a polite delegation which few would ignore. But out of sight of the temple and further west the free-for-all goes on.


The ecological damage is beginning to show: watercourses and the lake itself are silting up, chemical runoffs from intensive horticulture (the other boom) are polluting the lake and landslides occur after heavy rains. A few years ago the water of the lake suddenly changed colour and all the fish in the fish farms (another boom) died. On the eve of Nyepi 2012, Songan began to flood and people had to flee to higher ground. The Jero Gede says these events may be no coincidence and he suspects Dewi Danau (the goddess of the lake) may not be happy.


Back in Ubud, the money keeps flowing in from all over the world, a little bit of it flows on up the hill to Batur and in the morning you’ll see another pile of sand.


247037_606076972738689_1889028198_nA different and more complete version of this story was first published in Inside Indonesia http://www.insideindonesia.org/latest-articles/wild-west-batur


Graeme MacRae, an anthropologist from Massey University, New Zealand,  first visited in Ubud in 1977. He lived here with his family for 18 months in 1993-6. Graeme did his PhD thesis based on Ubud research: “Economy, Ritual & History in a Balinese Tourism Town” at the University of Auckland, 1997. 


You will find most of Graeme MacRae’s writings at http://graememacrae.wordpress.com


all photos ©Rio Helmi