Until recently the official dump site for Gianyar regency at Temesi had all the makings of a successful waste management plant: Recycling, composting etc. But then the systems broke down, the site overwhelmed both through negligence and sheer volume. The black list included the illegal dumpsite at Pejeng, where it was made into landfill. And now garbage history is repeating itself. Graeme MacRae sent us this:

A couple of years ago, I tried to explain (in UNT) why fixing Ubud’s rubbish problem is not as simple as it looks. But the good news was that Padangtegal were collecting it from all their households and businesses and taking it to the government landfill at Temesi (on the other side of Gianyar). At Temesi, some of the organic material was being composted, which relieved some of the pressure on the landfill. This was far from perfect, but it contained the seeds of a solution. All it needed was other villages, especially wealthy ones like Ubud, to do what Padangtegal had already done.

Two years on Padangtegal are still going strong, and making slow steady improvements. None of the others (including Ubud) are any closer to the first step of separating their waste stream, but at least they are now taking it to the landfill instead of dumping it into ravines.

Or they were, until a couple of weeks ago, when Temesi stopped accepting rubbish. Why? because they had piled up all the newly arrived rubbish into such a mountain that they couldn’t get to the back of the landfill where it needed to go. Somebody was not thinking very clearly – or apparently not thinking at all.

The result is that nobody, apart from Padangtegal’s organic-only trucks, can dump at Temesi. So, where do they go? The same places they have always gone – wherever an enterprising community with a hole to fill sees an opportunity. If you want to learn where the rubbish goes, all you have to do is follow the trucks, or your nose.

This time it is Blahpane, a pretty village, strung along one of those beautiful little tree-lined roads that winds up a ridge toward Bangli with ricefields one side and a deep mysterious ravine on the other. Suddenly, right in the middle of the village, there are trucks and people and rubbish strewn across the road. The smell is overpowering and it is all going over the edge – into the ravine. The place is so beautiful and so ugly at the same time that it is hard to comprehend what I am seeing. Javanese pemulung (scavengers) are working on top of the teetering cliff of tangled plastic and rotting food waste. The man in charge has a bag around his waist to collect the fees from the trucks. He is a bit suspicious of me, but when I ask polite questions, he explains that it is so people will be able to cross more easily to the other side of the ravine, and anyway, the ravine is dry and no use for anything else – all very reasonable.

above: a shrine next to the illegal dumpsite on the ravine in the middle of Blahpane. below: A local woman walks across the road from her ‘warung’ food stall to dump her trash..

Small environmental disasters like this are playing out all over Bali (and all of Indonesia) – not all as beautiful as Blahpane, but all just as ugly. What has gone wrong here – where half a century ago there was no such thing as rubbish and the stream at the bottom of the local ravine was where people went to bathe and relax in the late afternoon? How seriously can anyone take the “invented tradition” of Tri Hita Karana, when village communities sacrifice their local environment and the religious traditions that underlie their relationship with it, for the sake of easy money and the (misplaced) promise of convenient access? How seriously can anyone take government talk about environmental issues, when the primary cause is their own failures of policy and practice?

The standard answer, as with most environmental problems, is to blame the people at the bottom end, as the people really responsible always do. They tell us ordinary people are too lazy, stupid or uneducated. But when you talk to the people working at the toxic coalface, they are just poor people, doing what they can to make a living. Likewise the villages filling their ravines: somebody, perhaps somebody who stands to benefit from a cheap way across the ravine, has persuaded them it is a good idea and who is going to argue against something that brings some income into the village?

above: Scavengers’ depot – recyclables are bagged and waiting, but their work does little to reduce the amount of trash dumped.  below: A Madurese woman, one of the rag picker/scavengers, sweeps her “front yard” while a local girl watches from the house that was in danger of sliding into what was an unstable ravine.. Locals are convinced: from a short term point of view at least  that landfill saved those houses,  now they will have extra land.  

below: An ironic sight – a government billboard detailing progress with the slogan “Proud to Build Our Village” stands in front of a trash landfilled ravine in the middle of Blahpane.


The government department supposedly responsible is also staffed by ordinary people, doing their job. They see themselves as doing their best, but essentially powerless to change the larger inaction of the government they serve. They also tell me that the closure at Temesi is “temporary” while they clear and reinstate the access to some new land they have bought to extend the landfill. And meanwhile, all the rubbish is supposed to be trucked to the huge provincial landfill you pass on the way to the airport.

But where does the rubbish come from in the first place? Who produces it? Who profits from producing it? Who allows them to produce it? Who buys it? Who throws it away? Who doesn’t enact laws to stop it and doesn’t enforce what laws there are anyway?   Who doesn’t collect rubbish properly or run the landfill properly and then turns a blind eye to illegal dumping on their doorstep?

Those of us who read UNT may understand all this better than most, but we don’t have a lot of power to change it either. But one thing we can do, is support the chain from the bottom up – by simply separating our organic rubbish and, if we don’t compost it ourselves, get it into the Padangtegal collection system. Ask our favourite hotel or restaurant where their rubbish goes. If we know anyone in positions of power, ask them what they are going to do about it.

all photos ©Rio Helmi