The Suku Bali is a farm-to-table experience nestled in the heart of Ubud and driven by a single idea– reconnection.
If you have spent a significant amount of time in Bali over the last decade, you may have noticed the existence of multiple worlds within the island. Seminyak’s universe of upscale resorts is lightyears away from the co-working spaces on the backpacker trail bordering Pantai Batu Bolong, and the aspiring influencers ripping wheelies on Echo Beach may as well be on Mars to the local farmers tending to Bedugul’s fertile earth.
While the borders between these realms are often crossed, the pandemic has only deepened class divisions across the island as tourist money, once abundant, slowed to a trickle. Bridging these gaps between locals and tourists, between classes, and between consumers and food is more important than ever to build a sense of community in the wake of the pandemic.
The Suku Bali is a step in this direction. It is a restaurant, cafe, event space, and art space dedicated to supporting local communities. While space is still currently under construction, the minds behind the concept have bold ideas to transform their small space in Ubud into a platform for good.
From partnering up with one of Indonesia’s best baristas to train underprivileged youths in the craft of brewing coffee to helping process surplus organic crops into fruit wines, the minds behind Suku have broad aspirations. However, to truly understand the space, it is necessary to understand the gaps that it seeks to bridge.
Part 1: A rude awakening
For years, Bali has been a dream destination for tourists. As international travel screeched to a halt in 2020, that dream was shattered along with the livelihoods of many who depended on tourism as a means to earn a living. Tourist areas like Legian, Kuta, and Seminyak turned into ghost towns. Pharmacies and warungs shuttered, leaving the locals who worked there in need of work and the remaining tourists stranded on the island in limbo.
The great machine had finally ground to a stop.
Over the next year, the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic would drive many local hotel staff in the South of Bali back to their hometowns and villages. Some pivoted back to agriculture or fishing if their families still owned land in the provinces, relearning trades that had been passed down before the tourism industry began taking off in the 1970’s.
The pandemic not only highlighted the vulnerabilities of a population dependent on a single industry for nearly 70% of their income, but also the resulting disconnect between the residents of contemporary Bali and the land they live on. While the level of consciousness in regards to sustainability is higher in Bali than in other areas of Indonesia, the island continues to suffer from a water crisis stemming from unregulated groundwater extraction by hotels and resorts.
For locals who had already moved back to agriculture, the tourist downturn was a contingency they had prepared for. Pak Yoyo, one of The Suku’s partner farmers, formerly worked as a tour guide in Central Bali before transitioning to agriculture ten years ago.
“I’ve worked [this land] for about ten years. Before then I used to work as a tour guide at Ulun Danu Bratan while my wife worked at a hotel, then due to certain social circumstances, or menyama braya, we took the initiative to transition to farming,” Yoyo said as I interviewed him at his farm. Coming from a farming family, the move was a natural transition for him, but not without its challenges.
“My parents were farmers. This land we’re standing on was passed down to them from my grandparents, and they passed it down to me.”
“[The biggest challenge is] capital. From the perspective of capital, we farmers have been struggling without end. In football terms you could say that we’ve been playing as defensive backs for the economy. Who knows, hopefully once tourism returns the Balinese economy will rise again. I have my own loyal customers and collectors who buy my produce after I harvest.”
Part 2: Bonded with the Earth
For many Balinese, the words “Tri Hita Karana” are a common refrain. Roughly translated as the “three causes of well-being,” Tri Hita Karana is a distinctly Balinese philosophy of life that emphasizes harmony with God, harmony among people, and harmony with nature. These three principles guide numerous aspects of traditional Balinese life and serve as a reminder of the interconnectedness of a life well-lived.
Subak, the traditional terraced irrigation system that Balinese communities have relied on to water their crops, is a physical manifestation of Tri Hita Karana. This complex artificial ecosystem and other traditional agroforestry methods have sustained Balinese society since the 9th century. However, Indonesia’s mandated “green revolution” in the 1970’s forced farmers to transition to non-traditional seeds and intensive methods of farming requiring heavy use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Subak water management is communal– meaning that cooperatives of 50-400 farmers share a single water supply. Once one farmer starts using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the runoff will flow to his neighbors’ fields, rendering them unable to grow organically. As such, the so-called “green revolution” has left a legacy of farmers dependent on government-subsidized agrochemicals to grow monocultures on overworked soil.
“When I was small, all farming was done organically in an environmentally friendly way. After new crops like potatoes and lettuce were introduced people started switching to conventional,” reminisced I Wayan Jarmin, another one of The Suku’s partner farmers.
Some farmers in Bali have begun to transition back to chemical-free farming methods; however, they need support from the rest of their supply chain if they are to succeed.
“In the beginning some farmers are skeptical,” noted James Cameron, Suku’s head of Farmer Relations. “In the first year you’re harvesting at 70-80 percent, 90 percent in the second year, and then only in the third year can you fully harvest using organic. But some farmers lack the patience to go with it.”
Another concern Cameron harbours is of unscrupulous middlemen who buy from farmers at rock-bottom prices upfront, trapping them in contracts that forbid them to sell to anyone else. “We’re trying to build a strong bond with the farmers so that they don’t have to be indebted to middlemen.”
Given the obstacles in transitioning to organic, Cameron believes that it is important to support Balinese farmers by connecting them with consumers through farmer’s markets as well as through direct sourcing with restaurants and vendors. The Suku Bali does exactly that– the farm-to-table concept is committed to supporting farmers who grow organically.
“We want to give the farmers an opportunity to go back to organic. We give them seeds, medicine, and [organic] fertilizer for them to use, but we also buy their produce. So we invest in them and buy their products often.”
Ryan Wicaksono, The Suku’s head chef, personally visits the partner farms to select ingredients currently in season.
“The way I practice in the kitchen is that James and I work closely on a calendar that tracks the peak season for each ingredient. It’s good for the people who come [to The Suku] regularly, because the menu that I make in January won’t be the same as the menu I make in September.”
Part 3: Addressing a disconnect in the community
Bali’s tourist industry is built on the concept of third spaces. However, a vast majority of recreational spaces place greater importance on being “Instagram-friendly” over accessibility to the local community or consideration for the environment. Authenticity is sacrificed for artifice, resulting in a loss of community and rampant elitism.
The Suku Bali provides a third space for anyone in Bali to share its values of sustainability and groundedness. Defined by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg as a space that is neither home nor work, a third space possesses characteristics that level differences between individuals. It is the neighborhood barbershop in Harlem, the skate park at Venice Beach, and the local Kopitiam tucked away in a corner of Singapore’s Chinatown.
A social disconnect between tribes exists in big cities where people settle almost exclusively to work. These cities often lack third spaces, making it difficult for people from different social classes and backgrounds to interact outside of a formal hierarchy. Jakarta is an example of a city that lacks third spaces, where wide gaps in socioeconomic status have turned into chasms through a dearth of public spaces. Like the tepuis of Patagonia, these pockets of isolation evolve independently of each other, sharing the same air but never truly touching.
Born and raised in Jakarta, Suku co-founder Russell Cameron credits this profound need for reconnection as the raison d’etre behind the establishment.
“If you look after the community, the community will look after you. For us at Suku, looking after the community means empowering people on an economical, spiritual, social, educational, and occupational level,” declared Cameron.
“This is connected to our community-driven ethos. Like Indonesia, The Suku consists of multiple different tribes and communities. Suku is essentially a platform for these communities to showcase their produce, products and talents, and hopefully a stepping stone to bigger things.”
Bali hasn’t become Jakarta yet, and hopefully, it never will. While Indonesia’s capital city has its merits, the intense social stratification between its communities definitely isn’t one of them. Cameron hopes that The Suku Bali will stand as a counter to social anomie by providing a third space for people to reconnect– with each other, with the land, and with the food on their plate.