Karangasem is the home of the recently feisty volcano, Mt Agung. This beautiful mountain juts out abruptly from the far eastern tip of Bali and her hillside is steep right down to the coast. It’s quite extraordinary to see how many people have perched their homes and villages on these treacherous slopes in the nooks of the mountain. And incredibly confronting to see how poor they are, especially now. The volcano ‘cuts off’ these communities from the bustle of Bali and is known for causing a geographical barrier for them to access many things; it’s more difficult to get supplies, to access education and tourism work.
Aside from the few isolated tourism hubs of Amed and the diving spots of north Bali, work in Karangasem is predominantly farming. With Bali closed and the numbers of foreigners dwindling by the week, Amed and the coastal towns are ghostly quiet and the farmers are suffering on every front; not only have they lost the busy market of South Bali with its usually pumping hotels and restaurants but local people out of work are surviving as best they can on food they can grow themselves, buying very little from the pool of produce that usually fills the local pasars (food marketplaces).
Compounding this difficult time are two more factors making this a trifecta of tragedy; volcanic activity and drought. Only recently due to the temperamental will-she-or-won't-she eruption-shenanigans of the volcano, the whole of Mt Agung was evacuated within a 12km radius of the centre. All these farmers were forced off their land and out of work at that time, leaving their crops (and income) to the elements, with no tourists visiting the businesses in coastal towns. Then the ‘rainy season’ in November to March this year produced barely a day of the nourishing heavy rain that is vital for the year ahead. Zig-zagging down the northern side of the mountain was like driving in the Australian bush in the middle of a scorching summer, not the usual deep green fecund island garden. The wells are not full and the land is crispy dry; in this time of poverty, they are even having to buy and truck-in water to survive and the soil is too thirsty to deliver up the usual produce.
But woven into the sadness of this situation is a beautiful story of humanity. When we first launched the Bali Emergency Relief Fund, we mentioned Budi, the head of a beading cooperative who had done work for SOUQ in the past and who we helped with a donation from the fund. Since receiving that assistance, Budi has paid it forward by helping us to identify areas and people in need of help, organising the purchase of produce from local areas and delivering them to these communities. Because of Budi’s commitment to helping others, we were able to organise a huge food drop to four villages in the area of Karangasem. Budi arranged local farmers we could buy produce from to provide them with income then travelled with us at sunrise, introduced us to the leaders of the communities and drove in convoy with us loaded up with oil, rice and eggs to sustain 300 families.
It is an extraordinary experience to be able to offer this help to people: to look someone in the eye as you hand them their basic needs is such a sincere wordless exchange of compassion and gratitude that is one of the most genuine encounters I have known. In that moment all the fear, unfairness and anger of this time submits to the power of this human interaction.
The weight of all the messages from these people that they have asked me to convey to you to thank you for your help, far exceeds the weight of rice you have helped to give them.