A Pioneer in Padangtegal

I recently met the chief of Padangtegal village in Ubud who is trying to make a big difference in his community; and, if all goes well (and according to plan), change will come to the rest of Ubud and beyond:

The ballooning dilemma of trash and pollution has become a scourge on this island, once deemed a natural paradise. The accumulation of garbage on roads, in rivers and on the coastlines is not only an eyesore, but an escalating environmental and health hazard.  Plastic bags, foil wrappers, batteries, styrofoam and rubber tires are swept into piles, and then burned in close proximity to homes and schools, or dumped into streams or crevices that line sidewalks.

Unfortunately, the city of Ubud, one of the main hubs of Bali’s tourism industry, is a microcosm of this growing environmental menace. One has only to peek behind restaurants, hotels and businesses, to witness how plastic bags filled with garbage are tangled up in tree limbs or blocking water passageways.

Many expats, locals and yayasans (foundations) have started clean-up campaigns of their own. But, after years of false starts and a lack of consensus in central Ubud, one young Balinese man and a group of locals are already making a visible difference.  With hands-on collaboration from his aptly-named Palemahan* team, I Made Gandra is already changing the face of Padangtegal – one collection bin at a time. If he has his way, the rest of Ubud and its surroundings will follow suit.

I Made Gandra (Balipublika.com)
I Made Gandra (Balipublika.com)

Gandra is the bendesa of Padangtegal, one of Ubud’s largest villages, stretching from Jalan Raya down to the Monkey Forest.  Every village in Bali is led by a kepala desa (administrative head) as well as a bendesa (head of traditional village or desa adat pakraman). The bendesa is responsible for the overall organization and coordination of all ceremonies, temple rituals, meetings and activities related to the traditional aspects of village life.

Armed with an accounting degree, and a successful businessman in his own right, Gandra has earned a reputation for getting things done. He also has a team of colleagues, staff and friends, who are critical to the implementation of his ideas. Gandra stresses that “this project is not going to be a success without the support from my team and my village members.”

Even though Gandra was elected in February 2012 to the position of bendesa with an 80% majority, he says that back then “the elders believed he was too young and inexperienced to take on the role.”

But, at the age of 43, he has proven them wrong, daring to initiate and implement programs that require community-wide buy-in and compliance. With a population of 3,000 (650 families) and 580 businesses and restaurants under his supervision, some of whom have shown resistance to the project, Gandra has his work cut out for him.

With a trimmed beard and mustache, the tanned Gandra cuts a striking figure himself when we first meet; he is dressed in traditional garb, wrapped in a double sarong, with a traditional udeng (head-piece) firmly placed on his head. As he glances out to a grassy space, Gandra’s manner is casual yet serious. But then, with a gleam in his eye and a smile spreading across his face, like a sneaky fourth-grader with something hidden up his sleeve, he hints at bigger things to come.

As one of Padangtegal’s top decision makers, Gandra acknowledges that he now wields an extraordinary degree of power. With that power, comes civic responsibility. Indeed, Gandra’s long-term vision includes improving the residents’ quality of life. Since February, free health care and medicine has been offered to all villagers, with hopes of later extending those services more widely around Ubud. English language courses have already begun and other educational classes are planned for the future. But at the moment, foremost on his list of priorities is making Padangtegal clean and environmentally-friendly.

If the bright green trucks trolling throughIMG_0620 the narrow streets of Padangtegal are anything to go by, Gandra and his team have already made an impact. Since February, two trucks have roamed around the village, stopping long enough for a crew of seventeen to sort through bins marked Organic and Non-Organic that line the sidewalks in front of compounds. Businesses are expected to get on board in May, as well as one more truck.

The employees, brightly clad in blue coveralls, yellow helmets and rubber boots, are paid a daily salary of 50,000 Rps, with the additional incentive of earning a hefty commission from selling the fruits of their labor to recycling compIMG_0798anies. Their daily routine is the same: They sort through bins, then dump and separate the refuse into the truck’s compartments. It’s a new working experience for these workers, all of whom hail from other parts of Bali. It’s also a first for Ubud.

If you get stuck behind such a truck on one of Ubud’s notoriously narrow streets, be patient and show your support for this crew.

The genesis of Gandra’s eco-initiative goes back a decade to when he first learned about the importance of recycling and composting. He figured that he should lead by example so last year he began to implement the same at home, with his wife Ni Made Sariani and their three children. At the same time, Gandra recognized the widespread dwindling of Padangtegal’s green spaces – and a shrinking eco-system for the ever-growing monkey population. This awareness led to a more expansive vision, which includes increasing the size of the forest and the planting of more trees.

In August 20IMG_061612, with a budget of USD$200,000 – derived from entrance fees to Monkey Forest – Gandra launched the “Clean and Green” project. At the annual village meeting, a sacred gathering at which attendance by a representative from each family is mandatory, he conducted a slide show presentation that lasted four hours. During the meeting, he explained the importance of recycling and composting, and handed out educational materials to every family.

A colorful booklet, called “Ubud Clean & Green” was given to each compound and business in the village. The booklet explained how to separate garbage, how to compost with worms, and how to care for the environment. But it wasn’t enough to explain the risks and requirements in writing; in light of a known preference among Balinese for visuals over words, Gandra’s staff filled the pages with photographs and illustrations, depicting piles of garbage and it’s effeIMG_1378cts on the environment, wildlife and human health.

In the first few months of the project, some villagers refused to attend meetings, criticized the idea or were slow to comply. Gandra says that indifference and laziness can be attributed to the fact that many store and restaurant owners are not local. He intends to change that by starting to impose fines.IMG_1381

Ni Ketut Yudani, a longtime resident and owner of the Asti Bali store on Jalan Hanoman, is an avid supporter of Gandra’s initiative. The divorced mother of two, now living in the same compound where she grew up, says that some of her neighbors and fellow store owners are lazy, so she scolds them when she notices them sneaking non-organic trash into the wrong bin. With eyebrows raised, Yudani exclaims, “Even my 81 year-old mother recycles! She screams at my children and others in our compound, reminding them to put plastic bags into the non-organic bin.”IMG_1382

Yudani says she learned about the importance of recycling and composting at a young age. As far back as 1980, her family was digging holes for compost in the garden. When her older brother joined the the student environmental group Mahasiswa Pecinta Alam, Yudani learned more from him, and eventually, joined the group herself. She hopes that Gandra’s outreach will be the catalyst to teach her neighbors what she has known for decades: “If we can recycle and reduce, it will help our earth.”

IMG_0623Despite the setbacks, Gandra’s sights are set on cleaning up the island. He thinks Ubud’s garbage collection trucks should be repaired, refurbished and repainted, and then repurposed into recycling trucks. He also intends to ask the bupati (regent) of Gianyar regency to implement a similar program throughout the regency’s 400 villages. And earlier this year, when word of his initiative caught the attention of administrators in Denpasar, Gandra was invited to make a presentation in the capital city. It was favorably received.

If it were up to him, Gandra says he would implement most of his team’s plan in 2013. But, in a uniquely Balinese twist, his arms are tied: a massive communal cremation is taking place later this summer and, since daily routines are put on hold while preparations are made for this ceremony, for the time being, that trumps all.

*Palemahan refers to the harmonious relationship that humans should strive to maintain between themselves and nature. It reflects one part of the three-pronged Balinese philosophy of Tri Hita Karana, which also includes man’s relationship to other humans, and to the divine.



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