When the Old becomes New: An 800 year old Food Forest.

Rosemary Morrow’s Case Study of her work in Tenganan, Eastern Bali.

 This project demonstrates the importance for permaculturists to apply themselves thoroughly to the history and conditions preceding the project design and implementation. This project had a surprising outcome. The article is somewhat of a model for designing projects and being ready for unusual outcomes.

“Tenganan Council … does not permit the felling of any live trees at all”


How I became involved

Twenty years ago in 1993 I was involved in a project to reforest the denuded hillsides of three villages in eastern Bali. The impetus and knowledge to achieve successful reforestation came from one very particular village, Tenganan and largely from one man, I Nyoman Sadra.



The village, now on the tourist trail, is famous mainly for its backstrap weaving and stone village architecture. But, why the villagers developed this set of skills and culture is a unique story with extensive implications for permaculturists designing food forests in communities today.

Tenganan’s importance to the local area, and now globally, is because it has maintained its sacred forest, which has been harvested for its products for 800 years and never been logged for timber. It is this knowledge and these skills which are invaluable today.

To backtrack, I had been asked by Quaker Service Australia (QSA), as a permaculture consultant, to visit Bali when the founder of the nearby Gandhian Ashram, Ibu Oka[1], approached QSA to send someone to discuss what was happening because the local townships, that had never flooded in known history, were suffering from huge floods. The problem lay with forest removal on the hillsides.

Ibu Oka introduced me to a village elder at Tenganan, I Nyoman Sadra, saying that the solutions lay with the Bali-Aga[2] and Sadra, who were completely committed to reforestation.

The Bali-Aga, the original Balinese, arrived and had settled on the eastern arm of Bali in their village, Tenganan, and developed a culture based on preserving and conserving their forests.


Found: A Unique Situation and Culture

The Tenganan Village Council had offered to assist three badly affected villages to reforest their hillsides to prevent flooding and recreate an economic basis. Technically the land belonged to Tenganan, and the surrounding villagers had farmed it, but it had become non-economic because it was too steep and farmers left to work for the tourist building industry which was now in decline.

Tenganan Village holds considerable land in mountains of volcanic origin and differs from other villages in having an area of remnant forest vegetation which has never been logged within living memory. It is probably the last remnant forest in Bali. It is held as sacred by the people and represents a precious bank of seed and species valued by villagers who hold closely to their origins and use the forest products for almost all their medicines and many of their foodstuffs, dyes and oils. (see plant list at end)

In 1989 the Indonesian Government awarded the prestigious Living Tree Award to Tenganan village for its 800+ year-old trusteeship of this sacred forest.

To harvest the forest without damaging its yields or structure requires accumulated knowledge and understanding, and led to several taboos and cultural practices. This is where the learning lies for the rest of the world. Permaculturists will understand the “observe and adapt” principle followed by the Bali-Aga which resulted in cultural controls to enable the forest to continue its natural functions while providing high valuable products for the village.

These controls are fundamentally about adapting to the yields of the forest, not meeting consumer needs for products.

Cultural controls

  • Tenganan Council today, as in the past, does not permit the felling of any live trees at all. To source timber, a villager has to locate only a dead or fallen tree, apply to the Council for permission to saw it, then three people from the Council visit and inspect the tree, and if permission is given, then the log can be sawn up. An individual can pick up a dead, fallen tree if they can carry it alone.
  • In turn, by common agreement, there are no industries in the village using wood for fuel extensively. For example, there are no industries for brick making or jaggery (sugar boiled down from the sugar palm).
  • When trees are fruiting at specific seasons, people from the village camp in the forest and collect the fruits as they fall to the ground; and so are harvested. By following the fruiting seasons the villagers are profoundly aware of good and bad years, and yields. They also care for the trees at these times and monitor the health of replacement saplings.
  • The village holds an annual ceremony dedicated to, and in recognition of, trees and animals.

In some ways this seemed at odds with the steep, denuded hillsides relatively far from the village. However these were mostly rented to farmers, who, not being Bali-Aga, could farm them. And it seems that at one time sections of the original forest were either cleared and burnt, or cleared for sale of timber. It is not possible to determine what had taken place because it was a long time ago. Perhaps it was at that time the Bali-Aga learned to live with forests without diminishing them.

Recent History

Economic changes: Until the recent tourist influx, Tenganan rented its non-forest land to tenant farmers who paid rice for rent. These tenant farmers grew beans and corn on land that should never have been cleared of forest because of its extreme slope. These slopes were the site of the proposed project. As neighbouring Candi Dasa became a tourist centre, and as the soils grew more infertile and the labour more arduous, the tenant farmers deserted the land to work on tourist building sites. The land deteriorated quickly because Tenganan lacked the labour to care for the land and has no tradition for farming food crops, despite their tradition of growing trees.

Now farmers from the two main villages were being sacked from construction sites as the tourist industry was in decline. So unemployment coincided with land degradation.

Spiritual decline: There is the conviction by the Tenganan Council that the village and the wider area of Candi Dasa is suffering from spiritual decline. The Bali-Aga told me that this is associated with ecological degradation which is specifically against the teachings of the Veda which tell them to make offerings of flower, fruit, water or leaf everyday and these must also be grown and the water cared for.

There is the conviction and perception that restitution of the forests can help halt the spiritual erosion.

School system: The present school system was not serving the girls and boys well since they all desire white collar jobs no matter how much like a factory, nor how tedious the work, and there was an allied contempt for field work. It was hoped that regeneration of a forest and the associated education that goes with it would help to restore respect for caring for Nature as well as self-respect.         .

Ecological effects of annual cropping practices: Rainforest soils are rich only because of the amount of organic matter being broken down in them at any one time. Once the forest is removed and this cycle stops, the soils quickly break down, lose nutrient status, structure and texture. In this case they are succeeded by poor quality grass with little useful function which only partially stops erosion. The lightly terraced garden bays were now collapsing, and during recent rain the waters ran opaque, orange-red with its soil load.

Flash floods were now common through the villages and even in Candi Dasa because the trees and the understory were not there to retain water on the land. Neither was the water given time to soak in and replenish the local water table. I do not know whether the water table was being depleted however the thousands of toilets, showers, washing by tourists, and then by local people all came out of ground water. It would have been worthwhile to know the water table levels, and whether it was contaminated with phosphates from detergents, shampoos, and soaps, which cannot easily be extracted from the ground water. It would have been beyond this project to change the habits of tourists. Yet, forests can replenish water tables.

Local people reported climate change with rain nearly every month, instead of a wet and dry season, and no month with sufficient rain as well as more frequently long droughts.

First regeneration efforts: Seven years ago in 1986, Sadra, and the Tenganan Village Council, agreed that 10 hectares of dry, stony hillside would be regenerated and that the villagers would start replanting with pioneer nurse species. This was carried out and today the land is recovering. The understorey plants were planted later when the nitrogen fixing plants had done their work in preparing the soil. Village farmers were allowed to slash the nurse species for animal fodder and so are better off than before when the site was bare stony ground.

Proposed project

The Tenganan Village Council was prepared to allocate about 45 ha. (120 acres) to a reforestation project.

Discussions with the local Village Council consisting of about 60 Council members (99% farmers) and which serves three villages: Nyuh Tebel, Banjaar Tengah and Tauman Villages (see Map) showed them unanimous in wishing to carry out reforestation and to care for the new trees. They already had some experience with the 10 hectare pilot plot. Two elderly retired Army men were prepared to live on the top of the hill as watchmen over the new plantings. The villagers, with some justification, feared a landslide would cover their villages and close fields.

Technically:  In brief, the work was divided into wet and dry season.

  • In the dry season seeds would be harvested from the forest and saplings grown in a nursery.
  • In the wet season of the first year, up to 500 young people from the three villages would bring compost to the tops of the hills where glyricidia and leucaena cuttings would be pushed directly into wet soil at the top of the hills and later their seed spread downhill. In later years more valuable and fragile species would be added.

What happened – The project stalled

QSA funded the project at $Aus 43,500 to be supplied over three years at $Aus 15,000 per year.The first payment was made. Then the project stalled. I made an emergency monitoring visit to understand the problems.

There were several reasons:

Some money, not for this project, had gone missing from a local bank account and now the project manager, Sadra, was distraught and not confident of his management of the project, nor knowledge on detailed reforestation, and requested more management support and, by implication, protection for the funds.

Work had started but no funds had been used

Within a short time QSA realised that the bulk of the money had not been used at all. However the reforestation work was proceeding well.

Sadra told me that he had been too worried to use any money because:

  • It was customary for everyone to give their labour free and that paying them could lead to future un-meetable expectations.
  • If he were known to have control over $15,000 and dispensed it all, some people in the village would suspect that he had received more and kept it for himself.
  • He requested QSA to take all the money back and simply fund a small project to get water to one village.

This was done and the water project was successfully completed in 1995. See end of this article.


Outcomes for permaculturists and others designing food forests in communities


  • Engaging a project manager with vision and integrity is fundamental for the success of any project.
  • Project managers may require more support and training in project management than they visualised when starting the project.
  • Early monitoring of the project when it had difficulties was critical to success and, behind the problems, was the NGOs lack of knowledge of the village culture.

Achieving high tree survival rates

  • Staging planting by beginning with pioneer nurse plants and working with the natural seasons helped to achieve high survival rates.
  • Using local proven species ensured the yields for farmers to meet future needs.
  • Knowing the functions and uses of species enabled the balance of trees to be planted and others added later.
  • Starting on the highest hills and ridges was difficult labour however the recharge areas were stabilised and many trees seeded downhill.

Village volunteer labour

  • High survival rates encouraged villagers to continue with the work because they saw a good result for their labour.
  • Integrating the villagers and clearly stating what the economic benefits would be for them was strong motivation to participate in the project.

By 1996 the hillsides were revegetated and I revisited the project at a stage when the villagers were not only able to cut-and-carry fodder for their animals, but were able to graze them in their new forests for short times. Trees were also seeding downhill.

Products were already being harvested and reports held in QSA office in 1996 report a very successful project.

This is only the skeleton outline of the three-year project. It was a successful project in physically restoring denuded hillsides. This success was due to detailed and elegant local knowledge.

However it became very complicated and required assistance for several reasons, summarised as unwittingly imposed ‘western’ processes and ideologies which did not match the local culture.

Major successes:

  • The technical strategies and techniques were perfectly appropriate with successful restoration of tree species.
  • In particular the local knowledge of species, growing local seed, using hardwood cuttings straight into the ground in the wet season was brilliant.

Difficulties concerned the project management. Some were:

  • Budgetting to pay for village labour, customarily given free.
  • Under-estimating management experience in drafting project proposals.
  • Lack of appreciation of the need for management support.
  • Lack of awareness that fetching water several kilometres a day would limit the time villagers could work on the project.
  • Under-estimating village ability to pay for some items themselves.
  • Lack of realisation of how a monetary system introduced into a village economy can cause anxiety.

Technical difficulties encountered[3] were:

  • About reaching a future estimation of total forest yields and products. For example, designing a calender of future yields in 5, 10, 20, 50 and 500 years.
  • Future populations of animals and humans had to be estimated. The project wanted rare and endangered animal numbers to build up again.

So information was missing for:

  • Calculating the numbers of species of trees and their yields to match future community needs.
  • Ensuring survival of sufficient numbers to meet future needs,
  • Interplanting trees so guilds would be established.
  • Planting to obtain ever higher yields every year.
  • Staggering yields to provide immediate income or income substitution.

This project was remarkable for the long specialised knowledge of sustainable food forests by one group of people. They knew all their species and all their animals.  

(Plant and animal lists after the water project report)

And, more significantly is the importance of

  • controlling consumption of forest products and
  • adapting culture and behaviour so it serves this goal.

The backstrap weaving which is today an excellent economic industry for Tenganan, and the particular stone architecture, resulted from bans on harvesting timber and this would have degraded their lands and destroyed their forest.


Tenganan Water Project – March, 1995

Rationale: Complement to Reforestation Project

Redirect monies returned when villages used own funds in reforestation project.

Budget: $AUS.5,500   =   8,500,000 RP

Management: I. Nyoman Sadra and Village Council

Communications: Phonecall to QSA for approval of redirection of funds, 25 March 1995


QSA sent $AUS.5,500 to Sadra on 1 August 1993. This was to build a water tank on the top of the reforestation project hills to supply water to the new plantings. In fact, the village of Nyeh Tebel decided independently to fund this. So the money was sitting in Sadra’s bank account until now. Then QSA separately funded the tree planting of the hills – see Report of 28 March 1995, Tenganan Forest Project.

Discussion with Sadra showed the forest project was adequately funded. However one small village called Tenganan Dauh Tukad had no water pipeline to their village. Girls and women who walked two km daily over hills to the nearest standing pipe were giving their labour to the tree plantings and would indeed offer more days if they could have a potable water supply.

Sadra showed me one pipeline, pump, housing and water holding tank he had built with some of his own money and some Government money and I met the man who had learned to maintain the pump near the source at a spring. This was the model he wished for Tenganan Dauh Tukad. It worked well and the draft budget came out at about $Aus.5,500.

Project Goal

To provide the people of Tengaan Dauh Tukad (69 families) with potable drinking water via a pipeline extension from a standing tap.

The objectives:

  • Purchase and lay 2 km of pipe.
  • Purchase and install a pump to lift the water over a hill.
  • Train a village person to maintain the pump.
  • Build a holding tank at the pump.

Budget:    Draft only as unable to get exact costs during my stay.

1 pump 550-700,000 rp

50 sacks cement @ 8,500 rp       425,000

2 km gal. and pvc pipe

Bolts etc.     _____________

TOTAL               4,250,000


After discussion with QSA who agreed this project was useful and most necessary for the forestry project labour, I asked for it to begin it immediately.


Sadra and local village people would finish the work in two months. People would dig the pipeline ditch with free labour. Receipts and records would be kept and photographs taken of the work. As with the other pipeline, the village people would contribute to the maintenance of the pump and line. This is customary.


As there was presently cholera in Bali this was a most important and timely project. It reduced the labour for women and children.  It created good will for QSA and Tenganan for tree planting and would affect positively the health of the people in this village who had occasionally been using very polluted creek water during the dry season or the hot season when making many trips to the tap was hard.

Short Plant List of species found in Tenganan Forest

Achras zapota

Aleurites moluccana – nut much used

Ananas sativa

Areca catechou – nut mixed with leaves of Piper betel

Arenga sacchifera (palm wine tuak

Artocarpus integrifolia (jackfruit) Perhaps A. elastica

Borassus flabelifer – used for making Balinese books

Carica papaya

Citrus nobilis

Cocos nucifera

Corchus oliturus – yellow flowers

Durio zibethinus

Erythrina lithosperma – leaves used in ritual

Ficus benjamini (sacred fig)

Garcinia mangstana


Hibiscus rosa sinensis

Imparata cylindrical – grass used for recovering temple roofs

Mangifera sp.

Michelia champaca – frangipanni

Musa spp.

Nycthanthes arbortristis – night flowering

Pandanus sp – ritual uses

Zia mais


From a distance of 20 years I regret that I did not have the knowledge I now have to glean more information about the ethnobotany of this forest.


Short list of animal species

Primates Macaca irus

Chiropteres Rousettus sp

Pteropus sp

Petites Chauve-souris

Pholidotes Manis javanica

Rongeurs Callosciorus sp



Small rongeurs

Trichus sp

Acanthion javanicum

Artiodactyles Tragulina javanicus

Muntiacus muntjak

Cervus timorensis

Carnivores Melogale orientalis

Paradoxurus sp

Panthera p. melas

Oiseaux Ardeola ibis

Otus sp

Gallus gallus

Reptile Ophiophagus hannah or Naja naja


Batraciens Grenouilles



Vers de terre

ARTHROPO Myriapodes Scolopendre

Insectes Sauterelles Grillons

Papillons Libellules

Mouches Moustiques

Guepes parasites


Fourmis noires

Fourmis rouges

Mollusques Escargots



Bubalus arnee bubalis water buffalo – about 12 sacred

Sus scrofa domesticus – black pig – about 1000 in gardens

Bibos javanicus domesticus – javanese cow – about 20 not in villag

Capra aegagrus hircus – about 100 hairy goats in gardens

Canis lupus familiaris – dogs in every home

Felix silvestris – cats protecting grain against rodents.

Gallus gallus – chickens and roosters for food & fighting

Anas sp. – Philippine Ducks – for ritual sacrifice about 12

Apis mellifica – bees in hives

Caged birds and tied up monkey.




Breguet, Georges, et Ney, Roland, `Roles et Interactions de Facteurs Biologiques et Sociologiques dans la Diminution de la Population d`une Communaute Balinaise Isolee, le Desa Adat Tenganan Pageringsingan’ Universite de Geneve, George Breguet, 7 rue Jean Calvin, CH-1204 Geneva, Switzerland1980.

Lansing, Stephen, J.`Priests and Programmers: Technologies of Power in the Engineered Landscape of Bali’, Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey, USA, 1991.

University of California   `The Goddess and the Computor’ (film)


[1] Ibu Oka, at 70 years of age, could do 70 Salutes to the Sun as her morning devotions and I remember the young trainees all collapsed puffing on the grass behind her after she got to about 40 Salutes and was embarking on the next 30.

Actually, at that time I was told their correct name was the Aga-Bali.

[3] At this time, literature searches revealed almost nothing on how to make these estimates which are fundamental to ‘sustainable’ food forests.   The dynamic stability of food forests means that functions and yields do not always coincide. There is a tension here.

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