How Bali punks Navicula took on the palm oil industry Favorite 



Apr 27 2014



In Indonesia, a loud and politically committed generation of punk bands are shaking big business – and getting results

The briefing took place in a small commercial office in Jakarta, with no insulation from the heat, smog or noise of the bustling Indonesian capital. The 24 young Indonesians in attendance were scheming about how best to get themselves arrested. Young activists in developing countries usually have a steely righteousness about them. But there was a shyness in the room, and smiles spread with ease across the activists faces. The source of the shyness was Navicula, the most politically committed band in Indonesia.

They could have been with Sony BMG, their old label, or recording a song with collaborator, Alain Johannes, of Them Crooked Vultures and Queens of the Stone Age fame. Instead, they were deciding how best to travel east, deep into the jungle of Sulawesi. That jungle is home to one of Indonesia's key palm oil export facilities, along with the few thousand locals who rely on the refinery for their income.

In 2012 this band from the tiny Indonesian island of Bali decided they could no longer sit by as their country's vast natural riches were plundered by greedy multinationals. When promises to scale back the destruction were replaced by promises for more of it, and at a faster rate – in an attempt to hit an increasing global demand for palm oil – they were moved to act. Navicula locked horns with the palm oil industry.

Employing more than 3 million people across Indonesia – the country produces more palm oil than any other – the palm oil industry is a formidable opponent, responsible for the widespread destruction of Indonesia's rainforests. With native fauna including the orangutan, Sumatran tiger and pygmy elephant pushed to the brink of extinction, and the region's indigenous people also threatened, Navicula mounted an audacious protest. The plan was to tour the palm oil industry stronghold of Kalimantan, playing shows and trumpeting their eco-message to anyone who'd listen.
Punks outside the Twice Bar in Kuta, Bali. Punks outside the Twice Bar in Kuta, Bali. Photograph: Angga Pratama

In a country that witnessed the slaughter of half a million dissidents in the Suharto era, the risks were obvious. To fund the protest Navicula raised US$3,500 using Kickstarter – the first Indonesian band to do so. They sourced half a dozen dirt bikes from Greenpeace, along with riding suits painted with the stripes of the Sumatran tiger, and had security provided by a local indigenous people's alliance. Over 12 days in September 2012 they rode 2,500km across remote Kalimantan, playing shows and protesting against the palm oil industry.

Apart from the occasional spy, the trip went on without interference, but what they saw changed them forever. "It was unbelievable," says the band's frontman, Robi Supriyanto. "Sometimes a whole forest, as far as you could see, was gone. After that we are like, Navicula must be a satellite of information. We have to get the information out."

The day I meet the band they're planning their next protest against the palm oil industry. A dozen or so Greenpeace activists plan to take over a palm oil refinery in remote Sulawesi and paint the holding tanks with the stripes of the endangered Sumatran tiger. Navicula will perform live in front of it. The mission is top secret and Navicula aren't expecting any opposition at the new site, though it's almost certain everyone involved will be detained by authorities.

"We'll have legal covered," assures the Greenpeace representative at the meeting. No one mentions the elephant in the room: the 30 Greenpeace activists then in a Russian prison looking at 15 years for the doomed Arctic oil drilling protest. Nevertheless, the band remains committed. "This is the action part. We make song and after that if the song is not enough you have to walk the talk," says Supriyanto.

As it turned out, Navicula never had to venture into Sulawesi to make their point. The palm oil company in question, Wilmar, yielded to their demands when they announced a "no deforestation, no peat, no exploitation policy" that pledged to stop removing forest, burning off waste and to adhere to the UN's universal declaration of human rights. In a further boost for Navicula's environmental crusade, the country's top Islamic council also took the unprecedented step of levelling a fatwa at any illegal wildlife dealers in Indonesia.

The tide is turning but Navicula aren't convinced yet. "I will believe it when Wilmar shows this policy in their actions, not just on paper," says Supriyanto.

Navicula hail from Bali, a slice of equatorial paradise in Indonesia's far east. It's also become one of Asia's activism hubs. In the 30 years since this tiny Hindu island burst on to the mainstream tourism map, it's gone from an idyllic surfers' paradise to facing an almost certain environmental demise. By as early as next year, scientists are predicting Bali will face a terminal water shortage. Already more than half the island's 400 rivers have run dry, and those that haven't are clogged with the 11,000 cubic tonnes of waste that's left uncollected each day.

Property prices, meanwhile, continue to boom (they rose at the third highest rate last year – equal with Dubai) and some of the world's biggest development projects add more pressure to the island's already fragile equatorial ecosystem. Out of this a thriving punk and hardcore scene has risen to challenge law makers and unscrupulous developers. Two of the biggest bands in Asia right now, Navicula and Superman is Dead, both hail from Bali, and their rise to the top has been accompanied by staunch messages of environmental protection and anti-corruption.

Navicula met at university in Bali back in 1996, when all four members were studying environmental science and journalism degrees. At a time when Bali was feeling the first adverse affects of the tourism boom, the band formed "to get the message out". Unfortunately, no one was listening. "Seventeen years ago people don't care about music being into eco-awareness or political awareness," Supriyanto says.

The son of a farming family, he remembers all too well the first incursion of western business principles into Bali. That came in the 1970s when the green revolution – an American initiative aimed at boosting various crop yields – arrived on the island with a plan to make some "improvements" to the island's 11th-century Subak rice farming system. They almost crippled the now world heritage-listed system and left the island unable to feed itself.

Navicula began its career playing dozens of environmental and anti-corruption rallies around Bali, but it was only after Supriyanto met his wife, Lakota Lim, that the band's blend of musical talent and activist steel really took shape. Lakota is the daughter of Robin Lim, the philanthropist, activist and midwife, who in 2011 was named CNN's hero of the year for her work delivering some 26,000 babies for the underprivileged.

With Supriyanto for a mother and an environmentalist filmmaker for a father, there was little chance Lakota was going to grow up doing anything other than working for humanitarian causes. After completing a public relations degree she took over managing Navicula, so beginning what can only be descried as an inspired era of DIY punk-activism.

Proudly laid out on the table in front of me is one such new-wave activist approach: an entire line of Navicula-branded conservationist products. There's honey and arak scented soap (palm oil-free of course); Navicula sunglasses made from upcycled offcuts of guitars (each purchase also gets you a tree in "Navicula forest" in Bali's mountains); their latest album cover made from upcycled Tetra Pak and old tyres; their promise that not a single tree be harmed in the making of their latest album; and, my favourite, the Navicula-branded seed bombs (tree seeds in a clay base which are given to local bikie gangs to toss into depleted patches of forest on their weekly burns).

Despite their growing stature in the music world the band has maintained a strong grassroots presence, running dozens of workshops for local people – from seed saving, organic and urban farming, to recycling, citizen journalism and how to make money off music. "We're still trying to figure that one out," says Supriyanto. He has even published a book on permaculture. "Ginseng! Great in salads and it makes your dick hard!" he tells me as we pick through his garden.

As Lakota explains: "I told the boys if you play a gig or make a video no one cares. That's what a band is supposed to do. If you make soap, however … "

It's a recipe that's taken them to the top of the music heap in Asia, earning collaborations with Michael Franti and most recently, Johannes, who produced their latest single, Tomcat. Lakota wrote it: "It's a love song wrapped up in environmentalism."

More importantly, Navicula has managed to successfully cross-pollinate Indonesia's already gargantuan punk and hardcore scene with a newfound environmental awareness. And it's threatening to shake things up in the archipelago.

Since the information flow began following the fall of the Suharto regime in the 1990s, punk, metal and hardcore has become the dominant strand of youth culture in Indonesia. The heart of that scene is in Bali. Instruments such as the gamelan – a metal, gong-like device which percussionists can thrash into a dizzying 17 melodies a second – provided a smooth transition for local musicians into the frenetic rhythms of punk and hardcore. The gory live animal sacrifices and demonic imagery of your average Hindu ceremony, meanwhile, have obvious links into metal culture, according to Supriyanto.

On a Saturday night I venture into the "sacred home" of the Indonesian punk scene; a sweaty shoebox of a bar called Twice Bar, in the seething tourist precinct of Kuta, Bali. Inside, the music is loud and the message even louder. "This life is not just about the money, it is synchronised between human and nature, this world and this earth. If one of them not balanced it’s going to be disaster for us," explains Itu Jemy, a drummer for local band Fight Back.

The bar, which is owned by Superman is Dead drummer Jerinx, hosts an average of 15 bands a week with musicians ranging in age from teenagers to 40 and over coming to jam. On this night a metalcore outfit is holding the floor. With two women in the band – one on guitar and one on lead vocals – it's an uncommon sight in Indonesia, where women tend to occupy subservient roles. Not tonight. Between riffs the female guitarist spreads her fingers in a Gene Simmonsesque gesture, to the chortling disbelief of a chain of headbanging Indonesians not half a metre away.

It was here Navicula played their first gig after their Kalimantan tour in 2012 and the venue has hosted dozens of international musicians since, including members of Parkway Drive, Suicidal Tendencies and Macromantics. As it did in the west three decades ago, punk and hardcore has once again come to represent a generation's anger and discontent. In a land like Indonesia, where wealth and political influence remains concentrated among a select few, the ability of Indonesia's punks to force change – or at least the discussion of it – will be as good a gauge as any as to this country's prospects of entertaining a true democracy.

By Jed Smith
Friday 25 April 2014 01.02 EDT

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