An Ever-Growing Island: Bungin Island, West Nusa Tenggara

I have been through Sumbawa many times in the past and yet, I cannot recall the island of Bungin. With so many islands stretched out across the archipelago, there was bound to be a few I have missed [and, yet to see].

Panca Nugraha wrote an excellent article about this amazing island that lies about 70 kilometres west of Sumbawa.

Bungin, the only island in Indonesia that keeps growing

If Bungin Island, a small coral island lying about four kilometers off the coast of Sumbawa in West Nusa Tenggara province, had a mascot, it would undoubtedly be the paper-eating goat.

Because of the island’s infertile soil, there is very little grass or plants for Bungin’s goat population to eat, so they survive on paper and other bits of garbage.

“Goats here eat paper and rags because there’s no grass,” said a young islander, Coco, who with his friends is eager to show visitors the phenomenon.

Bungin lies about 70 kilometers west of the Sumbawa regency capital Sumbawa Besar. It is about a five-hour overland journey east from the provincial capital Mataram, and then a boat crossing from Lombok to Sumbawa island. From there, it is a relatively short trip to reach Bungin.

According to the local administration on Bungin, 609 families, or 2,826 people, live on the island.

“This is probably the most densely populated island (in Indonesia), and the only island which keeps growing in size,” said Bungin Island village administration head Sopian. He said a 2002 survey indicated the island covered six hectares, and now it covered eight.

Houses on the island are generally only about 1.5 meters apart from each other. The distinctive Bungin stilt-houses now cover much of the island, and in some cases their roofs meet.

One of the main reason Bungin Island can continue to accommodate its growing population, and also why the island itself is growing, is its traditional marriage law. This law requires would-be couples to prepare the site on which they will build their house before they get married.

A couple must first gather a supply of coral to reclaim a piece of land on the outer part of the island. Each couple is allocated a small piece of land measuring about six-by-twelve meters. So Bungin grows a little bit with each new marriage. The entire community will pitch in to help a couple gather the coral, reclaim the land from the sea and build a house.

Bungin Island can be called a man-made island. Although the Sumbawa office of the National Land Agency conducts topographical survey every five years, none of the islanders holds land ownership documents.

“This is not part of the mainland, but coral rocks formed by residents. That’s why residents do not require land certificates, but only an ownership document issued by the village office,” said Sopian.

Most, if not all, of the Bungin islanders earn a living as fishermen. They are descendants of the Bajo and Bugis tribes, originating from South Sulawesi.

According to folklore, when the first people arrived on Bungin the island only covered about three hectares. The first inhabitants were followers of Panglima Mayo, a freedom fighter from South Sulawesi. They were forced out of Sulawesi by Dutch colonial troops in 1818.

“That’s why they speak the Bajo dialect here, and not the local Sumbawa language,” said Sopian.

Despite the reliance on the sea, Bungin is far more prosperous than many of the fishing villages in West Nusa Tenggara.

Nearly all of the families own electronic appliances, at least a television set equipped with a digital receiver. The children are no strangers to PlayStation, and if they don’t have one at home they can go to several little businesses on the island and play for an hourly rate.

Because men on the island go out to sea often for months at a time, the women are left behind to take care of the families and see to their daily needs.

“My husband sails out to sea and sometimes returns only after three months. We are the ones who support the family,” said a fisherman’s wife, Hasnah.

Hasnah and the other housewives look for fish, shells and sea cucumbers around the island, to supplement their families’ income. They can earn between Rp 15,000 and Rp 30,000 per day from the sea.

Because the island is so small, Bungin is by necessity a very tightly knit community. Most residents cannot imagine living elsewhere and very few ever move away, despite being able to afford a house on the mainland.

“There are usually a lot of temptations on the mainland, and the feeling of insecurity,” said Sopian.

The infrastructure on Bungin has gradually improved over the years thanks to the residents’ relative economic prosperity. They have access to electricity and clean water, and there are two elementary schools on Bungin and a community health center.

The islanders are still waiting for government assistance to build junior and senior high schools, and are ready to prepare the sites themselves.

Bungin has recently become a tourist attraction in Sumbawa, with domestic and foreign visitors eager for a look at the island. But one thing has never changed on the island — even though every house has a bathroom, none of them has a toilet. Residents rely on the sea for more than just fishing.

Besides the hospitality of the locals, there are two things that will surely leave a lasting impression on visitors to Bungin — the delicious taste of the goat satay and the distance to the bathroom if one needs to answer the call of nature.

Panca Nugraha