This Man Wants to Remind Indonesia That Food Comes From the Earth, Not an App
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This Man Wants to Remind Indonesia That Food Comes From the Earth, Not an App

Oh, and he fed Obama too.

Bumi Langit is more than a mere restaurant to owner Iskandar Waworuntu. It's a physical representation of his entire philosophy on food and the earth—one that was distilled after years of traveling throughout Indonesia to learn about farming, permaculture, and the natural balance of the ecosystem in the country's fields and paddies, not the classroom.

"Farming is a way of living that involves every kind of aspect of your life," Pak Is, as his friends call him, told me. "Food is the most fundamental aspect of life. You are what you eat."


The restaurant, which is located about 20 kilometers from downtown Yogyakarta in the hills of Imogiri, was more crowded than usual when I arrived. Former US President Barack Obama had just eaten lunch at the spot a few days earlier during his post-presidency holiday in Indonesia. Obama's visit helped Bumi Langit achieve a level of popularity not usually bestowed on restaurants that come with their own credo and a commitment to organic farming—outside Bali's yoga and spiritualism mecca of Ubud, of course.

The newfound popularity was a windfall for a traditionally minded restaurant that serves old-school Javanese food. But it was also a lot of work for a place that hosts educational tours for school children and runs its own organic, permaculture farm as well.

"I feel very humbled by the Obama's visit," Pak Is told me. "Now the restaurant has become more crowded, so I have to be careful."

Bumi Langit is one of the pioneers of permaculture in Indonesia. The agriculture practice, which works with the land in its natural state to create a more holistic form of farming, is slowly gaining traction in Indonesia—a country that before independence was a mostly agrarian nation. Today, agriculture employs more than 40 percent of the total workforce, and is responsible for more than 14 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. But a lot of that workforce labors on large-scale industrial palm oil, coffee, and pulpwood plantations owned by multinational corporations.


Pak Is is talking about a more down-to-earth homestead kind of farming here. Back in 1995, Pak Is, then a teenage boy, dropped out of school and embarked on a journey through Java and Sumatra to learn as much as he could about permaculture farming. He told me that the only way to learn how to actually farm was on the farms themselves. The skills he learned on the road—and the self-discovery—could never be found in a classroom, Pak Is told me.

When he returned to Jogja, Pak Is took a job at Bengkel Teater, which was founded by the city's famed activist, writer, and director WS Rendra. Pak Is told me that he enjoyed the work, but he couldn't shake his love of farming. Permaculture was his true passion, he said. Pak Is sees farming as a self-sustaining economic model, one that isn't trapped in the typically exploitative systems of capitalism and world trade.

He found three acres of land in the Imogiri hills outside downtown Jogja in 2006 and established the Bumi Langit community. Initially, people laughed at Pak Is. His land was barely fertile, and the whole endeavor seemed destined to fail. Pak Is wasn't born into a family of farmers, and few had time for a city guy who came down to Imogiri with all these ideas about "holistic farming."

But Pak Is drilled deep wells and used the permaculture techniques he learned on the road to make the ground fertile. His farm tried to limit the use of chemicals, composted excess food and organic scrap, and turned animal manure into biogas. By the time Pak Is opened his own restaurant, the locals weren't laughing anymore.


Pak Is took the ethics of his farm further, taking a similar approach to his own life. He never uses plastic, makes his own soaps, and keeps his farm off the electrical grid. Most of the time, Bumi Langit uses solar power. But during the rainy season, when the skies are dark with clouds, the farm still needs to rely on a diesel generator, he admitted.

He offered to show me around his farm. Bumi Langit is a beautifully natural place. The farm is surrounded by the forest. The buildings are constructed in traditional Javanese architecture out of wood grown specifically for the house so that they doesn't tax the nearby forests. The farmland itself is built out of irrigated terraces. Chickens wander free range everywhere. A pond of fish sat next to some of the vegetables.

The whole place looked like an idyllic farm, aside from the fact that I didn't see that many people around working. Pak Is told me that Bumi Langit wasn't able to produce the same amount of food as a larger, more industrial farm. He kept things small and manageable to maintain the ethics of the place.

"We're in a state where we're not in charge of our food," he explained. "We no longer know where our food comes from. We have become more dependent on the industry."

Pak Is opened the Bumi Langit restaurant in 2014 on the advice of a friend who said he felt bad always eating Pak Is' food without paying for it. It's far from one of the most-popular spots in Jogja—a city with a rich culinary scene and a steady stream of new tourists. It's also far from expensive. The 12-person Obama party ate for less than Rp 4 million ($298 USD)—or about $24 USD a person for a totally organic handmade meal. It's more pricy than a meal at the local warung, but still far less than a fancy meal at one of the city's trendy tourist spots.

I stopped to eye the menu on the way out the door. They were serving Ayam Goreng Bahagia and Ayam Geprek Kecombrang. I chose the second dish, eating perfectly fried chicken with kecombrang flowers that are apparently good for your health. I then ate fruit jam kefir and mango ice cream made from pure coconut milk for dessert.

For a brief moment I felt like Obama. And that's not half bad.