The Ever-Growing Island Bungin

With 3000 people living on nine hectares, Bungin in Indonesia is one of the most densely populated islands in the world. With no greenery to speak of, its goats live on plastic trash.

I lay in bed, weakened by fever, in a small wooden hut somewhere in Indonesia. Despite the delirium, my spirit of discovery was still intact, and I despised the idea of just lying about uselessly. So I grabbed my smartphone and started exploring satellite maps of nearby islands, hoping to find a new and unusual location. I flew my fingers over countless aquacultures, volcanic craters, and rice patties. Suddenly, I spotted something. I had found my next destination.

A few days later, I arrived on the small island of Bungin just off the northwest coast of Sumbawa.

bungin island houses

According to my research, some 3500 inhabitants lived on only six hectares of land at the turn of the millennium. It is one of the most densely populated places on the planet. Where do you begin to explore when you don’t know anyone? Out of respect for the local inhabitants, I immediately searched for the village leader before I even thought of pulling out my camera. A little later, I was sitting in the hut of an old man named Makadia. His face was wrinkled, and he had a thin mustache. He smiled, as did I. And neither of us understood a word of what the other said. His son Arif was found in the village, and he was able to translate my request. Makadia told me of the origins of this unusual place.

bungin tribe

The islanders of Bungin belong almost exclusively to the Bajau tribe, a renowned seafaring people from South Sulawesi, he said. Some six generations ago, a group of warriors fleeing from a conqueror settled on the island. At the time, they found only a tiny piece of white sandy beach that had formed on a coral reef lying in the sea. But they loved the proximity to the sea and the security that this isolated location afforded them. So they built their first huts on the reef and made the island their home.

bungin island huts

As space was and still is a rare commodity, local tradition requires that all who wish to marry and raise a family first build their own house. This is not so simple if you consider that the indigenous population of Bungin rarely emigrates, and there is simply no more land to distribute on the island. Consequently, every man intending to marry must harvest coral from the waters and pile it up on low-lying sections of the surrounding reef until enough new land is reclaimed from the sea to build the future home. As a result, the island is constantly growing.

bungin island tribes man working on boat

With the blessing of Makadia, I could finally begin to explore Bungin Island. Arif would be relieved of his tasks for a day and was to accompany me.

Most of the island dwellers work as fishermen or raise goats. The latter activity puzzled me, as I couldn’t see any vegetation to speak of. Arif had an answer that completely baffled me. The local goats had developed the unique habit of eating plastic and paper. This couldn’t be true, I thought. But, yes, it was. While taking an afternoon break in the shade of the houses, I did observe goats eating plastic. This remains a mystery to me to this day.

plastic eating goat

While elderly women were trying to harvest mussles and catch other sea creatures in the shallow waters, Arif led me along small paths and over wooden bridges to make the acquaintance of his friend, a young and wiry boat builder. The Bajau love the sea. It’s their home. And so, over the centuries, they have perfected the art of shipbuilding. With great patience and skill, the young man fitted the wood together so seamlessly that no nails or screws were needed. They would rust immediately anyhow and make the boat leak.

bungin island drying fish

I continued walking from house to house. They are all built on stilts to not be damaged by the high tide. Passing by blowfish drying in the sun and children playing. A fisherman was repairing his nets for the next catch while his wife prepared the stockfish for the market. People lead a simple life here, but they seem content. Yet, progress is visible here too. In the expectation of government support, the island’s inhabitants built a bridge connecting Bungin with the larger island of Sumbawa. Now, the two bodies are accessible by land. As local traditions slowly disappear, Bungin is still getting larger, said Arif, with truckload after truckload crossing the bridge. He then took out a bottle of water and offered me some to drink. We sat in the shade, watching the goats eating plastic. What a place!

Editor’s note: We realize that you, our readers, may be concerned (as we are) for the health and well-being of the plastic-eating goats in this story. This sad phenomenon is becoming increasingly common in many parts of the world, including Europe and the United States. While animal welfare organizations warn that animals die prematurely from eating plastic, the goats on Bungin seem to have adapted to the circumstances; at least, they are generally reproducing. At what cost, of course, is uncertain. 

The fight against plastic waste is a huge undertaking and one of the most important issues of the future. Read the inspiring story of Andreas Noe and his tireless efforts against plastic waste here. Find out what Jack Wolfskin is doing to protect our environment here.