12th October 2014

Global Economy & Global Real Estate

Reclaiming the right to decide Bali's future development

Source: Straits Times / Think

Over 12 hours next Sunday, 30 dancers and musicians will perform across four stages at a field in southern Bali such arts as body painting, poetry reading and drumming.

But this is no ordinary arts festival.

This is Tolak Reklamasi (Reject Reclamation) - a protest against the reclamation of Benoa Bay.

Plans are afoot to reclaim 8 sq km of land on the bay at the south-eastern tip of Bali. Governor Made Mangku Pastika has given the green light for investors to turn two-thirds of it into hotels, entertainment centres and an F1-standard race track.

"We reject the development and all the empty promises that come with it because the process of getting the licences was not transparent, and we feel the people's views were ignored," said Mr I. Wayan Gendo Suardana, the leader of ForBali or Balinese against the Reclamation of Benoa.

Protests began early last year after reclamation plans were announced and have gathered steam since then.

This stand-off between residents and the government is part of a wider concern that Bali, which nets nearly half of all tourist arrivals to Indonesia, is choking from its success as a tourist haven.

Last year, it hosted 3.27 million visitors, up 13.4 per cent from levels in 2012; the figure is expected to rise further this year. Tourists from Singapore form the fifth-largest group, after those from Australia, China, Japan and Malaysia.

But now, more Balinese see the quick pace of development as exploitation of their once-idyllic island.

While willing to share their Island of the Gods with tourists for the revenue earned, they are also asking whether the price is worth paying as verdant land gives way to concrete, and whether the rate of development should be slowed. So they are starting to push back.

The protest against the Benoa Bay reclamation has become a symbol of this struggle, and an indication of the pressures faced by Indonesia as it tries to compete with its neighbours for tourist dollars.

Activists say Benoa Bay should be conserved as it is teeming with marine life. It is also an area that Hindu Balinese feel is vital to their rituals, which include washing off evil in the sea. Some 240 fishermen might be affected, and they say reclamation could shrink their catch.

Mr Pastika has tried to convince the people that the reclamation is good for them.

At a public hearing, he told residents that the Benoa revitalisation would mean more land owned by Balinese and more protective forest cover to reduce soil erosion and shield people from tsunamis.

He also promised 200,000 new jobs  in five to 10 years, generated by hotels and facilities on the reclaimed land.

"We must not turn a blind eye to the progress of tourism experienced by neighbouring countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore," he noted.

But the people were not swayed. Many are supporting Tolak Reklamasi by donating to it, signing an online petition or publicising it.

"By expressing together, we unify our views... and provide the (reasons) why Bali rejects reclamation, namely to keep Bali from greedy investors and developments that are unnecessary for Balinese," said Balinese architect Yoka Sara, 48, whose architecture firm is helping to organise next week's event.

Elsewhere, in a village in Gianyar regency, also in the south-east, a Not For Sale sign set up by artist Gede Sayur in a padi field has become an icon for the bid to save other fields from development.

The transformation of Gianyar's Ubud town from an arts and culture centre nestled amid padi fields into a busy wellness mecca has caused concern.

Lining its streets are organic cafes, restaurants and spas catering to foreigners - many operated by expatriates with local partners to make them legal. On the streets, taxi touts call out to tourists while beggars ask for money.

"Traffic jams have come to Ubud, and greedy investors are taking away  our padi fields to turn them into villas," said Mr Putu Semiada, 48, who owns an English school.

Farmers lured by easy money have sold their land and are left without proper financial planning, he noted.

"Ugly buildings with no character are springing up, and have diminished the beauty of Balinese architecture," he added.

While he admits tourism has benefited many Balinese like himself - his English school now has 350 students, up from 40 in 2001 - he is worried that the development is not being managed well.

Ms Meghan Pappenheim, an American who became an Indonesian citizen after living in Bali for 24 years and who owns the largest yoga centre in Ubud, said: "The Balinese government has to step in now to manage this change, and should be asking not only what we can do for tourists, but also what we can do for the community."

Other problems have accompanied Bali's growth.

With more hotels coming up, property consultants have warned of oversupply.  Occupancy rates have dropped from 63 per cent in 2011 to 60 per cent now.

And as more land is paved over, parts of Bali could face a shortage of clean water, forcing residents to walk kilometres to reach water sources.

There are, however, those who feel Bali is better off now. Writer I. Wayan Juniarta argues that Bali is among the provinces with better education and infrastructure.

"Balinese have become more globalised and, at the same time, the increasing number of expatriates is a strong reason for Balinese to preserve their culture."

He feels jobs in the hospitality sector have enabled many Balinese to break through traditional feudal barriers and compete equally.

Those who reject the reclamation say they merely want Bali's development to be decided by the community.

"We want the government to listen to the people's concerns and allow the community to decide the pace of development, instead of licences changing hands in deals we are not told of," said Mr Gendo.

-By Zubaidah Nazeer, Indonesia Correspondent in Ubud, Bali