Bali is facing an environmental crisis caused by runaway tourism development but a controversial land reclamation project is galvanising protesters
Snarled traffic, city hotels and rubbish-strewn beaches are not images most associate with Bali. But this is increasingly the reality on the famous resort island, as rampant over-development and failing infrastructure threaten to destroy its fabled beauty. Growing alarm at the oversupply of hotel rooms led to a moratorium on new developments in the south of the island four years ago. But local governors responsible for issuing building permits largely ignored the decree.
According to the Indonesian Restaurant & Hotel Association (PHRI), between 2011 and 2013, the number of hotel rooms on the island leaped from 22,000 to 50,100, and there is no sign of a slowdown. Foreign and domestic tourist arrivals have swelled to nearly 10 million a year, buckling the island’s infrastructure. Up to 1,000 hectares of Bali’s iconic rice fields are disappearing annually, replaced by villas, apartment blocks and high-capacity hotels.
The water table is shrinking and 65% of rivers now dry up during the dry season. In the rainy season, diggers are needed to clear the thousands of tonnes of rubbish that pile up on the beaches of this small island. When Indonesia devolved power to its regions after the downfall of Suharto, the corruption that had formerly resided solely with the ruling elite devolved with it. In Bali, local governors or bupati have often been more concerned with lining their pockets than representing their constituents.
Regulations are flimsy and rarely enforced, with developers encroaching on green belt land and violating coastal setback laws. But while academics warn of an impending ecological disaster, a massive new project could soon get underway in an environmentally sensitive estuary in Bali’s overcrowded south. Developer PT Tirta Wahana Bali International (TWBI) is planning an 838-hectare development on land to be reclaimed from Benoa Bay, comprising villas, apartments, luxury hotels, a Disneyland-style theme park and even a Formula One racing circuit.
The artificial islands would take up 75% of the bay’s area – a move that environmentalists fear could cause massive flooding. According to Ketut Sarjana Putra, the Indonesia Director of US NGO Conservation International (CI), seawater levels could increase by as much as 1.6 metres, inundating low-lying areas, while silt from dredging activities could swamp reefs and mangroves. Bali’s provincial governor Made Pastika has been a vocal advocate for the reclamation project in interviews, claiming it would reduce pressure on Bali’s arable lands and provide jobs.
He issued the original permit for the development, but critics cited a 2011 presidential decree designating Benoa Bay a conservation area and he backtracked. In May this year, Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono revoked the bay’s protected status. Presidential Decree No. 51/2014, turned Benoa into a ‘revitalisation’ zone, paving the way for TWBI to press ahead. Yudhoyono’s outgoing administration then issued the official state permits for the project just two weeks before president elect Joko Widodo was due to be sworn in on 20 October.
But environmental fears and anger at the opaque decision-making process have sparked a major protest movement. A coalition of religious leaders, politicians, musicians, academics, artists and farmers has gathered under the banner Tolak Reklamasi (Reject Reclamation) to try and stop TWBI. The Forum Bali Tolak Reklamasi, or ForBali, has held regular protests at Pastika’s residence in Bali’s capital Denpasar and in Benoa Bay, as well as concerts, art events and a well-orchestrated social media campaign.
Nine of Bali’s most senior high priests have signed a letter formally stating their opposition to the reclamation projec. Superman Is Dead, Indonesia’s biggest punk band, is a leading torchbearer for ForBali.Their Facebook posts regularly attract tens of thousands of ‘likes’, and they can quickly mobilise their followers. Drummer Jerinx claims he’s received repeated threats since he got behind the protest two years ago. “What my friends and I are doing is a peoples’ struggle,” he told local news outlet Kompas.
“People have power… as musicians, we voice our protest not with violence, but through music.” TWBI senior representative Lee Marvin Lieano claims the project will provide a range of social, economic and environmental benefits. In a press release sent out to local news agencies, he stated that the project’s planners had already addressed issues of flooding and subsidence and that the project would revitalise the bay, as well as providing thousands of jobs.
As prominent community and religious groups continue to get behind ForBali, confrontation is a growing possibility. A much smaller pro-reclamation lobby currently runs counter protests and has appropriated Tolak Reklamasi social media handles, billboard designs and even their ForBali moniker. Tolak Reklamasi billboards have also been vandalised, though it is unclear by whom. ForBali coordinator Wayan Gendo Suardana maintains that the reclamation project cannot legally go ahead without a proper public consultation.
“All these decisions are being made behind closed doors. But the people who are going to be directly affected by the development, like the fishing communities of Benoa Bay, should be a part of the decision-making process.” Suardana has some hope that Indonesia’s new president Joko Widodo might help. “Only he has the power to revoke Decree No.51/2014, but I think it’s 50/50 whether that will happen.” If it doesn’t, protestors may resort to direct action, possibly preventing work from getting underway in Benoa.
Suardana sees the protest as a test of Indonesia’s emerging democracy and is confident that it will continue to build momentum. “Whether we win or lose, we won’t stop fighting.”
source : the guardian