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Losing Paradise In Bali

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Bali's booming reputation as a must-go international destination comes at a heavy price. This year critical articles about the island's infrastructure woes have run in both the Wall Street Journal and TIME . The head of the Bali chapter of the Indonesian business association APINDO, Panundiana Khun, stated early this year that land in Bali was no longer economically suitable for agrarian use and should rather be used for the tourism industry and that Balinese farmers were better off transmigrating. The subsequent uproar had him scrambling to 'clarify' his position days later, claiming a misquote.

True, the carrying capacity of the island has hit critical mass. Every high school kid in Bali knows tensions over water shortage (in five star hotels, each room consumes around five times a whole Balinese family's average of 200 liters a day) and disappearing agricultural land (more than 1000 hectares are 'converted' or urbanized annually). A booming population (3.9 million today vs 2.4 in 1978) means tough times ahead.

What caused the uproar in response to Khun's apparent gaffe is a long smoldering resentment in the Balinese community towards the excesses of the tourism industry and foreign investment, especially since government approval for Bakrie Nirwana Resort on land considered within the spiritual buffer zone of one of Bali's holiest sites, Tanah Lot, was rammed through during the Suharto era despite island wide protests. In the 1990s a high ranking (non-Balinese) official in Indonesia's Department of Tourism commented that "Bali doesn't belong to the Balinese or to you who live here anymore, it belongs to everybody in the world."

Everyone acknowledges wealth has been generated by tourism, but many point out the imbalance in the distribution thereof, and the ecologically disastrous nature of many projects.
More pointed is the discussion of identity and cultural rights. A Balinese's spiritual life centers around his or her ancestors: what is inherited in terms of tradition (material and spirit being tightly interwoven), and what to leave for the next generation. Once principally an agrarian society, the emotional bond to inherited land is linked not only to personal but also to communal spiritual well being.

Most homes in a village are the birthright of the families that inhabit it, but unlike farmland, the land actually belongs to the community - known as "karang desa" ('village compound') it cannot be sold - ensuring all members of the community are provided for, and maintaining social integrity and cohesion. Other land that is inherited can be sold yet represents a deep link to the ancestors, who are worshiped everyday in the family temple. Then there is what is considered sacred property of temples, "laban pura", which is also their spiritual buffer zone. Currently there is a heated public debate regarding rezoning the laban pura. Temples, the related ceremonies and 'tithes' all are part of the glue that holds Balinese society together. The most bitter feuds in Bali revolve around land.

The passion the current ongoing debate on Bali's zoning stirs up indicates that this is something of a symbolic last stand for Balinese culture as a living, breathing entity. An ongoing real estate boom has meant more and more rice fields are replaced by luxury villas for expats. The other day when I remarked that the days of the Balinese farmer seem to be over, a Balinese journalist friend, Wayan Juniartha, commented: "No, actually they will remain farmers, but they will be tenant farmers. The Japanese and Taiwanese have been buying up land, not to build villas but as an investment in agriculture".

While the government fails the all-important agricultural sector in Bali, foreign investors are injecting capital into it, meaning the Balinese will no longer own their inheritance.

Why has it taken so long for the Balinese community to act? Part of the problem is that though there is a tightly woven fabric of Balinese culture, the same weave also keeps the Balinese "in their place," separated by caste and clan. As one vocal, high caste Balinese activist spluttered:

"As soon as someone voices an opposing opinion everything breaks down into camps defined by caste and clan. If a person feels attacked because of his policies etc, he maneuvers through the loyalty lines of caste and clan. We don't have enough free thinking intellectuals on this island! That's why activism is so poor in Bali."

For sure Balinese culture will continue to be featured in presentations and museums, and will continue to find a market. Just recently in the so-called cultural center of Bali, Ubud, the "Philip Kotler Marketing Museum" was launched - much to the bemusement of most locals who have no idea who the man is. The much quoted slogan of Balinese communal philosophy, Tri Hita Karana (which refers to the threefold relationship between man and god, man and fellow man, man and environment) will continue to be quoted academically, it might end even up as a marketing display in the museum. But who will be left to live and breathe this philosophy?