A protest in the Bali capital Denpasar. Initially driven by young people, the anti-reclamation movement has now gone mainstream, with 28 village officially opposing the Benoa Bay tourism development project. Photograph: Putu Sayoga
On Sunday, tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered at a major roundabout close to the reclamation site. They represent a protest movement on a scale not seen in Bali for decades. The Bali Forum Against Reclamation (ForBali) unites young people, politicians, rock stars, academic and religious institutions, environmentalists and 28 villages, including all 14 in the area earmarked for reclamation.
The developer, Tirta Wahana Bali International (TWBI), plans to build artificial islands that would take up almost half of Benoa Bay in south Bali – an area that had enjoyed conservation status until former president Susilo Bambang Yudhyono issued a decree in 2014 shortly before leaving office, which turned it into a zone for ‘revitalisation.’ Indonesia’s Minister for Forestry & Environment, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, must now decide whether or not to approve the EIA in the face of escalating opposition.
TWBI’s idea of revitalisation is a $3 billion luxury resort development across four new islands, including villas and apartments, a retail district, a marina and even a cultural theme park. TWBI describes Nusa Benoa as an entirely new destination that will bring additional jobs, clear waste and cause minimal impact to the environment. Yet Benoa Bay sits in the heart of south Bali, sandwiched between the resort districts of Sanur, Kuta and Nusa Dua, where most of the island’s tourism - and wealth - is already concentrated.
An increasing number of critics are calling out TWBI on a range of social, environmental and cultural issues. Ketut Sarjana Putra, Indonesia director of US environmental NGO Conservation International (CI), says the new islands would cause flooding on a massive scale. “We already have issues with flooding – that excess water eventually goes out into Benoa Bay, but what happens if the Bay’s capacity is reduced by 700ha?” he asks. According to CI modelling, the flushing capacity of the bay simply won’t be enough.
This isn’t the first land reclamation project in Bali – back in 1994, then President Suharto’s sons Tommy Suharto and Bambang Trihatmojo quadrupled the size of an offshore island called Serangan for a proposed tourism development that never materialised. Instead, nearby reefs were swamped in sediment, seaweed farms destroyed and wave patterns changed.
“The Serangan project reclaimed 380ha of land and the impacts were felt within a 3km radius,” says Putra. “KWBI claim that their 700ha project will only affect an area 0.5km in radius. That doesn’t make sense.”
KWBI also claims that the Nusa Benoa project will create 150,000 jobs, but the unemployment rate in Bali as of January 2015 was just 33,661.
Meanwhile, rampant development in Bali’s overcrowded south has already led to an oversupply of hotel rooms. A moratorium on new tourism developments in 2011 failed, mainly because local governors or bupati ignored it. It is ironic that the man who established the moratorium in the first place, Bali governor Made Pastika, has been a vocal supporter of the reclamation project.
With a decision on the fate of the bay imminent, protest activities have increased dramatically. Mass demonstrations have been occurring almost weekly in different parts of Bali. On Sunday, thousands of protesters gathered at a roundabout close to Benoa and last month, representatives of 18 villages in the vicinity of the proposed development flew to Jakarta to meet with Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s Chief of Staff to argue their case. ForBali want him to revoke the controversial
For its part, TWBI has been running a Google advertisement, which appears when the search term ‘Tolak Reklamasi’ (Reject Reclamation) is entered – the rallying cry for the protest movement. The ad links to a new site for the Nusa Benoa project, where it is described as ‘a pioneer of sustainable, community based development, environmental conservation and tourism growth.’ There was no response to a request for comment on the project’s community and sustainability credentials. But in a statement to the local Tribun Bali newspaper, TWBI director Heru Waseso said the protests were normal in a democracy and that the decision now lay with the government, adding that a revised EIA had been submitted 30 days earlier.
Benoa Bay is home to more than 60 natural sites that are sacred to the island’s predominantly Hindu population, as well as 24 temples, some of them located underwater. This has raised concerns within the islands powerful religious institutions and nearby communities, some of whom have even threatened a “puputan” - committing mass ritual suicide - should the project go ahead. The last pupatan took place in 1906 during the final days of Dutch rule. A dramatic threat, perhaps, but what seems sure is that if the EIA gets rubber stamped, the demonstrations will only intensify.
“All the protests by the local communities show just how angry the Balinese are about this,” says ForBali coordinator Wayan ‘Gendo’ Suardana. “They won’t stop fighting until the end.”