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How Bali's Tolak Reklamasi Movement, Emboldened by Victory, Is Trying to Tackle the Rest of the Island's Woes

All's not well on the Island of the Gods.

It all started with an island—or "islands" to be precise. The Indonesian government has been trying to replicate the success of Bali for years with a plan to create ten new "Balis" throughout the country. But someone in the property development arm of Tomy Winanta's massive conglomerate Artha Graha decided that they had a better idea—instead of turning somewhere else into a new Bali, why not just create more islands off the coast of Bali itself?


That project, destined for the Benoa Bay, set off a groundswell of opposition on the tourist island, a kind of organized, grassroots environmental movement that few other places in Indonesia have been able to successfully pull off before. That movement, dubbed "Tolak Reklamasi," or "refuse reclamation," successfully fought the $3 billion USD plan that would've built more than a dozen new islands in an area once designated as a mangroves conservation zone. It was basically a slice of Dubai off the coast of southern Bali, and few people who live on the island were behind the plan.

Today, the reclamation project is nearly dead. Its construction permit expired after the developer PT Tirta Wahana Bali Internasional was unable to get the environmental impact assessment, called an AMDAL in Indonesia, finished in time amid all this opposition (part of the assessment takes into account the views of local residents, most of whom were vehemently against it).

But the Tolak Reklamasi movement lives on, shifting into something looser that reflects the general discontent most Bali natives feel about the future of their island. The reclamation project clearly touched a nerve in Bali. It also opened up a deep vein of resentment and frustration with the way the island developed as it grew from a sleepy stop on the backpackers' trail into one of the most-popular holiday destinations on Earth.

"It's the accumulation of so much injustice toward the local people of Bali, and this case shows everything we've been desperately fighting against since Suharto; the top level conspiracies, the corrupted government, the heartless tourism industry, et cetera," said Gede Ari Astina, a leader in the Tolak Reklamasi movement and drummer/ vocalist in the influential Bali-based punk band Superman Is Dead.


Jerinx playing with Superman Is Dead. Photo by Denny Novikar Nasution

Jerinx, as he is commonly known, is trying to capitalize on the momentum of the Tolak Reklamasi movement to demand the local government put an end to rampant tourism development and instead focus on environmental and cultural protections for the island. He's secured the support of Bali's powerful local Hindu religious councils, called banjar, as well as the voices of the island's most-prominent musicians and athletes, like pro surfer Mega Semadhi.

"A lot of people think Balinese just sit back, relax and be lazy…but after this it’s actually creating a movement and solidarity because we love the island and we don’t wanna let it get ruined,” Mega explained. “After this Reklamasi thing people look after the environment more. They realize we stand together and we have to be aware of our environment and our area."

For decades, Bali has existed as a precarious balancing act. On one side was the tourism industry, which brought in an estimated $15 billion USD last year. On the other side is nearly everything else. The province, one of the wealthiest in Indonesia, has been able to dramatically reduce its poverty rates from around 13 percent to slightly more than four in two decades' time. But all that rapid development comes with a cost for people who call the island home.

"The hardest part is that I get so tired, that sometimes I can't handle it anymore," said Made, a construction worker who regularly works seven day workweeks just to get by in a place as expensive as Bali. "I just break down and cry. When that happens, I get flashbacks of how sad my life is… but there is nothing else I can do. If I don't do this then my family cannot eat."


Jenrix. Photo by Denny Novikar Nasution

The island's statistics make for sobering reading. Massive tourism development projects like this reclamation project, or the new Trump resort in Tanah Lot, threaten the island's culture and land. Then there are bigger issues that are linked to development and threaten the entire island's ability to sustain itself.

There's a water crisis going on. More than half of the island's 400 rivers have already run dry. The water level at Lake Buyan, deep in the island's interior, has dropped some 3.5 meters in recent years, and salt water is leaching into the aquifer, the source of Bali's fresh water, as far as a kilometer inland. All of this has to do with the hotel industry's insatiable appetite for water. The hotels are basically sucking the island dry, and it's pulling salt water into the aquifer, fouling what's left.

Hotels and villas pull as much as 3,000 liters of water out of the ground every single day. And none of this is for drinking. The water in Bali, like in much of Southeast Asia, isn't safe to drink. So all that water is being used for what then? Laundry and excessive showering, according to experts.

“The more tourism goes up, the more the level of the water table goes down,” explained Julen Golabre, a spokesperson for IDEP, an NGO monitoring what they have called an “impending water crisis” in Bali. “It’s what you call the tragedy of the commons—when we all consume a common resource out of self-interest leading to our own demise."


Then there's all that garbage the tourism industry creates. Bali still doesn't have an island-wide system to dispose of all its waste, which means that 11,000 cubic tons of of trash sits uncollected on the streets somewhere. That's thousands of cubic tons of household waste that, once the rainy season hits, gets washed into the rivers and out into the ocean. And it's how you end up with heartbreaking scenes like this:

“It’s pretty fucked up," said Betet Merta, a Balinese pro surfer. "The local surfers understand what is going on, because we need to protect the beach… because we live on the beach, so if the beach dies, we die too. [But] the taxi driver, he doesn’t care about surfing. The guy in the restaurant he throws [rubbish] in the river. It’s hard. They don’t use the ocean. They don’t care. Not a lot of Indonesians surf… people come from Java, from all over the country, and just trash the beach… I see people just empty their cars [of garbage] at the beach."

It's all of this and more that's driving the Tolak Reklamasi movement to expand their focus and try to tackle some of the bigger ills facing modern Bali. The island's tourism boom has made it an economic magnet for the surrounding, poorer regions of Indonesia. And with all that prosperity comes all the stuff that an influx of cash brings—corruption, collusion, and crime, explained Jerinx.

"When you're standing up against greedy investors or fascism, they always have military or powerful figures behind them,” Jerinx said. "Farmers got shot protecting their land. Students kidnapped after protesting greedy investments. Some never found. Some dead."

In Bali, all of this activism can be dangerous. Jerinx has spent the last 20 years punching up against corrupt power structures, both with his band and as an activist, and he's used to the kinds of blowback being outspoken can create. One time, when he was on tour with Superman Is Dead, someone tried to throw acid in his face. Except, in a case of tragic mistaken identity, they hurled it in someone's else's face instead.

"[It was] another musician [who] looks a lot like me," Jerinx said. "The guy is OK now, his face 100 percent back to normal. God bless him."

That's why he's willing to be out there, as the visible face of the Tolak Reklamasi movement. But it's going to take more than a few aging punk rockers to save Bali, and he hopes that the energy and activism of the fight against the Benoa reclamation project sticks around.

“As long as the grassroots are tight, no money or power can defeat us,” Jerinx said. "Our fuels are our love for our home, and it’s endless. Theirs are profits, which are limited."