A couple of days after Indonesia celebrated its 70th year of independence from the Dutch empire, a group of around 500 people on the island of Bali exercised their right to protest — supported by the country's biggest punk band. Before the fall of President Suharto in 1998, this wouldn't have been possible, but since then a generation has come of age that expects and practices free speech.
The protest on August 19 was just the latest surrounding a planned development that will "reclaim" 700-plus hectares of land from Benoa Bay, at the eastern end of Bali's international airport.
While both the protestors and the planners claim to be acting in the island's environmental and economic best interests, what no one disputes is that Benoa Bay, and its adjacent mangrove swamps, are sick.
The area is filled with trash, sewage, and all the other nasty stuff that comes from decades of development with very little urban planning. In addition, it is filling up with silt washing in from at least five watercourses and hundreds of construction projects that dot Bali's densely populated south.
An investment group called PT Tirta Wahana Bali International (TWBI) claims the solution is to create a number of Dubai-esque islands, hosting villas, luxury hotels, a golf course, and possibly even an amusement park. TWBI says it does "value Bali's custom (sic) and culture," that it is working to preserve the mangroves, and that the development will return the bay to its "original state."
The plan, however, has also led to a protest movement called "Tolak Reklamasi" (Halt Reclamation), organized by ForBali, a group that argues that building islands in a major drainage area would cause an increase in flooding. Research from Conservation International supports this, stating that reclaiming even 10 percent of the bay would raise the sea level by 0.4 meters (1.3 feet).
Reclaiming 75 percent, as is the plan, would raise it 1.6m and flood the surrounding low lands, according to the group, who also maintain that local communities have not been properly included in the discussion.
Tolak Reklamasi is predominantly a youth movement and the fact that it can count Indonesia's foremost punk band Superman Is Dead (SID) among its leaders is not coincidental.
Gede Ari Astina, or Jerinx as he's universally known, is SID's drummer an leading personality. Jerinx is a big guy, impressively tattooed, and rarely seen without a hat of some fashion. His collection includes fedoras, flat caps, and his trademark — an oversized Gatsby. All of these could be seen on the heads of protestors as they marched first to the grounds of the Balinese legislature and then to the governor's residence where SID played a set in front of the closed gates.
Bali's governor, Made Pastika, has sided with the investors. They are led by Tomy Winata, one of Indonesia's wealthiest citizens and a man who has been called "an underworld figure" by none other than the US State Department. Pastika, Winata, & co. claim the development will "revitalize" the economy by developing an under-utilized area. They say the real damage from pollution and silt — exacerbated by an elevated toll road cutting through the bay — has already been done. The group even brought in extremely tan soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo in support of "saving" the mangroves.
Land reclamation has been used for centuries around the world. The area of Boston has doubled since 1803 and there's a saying in the Netherlands that "God created the world, and the Dutch created Holland." When land becomes scarce, humans often find ways to make more.
'Then there's the fishermen. Where are they supposed to work?'
And land in Bali has become increasingly precious over the past decade as villas, hotels, and box-shaped stores have been built on rice paddies and other open spaces. The southern portion the island, which includes the capital city Denpasar and the tourist-hub of Kuta, is already congested. Supporters of the project argue that creating new land will relieve some of that strain and have held their own demonstrations in support of "revitalisasi."
Pastika has said that not only would the project create thousands of new jobs, but that the ecological impact would be negligible, perhaps even positive, citing a feasibility study commissioned by TWBI and carried out by researchers at Bali's Udayana University. This maintained that the development would serve as a barrier to future tsunamis and reduce erosion, but has since been retracted by the university. Pastika's favorable decision (which he briefly retracted in 2013) remains in place, however, albeit with conditions that nominally support local communities.
The issue is now in the very full lap of President Joko Widodo (a.k.a. Jokowi), whose 10-month-old administration has been dealt controversy after controversy — some of its own making. Jokowi and maritime minister Susi Pudjiastuti, who has already voiced her reticence over the reclamation, have the power to shut it down with a presidential decree. And this is where the protestors come in. They have applied consistent pressure in Bali and in Jakarta, where Jerinx met with the president in April.
At the August protest, Budi, a young Balinese father who works in the tourism industry, echoed ForBali's platform and told VICE News: "The south is already too crowded and this will only increase traffic, plus the flooding. And then there's the fishermen. Where are they supposed to work?"
Kelly Heber Dunning, a doctoral candidate in natural resource management at MIT, has worked with fishing communities in the area and shares some of the same concerns. She told VICE News that intertidal habitats such as Benoa have huge value, as they "buffer human settlements from erosion, provide habitats for juvenile fish that grow up to be commercially valuable species, purify water with roots that collect and trap detritus, cycle nutrients (from sewage), and so on."
Going further, Dunning noted: "When you take away ecosystem services from fishermen in order to build a luxury destination for visitors, there must be long-term compensation for the lost value of the services this will cause." Across Indonesia, top-down development frequently outpaces the ability of communities to have a real say in their future. But it's clear that this generation of Indonesians can and will stand up to those in power. From the Sumatran countryside to the urban metropolis of Jakarta, disputes over land rights have brought legal action and clashes with police.
While it's remained peaceful in Bali, the ecological, economic, and social stakes are just as high, even when the land only exists in the developer's imagination.
Follow Rowan Kane on Twitter: @rlmkane