Bali’s Last Stand, Over Its Land

By Rio Helmi

The head of the Bali chapter of the Indonesian business association APINDO, Panundiana Khun, apparently said to reporters back in February that land in Bali was no longer economically suitable for agrarian use; it should rather be used for the tourist industry, and that Balinese farmers were better off transmigrating. The subsequent uproar had him scrambling to clarify his position a few days later, claiming it to be a misquote. Whatever the case, he had hit a deep nerve in the Balinese community.

True, the carrying capacity of the island has hit critical mass. Not only in terms of ecological burden but of cultural lebensraum. Ecologically, every high-school kid in Bali knows tensions over water shortage (e.g. huge amounts of water are piped down to Nusa Dua from fertile rice-growing regions to fulfil the needs of 5-star hotels, in which each room consumes around five times a Balinese family’s average of 200 litres), disappearing agricultural land (in the last few years more than 1,000 hectares have been converted or urbanised annually) and a booming population (3.9 million today vs 2.4 in 1978) means tough times ahead.

But what caused the uproar in Khun’s apparent gaffe has more to do with a long-smouldering resentment among many elements of the Balinese community towards the excesses of the tourist industry and foreign investment, especially ever since government approval for BNR (Bakrie Nirwana Resort) on land considered within the spiritual buffer-zone of Tanah Lot was rammed through despite huge island-wide protests.

All acknowledge wealth has been generated by tourism, but many point out the imbalance in the distribution thereof, and the ecologically disastrous nature of many projects. Back in the 1990s a high-ranking (non-Balinese) official in the national government commented during a conversation that “Bali doesn’t belong to the Balinese or to you who live here; it belongs to everybody.”

But more pointed is the discussion of identity and cultural rights. A good deal of a Balinese’s spiritual life centres around his or her ancestors: what he or she inherits from them 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 wellbeing. For example, most homes in a village are the birth-right of the families that inhabit it; but unlike farmland, the land actually belongs to the community and is known as “karang desa” and cannot be sold. It is to help ensure all members of the community are provided for, but also to maintain the integrity and cohesion of the society.

Farm land and such that is actually inherited can be sold but represents a deep link to the ancestors, who are worshipped everyday in the family temple. Then there is what is considered the sacred property of temples, “laban pura,” not only seen as a temple’s “profit centre” but also its spiritual buffer. 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 and the right to use cremation grounds.

The government at local and national levels fails its people by not giving enough attention to Bali’s all-important agricultural sector

What the passion the current ongoing debate on Bali’s zoning stirs up indicates is that this is something of a symbolic last stand for Balinese culture as a living, breathing entity.

As one of my Balinese friends commented recently when I remarked that the days of the Balinese farmer seem to be over: “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.” So as the government at local and national levels fails its people by not giving enough attention and support to the all-important agricultural sector in Bali, foreign investors are injecting capital into it – with the obvious proviso that the Balinese will no longer own their inheritance.

So why has it taken so long for the Balinese community to wake up? There is real concern, but why did it not act before? Part of the problem is that although there is the tightly woven fabric of Balinese culture, the same weave also keeps the Balinese “in their place”: separated by caste and clan. As one vocal Balinese (high caste) said to me: “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 manoeuvres 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 the Disneyland effect will continue to find its market. Last month in the so-called cultural centre of Bali, Ubud, there was even a “marketing museum” opened – much to the bemusement of most locals.

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?

Rio Helmi is a photographer based in Ubud.

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