Bali monuments to a man's greed

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 August, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 August, 2001, 12:00am

THE HOUSES BUILT high on green rolling hills which stretch down to stunning cliffs and sea offer a prospect of suburban living Bali-style - until the cow wanders in and munches on greenery by the door.


From afar, these homes look fine, perched on empty land near the Ulawatu cliffs on Bali's southern Bukit Peninsula. Up close, they are clearly somebody's dream gone wrong. Some have no window frames left; electrical fittings and cables have gone. The foliage is pressing against the walls.


On the roads which wind through this spacious estate, similar signs of confusion abound. Bits of road are falling away, lamp-posts have been scavenged, and half-constructed concrete shells are scattered in the undergrowth.


Another surreal landscape is found at Pulau Serangan, or Turtle Island. Here, the view is less benign. Harsh winds whip across stretches of landfill flinging up biting dust and plastic waste. Occasional patches of scrub provide little shade. A guard post is unmanned.


Local residents, huddled in wraps against the wind, tell of how it used to be when a natural lagoon provided rich fishing grounds. Now the villagers tend lonely stalls, offering soft drinks and trinkets to less than half a dozen visitors a day.


What happened here? Both developments appear stuck in a time warp. The emptiness is eerie. Markers on the ground suggest ambitious plans for playgrounds intended to bring new income from tourists and potential residents.


But only the detritus is left, and people who used to live off these lands are bitter. 'It was Tommy Suharto,' says a stallholder on Turtle Island. 'He promised us many things, and nothing happened.'


Through the Turtle Island Development Corporation, former president Suharto's youngest son had come to build a vast project here and also at the Pecatu Graha expanse on the Ulawatu cliffs.


Tommy Suharto has become a fugitive since his father's fall from power. He is on the run from a jail sentence for a land scam and linked with bombings and the murder of a judge. But before all that happened, he had come here with his cronies, including former governor of Bali Ida Bagus Oka, with blueprints for change, offering dreams of a new life to the locals. Whether they liked it or not, and many did not, these people were forced off their land. Some, with the notion of new incomes, were excited about the plans.


Then the Suharto clan fell from power when the former president was deposed in May 1998, and the economy came under pressure. The impression that activities were stopped mid-breath, idled almost overnight, is borne out by locals' tales of sudden loss.


First they lost their land and their traditional livelihoods. Then hopes evaporated when the investors left. On Turtle Island, the original village was not destroyed, and residents there are close enough to Kuta to seek work elsewhere.


On Pecatu Graha's 650 hectares, the eviction was more brutal, backed by military personnel called up by Tommy's connections. Amid that expanse, 123 hectares used to form a village for 100 families who, though without formal title to the land, had lived there for centuries. Developers with henchmen in tow refused to pay compensation, offering five million rupiah (then about HK$15,500) as a 'gift' to each family instead.


'What was done was destroying the law, because according to the land-reform law, it is the right of farmers to stay on the land if they had been there for generations,' says Putu Wirata, a leading member of the Bali Corruption Watch. 'The Government and Tommy's crowd did not give compensation. They broke up the land and even the temples.'


A team of lawyers is pursuing the case through the courts, and only last month a group of farmers were at the local parliament demanding five months of back pay from the Pecatu Graha project, which is now in the hands of the Indonesian Bank Restructuring Agency.


'A lot of the farmers were terrorised, and two were taken to court for showing disrespect to the project guards. They got 10 months in jail. Police used tear gas when they were clearing the land. So the people saw their homes bulldozed and have since become even more poor,' says Mr Wirata.


That fear was still evident on a recent visit to the area. One old lady with a bundle of salvaged wire and a bag of wood on her shoulder was too scared to speak to a journalist. When asked what happened to her, she shook her head and scuttled away.


It takes a while to spot any other human being, although a few aged individuals appear to pluck at the bushes or tend the cows.


Suddenly, out of the green expanse comes the roar of a motorbike or the whine of a day-tripper's jeep. With surf boards strapped to the side, here come the Australian tourists who, thanks to Tommy, have a new land route on decent roads to what they call Dreamland Beach.


A few enterprising former residents are setting up warungs (food and drink stalls) on the newfound surfers' mecca. Others are daring to come back and stake a claim with sticks in the ground, and one lone home still functions. But the legal status remains disputed. Bali Corruption Watch says this was state land and should never have been scooped up for luxury homes and a golf course.


Since the hoped-for buyers from Hong Kong, Japan and Jakarta never appeared and there's no money left in the project, no one cares, except the dispossessed and the lawyers offering their services free of charge.


Turtle Island is more blatantly a case of bad planning, activists say. The environmental-planning officers said the lagoon should not be filled in, but government functionaries aligned to the Suhartos forced every institution involved to approve reclamation of about 200 hectares.


In the end, they created 390 hectares and half-built an ugly bridge, ending the area's life as an island. In the past, locals say, visitors enjoyed a boat ride to the island, bringing income to those who ran the boats. Now, the bridge takes visitors past the festering Suwung rubbish dump on to a scorched-earth wasteland.


'Many people here are angry with the Suhartos,' says a woman who refuses to offer her name. 'And many people now are very poor.' Near where she stands, a couple of new but deserted restaurants rot away in bright heat. The best fishing grounds are gone, as is the opportunity to plant patches of rice.


Here too, Suharto's military played a role. Environmentalists such as Made Mangku recall how the men came to his home at night to threaten him away from his anti-reclamation campaign. A group of activists who used speed boats to make their point around Turtle Island were met with gunfire.


'The currents around Turtle Island are all broken up from the reclamation,' says Mr Mangku. 'The problem is that the economy of the people there is finished. They used to find crab, shrimp and lobster in the lagoon because it's also close to the mangroves. Almost a thousand people used to make their livings here.'


He's arguing for a re-jigged plan involving the extraction of about half the landfill, leaving enough for a hotel and golf course but leaving the sea to reclaim its life. It would be good to get rid of the bridge, too, he says, as it currently provides easy access to criminals to dump unwanted people or trash on the 'island'. The promised turtle museum and fish market have never appeared. Nor has the public beach, nor a new cemetery to cater to the mixed village of Hindus and Muslims.


To the many Bali lovers who care for their environment, the fall of the Suhartos came not a moment too soon. It stopped alleged plans to build a second airport on Pulau Penida but was too late to halt other scars, such as the development around Tanah Lot temple. A hotel and golf course offer a different kind of surrealism there, with sculptured lines of foliage appearing to parody the curves of rice terraces now lost.


It's clear that Suharto's centrist rule, his perversion of the legal system and the licence given to his offspring's rampant greed has created large chunks of Indonesia where no one knows who owns what anymore - except the villagers, who are only fitfully finding ways to assert unclear rights.


In Bali, where the tourism-driven economy is unevenly bringing wealth, the stakes are higher than average. More involvement in development planning is needed by the locals if more scars on the landscapes are to be avoided.


'If our government and the private sector don't open their minds, beyond just getting profit for themselves, then we are becoming too vulnerable to tourism,' said Nyoman Erawan, an economics professor at Bali's Udayana University and an expert on the impacts of tourism.


Policy buffs such as Mr Erawan say much needs to be done and much could be acted on by enlightened local administrations. The tax incentives offered for tourism developments, for example, should be redirected to farmers. Taxes in the rich southern districts should be spent on schools and hospitals in poorer areas.


In particular, he argues, the ancient 'Subak', a system of land management to ensure every villager gets enough irrigation water for his rice terrace, should be expanded and updated to provide a collective model for distributing benefits.


Those concerned about obtaining justice for Bali's displaced people and in redressing development blueprints took heart recently when former governor Oka was at last put in jail. He was charged with corruption and blamed for approving the developments which went ahead at Tanah Lot, Pecatu Graha and Turtle Island.


But he is just part of a system which is breaking down and is yet to provide any fresh hope to residents.


Vaudine England ([email protected]) is the Post's Jakarta correspondent