Bali’s Burden – Sharing the Load

These days when I look out my office window in the small town of Ubud, inanely voted ‘best city in Asia’ by Condé Nast, I can only see a kilometer long traffic jam. And even when I am not watching I hear engines rumbling and the sharp trill of the whistles of locally appointed, sarong-clad parking attendants frantically trying to extract order out of chaos.

This is my street, it has been for 25 years. But it doesn’t bear any resemblance to the quiet backstreet I moved to in the 1980s. This isn’t a rant about traffic. At least not just traffic. It’s beyond that. What has happened on this island is that it has gone past its carrying capacity in terms of infrastructure, environment, and socio-cultural balance. That’s longhand for “a mess”.

There are all kinds of startling examples. You know all those villas you see with beautiful rice field views? On average 750 hectares of rice fields a year are converted into urban sprawl since the 1980s, not a little of it going to tourism related projects. Tellingly, when I googled ‘rice field conversion in Bali’ up high on the list were sites selling villas.

Need more elbow room? Currently the island’s population stands at 3.9 million. In 1978 when I first moved to Ubud permanently the population was just a bit more than half of that – around 2.4 million. Since the 1960s more than 200,000 Balinese have ‘transmigrated’ under an official World Bank sponsored program, leaving their island to carve out a new existence on ‘outer’ islands. Ironically, now there are more than double that number of migrant workers have arrived in Bali from other islands to compete for jobs here.

The air has become polluted – there is a permanent ring of brown smog around the island that is plain to see when you arrive by air. Water is fast becoming a flash point – per room the average hotel uses around 300 liters of water daily, five times as much water as the average Balinese family of 4-5 people. Do the math’s: there are upward of 80,000 hotel rooms on the island today, four times the number recommended by a government survey done years ago.

Crime, not to be left behind, has also increased. In 2009 there were 10,453 cases reported, up 22% from the year before. Bearing in mind that in countries like Indonesia there are huge numbers of unreported crime, that is a pretty sobering statistic for so-called paradise. Recently in the area around Ubud, where my children grew up running wild in the rice fields, there have been two young children kidnapped.

I really didn’t want to get into so much detail, or turn this into a simple litany. But sometimes detail helps to visualize the change. So with these enormous changes and chaotic development why isn’t there more being done? Sure one can’t stop time and change, but surely one can minimize the damage? Is it really beyond our capacity to alleviate the situation?

In the 1990s, a group of friends and I started an environmental foundation. We were concerned about rubbish disposal as well as water pollution and overexploitation. A certain high ranking, national-level tourism official at the time grumbled at me to the effect that Bali didn’t belong to locals but to the tourism industry. As those were Suharto days there really wasn’t much else to do but swallow, though we did our best to stand up against what we considered outrageous projects.

What was already clear then was that Bali is an economic powerhouse, extremely lucrative to those who were well positioned. Would there ever be a “just king” entering to the rescue? Then came the heady early days of Reformasi in 1998 when Suharto first fell. Suddenly the catch word was “empowerment”. But since then we have fallen back into a similar pattern of apathy and pessimism.

A couple of years ago the current governor, Mangku Pastika, came into office with a slew of promises. One of them was vastly improved public transport to ease the traffic. Now, finally, we hear that in October or November the “SARBAGITA” (an acronym of Denpasar, Badung, Gianyar, Tabanan) bus system is to start trials – on three of the 17 planned routes. Of course I am ready to give it a chance, yet with motorcycle outlets still selling literally thousands of scooters a month I am not overly optimistic. Hopefully this ‘affordable, convenient and comfortable’ system doesn’t experience too many delays.

But let’s not imagine the whole situation in Bali depends on Mangku Pastika’s whim and will. Since ex-President Habibie’s rushed decentralization that was rammed through legislation in 1999, power shifted dramatically from governors down to the next echelon, the bupatis or ‘regents’. What was glossed over was the fact that overnight, throughout Indonesia, the demand for highly trained and educated government officials would go through the roof. Imagine that from having specialized staff manning specific sectors in some 29 provincial governments, suddenly we needed qualified staff to handle similar sectors in more than 500 kabupaten or regency government offices. Eleven years later we are still shorthanded.

Decentralization also meant less supervisory authority over decisions made. Kabupatens became fiefdoms. Ironically it became more desirable in some ways to be Bupati rather than higher ranking governor, and all manner of abuse popped up over the country. Bali was no exception, and nowadays nobody seems to care about strangling the goose that laid the golden egg.

Given the fact that half the court cases brought by President SBY’s government against corrupt officials have ended in acquittals, the prospects for that deterrent mechanism don’t look good.

What we need now is to wake up – we are inches away from hitting the wall. It will take not only inspired leadership and firm political will to push through initially unpopular measures and sacrifice, but also very professional management. There needs to be a real, working partnership between community and government re-instilling civic pride and responsibility. Neither on their own can manage this mess.

4 Responses to “Bali’s Burden – Sharing the Load”

  1. Lia Bakes

    I have just read this report on BTF & had to check out your site. How well written this is & so true.
    I have been going to Bali annually since Aug 2001. Like so many other Aussies I have “adopted” a Bali family & other locals to help where I can. This of course, draws me back to Bali every year. Yes I have noticed that especially over the last 2-3 years the traffic has become horrific. I was shocked when my “Bali daughter” told me of thoughts the Government had for possible over passes &/or other measures to cope with traffic. This would totally destroy the beauty of Bali. I believe it would be far better to have a reliable public transport system. This would surely cut down the pollution & traffic. How many times have we all seen a taxi with just one customer in it. I have done the same myself when only traveling short distances. I would have ridden my bicycle if the traffic wasn’t so bad.
    Yes, the beauty of the simplicity of Bali has been totally destroyed.
    I could say so much more, but everything I can say is in total agreement with you.
    Fortunately my Bali family & friends often take me to their villages. Back to the real simplicity of Bali. The side of Bali I really love.

  2. Jane Fischer

    Rio, a laudable piece worthy of serious attention. Great history and criticism. Best punch was your concise constructive conclusion. “There needs to be a real, working partnership between community and government re-instilling civic pride and responsibility.” All that’s missing is your offer to fill in the leadership role and recruit others. You are certainly qualified. Start with your own community of Ubud, please. How can the rest of Bali preserve their culture for the next generation if Ubud and outlying Gianyar doesn’t? What about a type of Heritage Society with a multi-cultural membership? Peace, Jane

    • Rio Helmi

      A heritage society might not be a bad idea. It all depends on the membership of course – if you can attract people with some
      political/social presence it might make some impact.


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