They’re Paving Paradise, Again

The high-pitched whine of a power saw cutting through wood never seems to stop in Bali, with the island caught in a full-swing villa craze for investment or vacation homes, to the point where it is starting to shake the close-knit fabric of Balinese society.

For 80 years since the 1920s, when the first crop of western mystics washed up on its shores, visitors have been proclaiming Bali ruined, although it has continued to enchant generations of travelers for its dance, sculpture, painting, beaches and spirituality. But today, development is sounding an ominous new note.

Large construction companies are coming into areas like Sanur in the south of the island, which had steadfastly maintained its Balinese cultural roots, and clearing large swaths of land. They are catering to the investment bankers and financiers of Hong Kong and Singapore who are flush with a decade of loose money and who are pouring into Bali to build vacation homes.

“It’s like a patchwork now, with a rice field next to a villa, and so on,” says Eddy, who grew up in Bali and who, like many Balinese, has a single name. He now commutes between Jakarta and the resort island. “Worse than that is what it is doing to families. People are losing their land, and their inheritance, overnight.”

He shakes his head. “They get all that money, but all of it can be gone in a snap in a bet on a cockfight.”

Most of the development is taking place in Bali’s south. There are currently 36 hectares of beachfront property under development at the western end of Sanur, formerly home to sidewalks stalls and other local businesses. These have been cleared in readiness for six large villa projects and a brand new five-star hotel, according to an article published in the Bali Advertiser in November. The land here has always commanded premium prices, so developers shied away from Sanur in the past, but that is changing as the large construction firms move in. PT Restu Maharani, a Jakarta-based company, has reportedly begun development on a six-hectare property that encompasses 400 meters of Sanur beachfront.

Ibu Kartini, founder of the Bali Organic Association (BOA), is worried about how the construction is affecting the environment.

“Bali is a small island. I feel it’s very dangerous to build villas on the mountains or in the rice fields because of water usage and the deterioration of soil due to all the chemicals that are being used, such as fertilizers and pesticides,” she says.

“A long time ago the Balinese followed the rules of our ancestors. We were told that it wasn’t good to build close to the beach, mountains or rivers, because these are important areas which need to be protected. In the past, it has been the tradition in Bali to build only temples or shrines in these sacred areas so that the environment is protected and honored.”

Bali’s timber resources are limited, so the construction material is often sourced from elsewhere, much of it from the illegal timber trade. In December 2006, security forces in seized 5,532 square meters of timber on 18 ships that were reportedly bound for Bali and Java. Last November, a shipload of wood, again from East Kalimantan, was intercepted on its way to Bali.

“Between 2 and 6 million cubic meters of timber is illegally cut down every year. This is the formal record, but informally it is closer to 60-80 million cubic meters per year,” says Yoga Sofyr, who is from Kalimantan and an activist for the preservation of the forests there. “This has occurred from 2001 to 2007.”

Many of the villas, he says, are built out of rare Ulin or Kayu Besih (ironwood), illegally logged in Kalimantan. It takes about 100 years to grow this wood 50cm in width.

But it is not just villas that are using this rare wood, Yoga contends. Most gazebo companies in Bali are also building with Kayu Besih, Ulin or Merbau. All of these types of wood are categorized in the forestry index as being rare and illegal for sale, yet some developers allegedly find their way around the laws by paying large bribes to the heads of tribes in Kalimantan. That money is seldom shared with the rest of the village.

Some real estate developers are calling on their colleagues to work together on eco-friendly projects in Bali.

Terry Nilsen, a general consultant for Paradise Property, said, “I think it’s important that real-estate developers be more conscious of the environment. We’ve been in touch with the Bali Health Association and the government to get support for a long-term strategy on where Bali is going. Unfortunately, the government lacks interest in sewer systems, etcetera.”

When asked what Paradise Properties is doing to preserve the environment, Nilsen said, “We try to enhance the Bali feeling in our developments by keeping the rice fields and the surrounding nature.”

Roy Boedi Utama, the co-owner of Architecture Studio, said he also tries to build in a low-impact manner.

“We try to encourage the client to still keep the structure of the property if they don’t need to demolish it, because that would be a waste of the material,” said Roy.

“Another simple solution is that we have a lot of solar energy available in Indonesia. Not all of the people try to use it, because they mostly use electric water heaters. I understand that the price of solar is very expensive, but I hope in the future they will use all solar energy here.”

Bali’s proposed answer to the increasing problem of electricity shortages and blackouts is to build a coal-fired power plant, despite the effect of fossil fuels on the environment and human health. According to the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, plans are currently underway for unit 1 of the Rembang Coal Fired Power Plant to begin operation in September 2009, and unit 2 in December 2009. One of these power plants will be located in northern Bali. Their estimated cost is US$1.5 billion.

In many ways, Bali is a victim of its own success. For decades, people have sought it out as a beautiful refuge. But without more sustainable development practices, it may not be a refuge much longer.