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Overdevelopment will not only erode Bali's environment, but its tourism market as well. All of the island's economic opportunities will have dried up when visitors find high-rise hotels instead of the tranquility they traveled for.

A string of letters the height of a man stand in the middle of a lush padi field in Bali. “Not For Sale”, they spell.

The words are not scarecrows meant to frighten off birds. They are meant to keep away investors, says Gede Agus, who put them up about three years ago.

“I got fed up of fending off people constantly knocking on my door asking me to sell my land. the 32-year-old graphic artist told The Straits Times, proudly showing off the letters he made out of wood.

“They want to build villas, a hotel or their luxury homes,” he said.

The 2,000 sq m of land he inherited from his parents six years ago in a sub-district of Ubud is flat, making it attractive for development. A Japanese man offered him double its value to convert it into a luxury private villa but he’s not biting. Instead, Agus says his precious view is one he can gaze out on for inspiration during breaks from his work in the design studio he built overlooking the field.

In another village 20 minutes away, Ketut Sudarsa, 42, is under pressure. As the only property owner along Nyuh Kuning district still holding on to his 2,000 sq m padi field, offers have been raining down on him from both local and foreign investors.

While some padi farmers have allowed investors to develop part of their land in return for rent, others are fighting to keep their entire properties from the clutches of interested parties. They fight off lucrative purchase offers almost daily.

Indeed, Bali is the hottest ticket in Indonesia for property development with tourism growing an average of 10 per cent annually in the last five years, and reaching 2.88 million arrivals last year.

This year’s figure is expected to exceed a record 3 million, a far cry from years of depressed tourism following the bomb blasts in 2002 that killed 202 people, and another in 2005, which killed 26. But Bali’s charm has for long drawn many visitors.

Before it experienced mass tourism, it was a playground for the rich and famous as early as the 1920s. The idyllic setting and friendly locals inspired Charlie Chaplin, who visited in 1932, to make a film poking fun at the Europeans and Dutch colonials who began their early attempts at developing the place by building roads and harvesting more rice for themselves.

But the latest wave of mass tourism has had undesirable side effects. Massive traffic jams plague the island’s mostly narrow roads and rubbish from increased commercial activities has piled up along the beaches.

Lax enforcement has seen land conversions go unchecked, especially under-the-table deals between locals eager to cash in on their land with investors who are willing to pay.

“From 2007 to now, Bali has lost 5,000ha of agricultural land, or about 1,000ha yearly to tourism development,” says Professor Wayan Widya from Bali’s Udayana University.

The rate of loss between 2008 and now has gone up by 30 per cent from the period between 2002 and 2007, in tandem with the island’s rising tourism activities, he told The Straits Times.

The shrinking amount of land available has threatened Bali’s self-sufficiency in rice.

“I call this overdevelopment,” says Prof Widya, who also chairs a committee on preserving subak, the unique irrigation system seen in Bali’s famed tiered rice fields. The fields are listed by Unesco as a piece of world heritage.

In Bali’s southern coast, Kuta is known for bars selling cheap beer, playing throbbing music and filled with raucous crowds. It is also famous for its packed beaches crawling with touts and the infamous “Kuta cowboys” or gigolos.

The adjoining Seminyak and Legian areas pitch themselves as more sophisticated, with their boutiques, chic restaurants and bars, although many fear it could gradually go the way of Kuta, which has become so trashy it has turned off many visitors.

The government has earmarked Nusa Dua — a hamlet that juts out from the southernmost part of the island — as the premier location in Indonesia for global events such as the Apec or WTO meetings. The area is home to 700-room resorts and convention centres like the Bali Nusa Dua, where the Miss World contest was moved to from Jakarta this year.

The mushrooming developments have clogged irrigation channels to rice fields inland, often drying them up and driving up the cost of tending the land.

Made Suarnatha, from environmental non-government organisation Wisnu Foundation, said: “These are tough times for farmers to make a decent living so they are tempted to let go of their land for fast but huge money.”

Farmers can earn as little as 2.5 million rupiah (US$197.36) monthly for one hectare of land, just 600,000 rupiah ($49.20) above Bali’s minimum wage.

Said Sudarsa: “It is hard work tending to land but my land is a symbol of the link to ancestors. So I consider this a priceless asset.”

The Indonesia Employers Association in Bali has urged the government to take tough action and impose sanctions on what it calls rogue investors who manipulate the system to buy land illegally.

The Bali chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) is going further and demanding a moratorium on construction of tourism facilities. Earlier this year, a Walhi-led coalition of NGOs sued the Bali governor for approving land conversions in a mangrove area, in breach of environmental laws.

“We are grateful that Bali has been prosperous because of tourism. But let’s pause for a while and take stock of the environmental destruction,” said Walhi’s Bali chapter chairman Wayan Gendo Suardana.

For others, holding on to their land also means holding on to Bali’s charm.

“We are spiritual people. To me, owning land and not disturbing it is taking care of Bali’s soul,” said Agus.

“If we allow more padi fields to be converted, someday these views will become scarce, an irony since the main draw for most tourists here is to seek tranquillity by being amid padi fields,” he added.

(c)2013 the Asia News Network (Hamburg, Germany). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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Tags: bali, development, indonesia

Photo credit: Rice paddies in Lovina, Bali, Indonesia. Rachael Taft / Flickr

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