The early evening sunset vista from the beach at Double Six is magnificent as usual. The guy sitting at the next bench – a tourist here at the end of his stay – is sipping morosely at his Bintang and saying to his wife: “They’re ruining Bali. Money is the root of all evil, you know.” And because I can’t resist it, I just have to ask: “Who’s the ‘they‘ that are ruining Bali?” I don’t bother to correct his Jesus quote to “The love of money is the root of all evil”, because I already know who he means. I just want to hear him say it – and he obliges: ”The bloody developers, of course”, he mutters.
The focus of his attention is the broad sweep of beach towards Tuban, where the centrepiece is the stark and architecturally intrusive Discovery Mall. He obviously hasn’t visited recently, because he asks: “How long has that thing been there?” Old news for us perhaps, but for those whose memories of Bali are untainted by the rampant over-development of recent years, some of the ‘improvements’ to Bali’s hospitality and commerce sectors come as an unpleasant surprise. He recounts how his current trip delivered a number of unpleasant shocks as he re-visited the magical places of his past, only to discover that they had been ‘developed’. For him, ‘developed’ was a synonym for debased, diminished or destroyed.
“Have you seen Dreamland now?” he asks rhetorically, because he is basically talking to himself with no input required from me. “Used to be a great beach. Used to spend the day there in the little beach warungs … all gone. Bloody monstrous hotel there, and some Klapa place there now -and the bloody parking costs 15,000″. He goes on in this vein for quite a while. I just listen, because when you live in Bali, that’s all you can really do. I don’t mention the numerous examples of inappropriate villa development. I don’t talk about height restrictions and beach-front setbacks being openly flouted by arrogant entrepreneurs, or ugly concrete blockhouses being built ostensibly in the “Bali Modern” style, or sacred temple land being turned into a parking lot in Seminyak, or the huge multi-storey hotel under construction on the beach at Batu Belig …
When he fumes about local authorities granting permits for all manner of abominations, I avoid telling him that the practice here is to build whatever you want, then buy a permit when it is finished. He wouldn’t understand. He has had enough disappointment for one week; why should I add to his troubles?
And I don’t disabuse him of the false notion that big, bad greedy developers are to blame, because everyone needs a convenient scapegoat. Sure, developers push the envelope, take short cuts, negotiate ruthlessly, work the system, pay bribes (sorry, ‘facilitation fees’) and generally behave like the Type A personalities that they are. Unless they are, or were, connected to the government, in which case they just bully their proposals through. Developers are in the business of making money, not creating eco-sensitive, culturally appropriate and sustainable architectural marvels. It’s their job, and they do it successfully all over the world, not just in Bali.
No doubt one of these developers is behind the new Kayu Raja Villas project in the Oberoi area. A long, skinny 70 are plot of land has been earmarked for 58 villas of about 100 square metres each. It will be like living in the Orient Express, though probably not as comfortable. Anticipated people load: 232 residents and staff. It is too simplistic to blame developers alone for a misconceived project like this and the others dotted all over Bali.
See, the thing is, someone local had to sell them the land in the first place. Then someone else, again local, had to ‘approve’ the often ill-conceived plans produced by some of these entrepreneurs, and then work out a profitable little ‘on-going fee’ scheme. And of course, the cash-flow that underpins these transactions, and lubricates the approvals and permit process is enormous. Sadly, it also seems to be irresistible to local Balinese landowners and officials regardless of a project’s worth, or any potential damaging effects. Naturally, there is no consultation with the wider community. Foreigner input, especially from qualified personnel, is actively discouraged. Local identity Susi Johnston has written that any attempt to discuss more viable development solutions with local power brokers for any project fails. It is typically met with the dismissive response: “We know better, it’s our island, you are just a tamu“. I believe she is spot on.
So the locals in power here, having entered into a Faustian bargain with the devil developers are basically telling any critics to shut up, and if they don’t like it, to go away. Bali’s birthright, in fact its very heritage, is being prostituted by pimps for short-time monetary gain. The love of money is truly the root of all Bali’s evils, but ultimately, when it all falls in a heap in the not-too-distant future, who will shoulder the responsibility? The tamu, of course. Because when it’s your island, you get to make all the rules, which means taking none of the blame.