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Artists protesting against development projects in Bali
Artists protesting against development projects in Bali
Nicole Curby

BALI — In the Indonesian resort island of Bali, music hasn't always been political. But news of a Dubai-style development has galvanized local musicians and artists.

The development involves reclaiming 700 hectares of Benoa Bay in southern Bali to make way for a string of artificial islands complete with resorts, shopping centers, theme parks and high-end apartments. A consequent tolak reklamasi or "reject reclamation" movement has inspired protest songs like one by the folk band Nosstress.

Copok, a singer and guitarist for the local band The Bullhead, explains why residents are against the development. "They will put culture on the island but it will be a plastic culture. We have real culture. It is buildings and people. They have artificial culture. They claim that all of Bali is there like Indonesia Miniature Park or Walt Disney," Copok says.

Since the project was first approved by the Indonesian government in December 2012, a mass movement has been gathering steam. Across the island, vibrant banners are strung up at traffic intersections and street corners with the "reject reclamation" slogan.

Demonstrations take over the streets on a regular basis, music concerts and art events campaign against the development, and now communities across the island are compiling an album of protest songs sung by local children.

Copok says it's crucial that people understand what the development means. "This movement is purely to save your home. The developer promises heaven, but the surroundings will be destroyed," Copok explains.

At the Taman Baca garden and library, a hangout for the movement's volunteers, activists imagine a different future for Bali — one where excessive development can be curtailed.

"People use art to move and fight against the government, against the investor. We make an event using art, music, go-go dancing, drawing, mural art, street art. And other young people who don't know about it become interested. What is this? What are they talking about?" explains Adi Apriyanta Parma, a Balinese student.

Ketut Putra, the vice president of Conservation International in Indonesia, says activists want to ensure there's no harm to the environment or local culture. "We don't reject development, we love development. But we need to design the development that we want to minimize or even have no impact at all on our environment, on our culture," Putra says.

The project is being developed by Tirta Wahana Bali International, a company controlled by influential Indonesian businessman Tommy Winata.

The company promised that the project will be environmentally responsible and culturally sensitive in an area that has at least 70 sacred Hindu sites. But the environmental impact of building artificial islands will be devastating, says Putra. "From the perspective of, for example, fisheries, the reclamation may potentially reduce or even fully alter the entire coastal habitats for 80% of marine species we have in Bali," he says.

Since the movement gained traction, police have warned musicians like Sony Bono of the band Nymphea not to mention the project at their gigs.

Authorities had also banned discussion of the development at an international event and beat up peaceful demonstrators in the past. But Bono refuses to be intimated despite what he describes as an overwhelming culture of silence in Bali.

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A sign for "Reject reclamation" movement Photo: Nicole Curby

"We call it, koh ngomong ... In English language, ‘I don't want to talk about it.' It's become our habit. So with us musicians, we try to break that habit. So maybe if we use our language — music, through music we can break that habit," Bono says.

The protest had largely been carried out by Bali's youth as older residents were initially reluctant to speak out. About 80,000 Balinese are estimated to have been killed in the communist massacres in 1965 and 1966, and those events are still remembered, Parma says. "Everything the government says, the old people only say "yes' and "ok," "yes' and "ok." They are afraid history will repeat again. The young people try to fight against that, you know," he adds.

But now things are changing. Many people from older generations added their weight to the campaign earlier this year — four years after the movement first began. Balinese are now pressuring the Indonesian administration to step in and stop the project.

If the Environmental Impact Assessment currently under review is accepted, the project will get the go ahead for construction. Residents agree this is an important year for Bali's future.

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