The puputan struggle against the Benoa Bay reclamation project

Fearful that the project will result in the flooding of some of their villages, the people of Bali have been waging a bitter struggle for the past three years against the reclamation of Benoa Bay which links the island's three important tourist hubs.  Anton Muhajir reports.

FIFTY-year-old Pande Ketut Merta has faithfully participated in a street protest for the last three years. In every protest organised by the Forum Rakyat Bali Tolak Reklamasi (ForBALI - Bali People's Forum to Reject Reclamation), he and the people of Benoa Bay are always present, as was the case in July 2015.

About 1,500 people marched from the east side of the the Niti Mandala Park in Denpasar, the civic centre of  Bali. In a neat file, they walked about 200 metres towards the Bali Provincial Parliament building, carrying posters and banners and shouting slogans as they walked.

Merta wore a T-shirt bearing the words 'Reject Benoa Bay Reclamation'.  For the last three years, I have seen Merta among the thousands of young people participating in such protests. His is a familiar face, always in the frontline.

At times, Merta also made fiery speeches, such as during the July protest. He stood atop a pickup truck and began his oration. 'Benoa Bay is ours, it does not belong to investors. We should not let investors damage it. Reject reclamation of Benoa Bay!' This was instantly followed by the shouts of the participants: 'Reject!'

Layar Priatna is another interesting participant. A year ago, he participated in a protest against the reclamation and took dramatic action. In full traditional Balinese costume, Priatna raised a sword and, with an angry expression, aimed the sword at his chest. Around him some 1,500 people cheered and shouted slogans. 'The people of Bali are prepared to commit puputan to stop the Benoa Bay reclamation,' Priatna shouted, before stabbing his chest. 

Such an action is called ngurek in the Balinese language. It is usually conducted as part of a ritual among the Balinese Hindus. Usually the person conducting ngurek will first be in a trance; he will stab his chest very forcefully, but no blood will be spilled and no wound will result.

Ngurek is a symbolic act to denote the intention to let go of oneself for a higher purpose. That was the case for Priatna, 40, the coordinator of the Renon Community to Reject Reclamation. For him, ngurek  is a symbol of willingness to sacrifice himself, even to the extent of commmiting puputan.

Puputan, in Balinese terminology, means going into battle until the last drop of blood. There were two big wars or puputan on this island that are still remembered today as acts of heroism. They are the Badung Puputan in September 1906 and the Klungkung Puputan of April 1908. Both were waged to fight the Dutch colonial government. 

More than a century later, the Balinese people are determined to pursue another puputan. This time, it will be to fight the investors that want to colonise Benoa Bay in Bali's Kuta Selatan district.

Strategic area

The 'battlefield' of Benoa is located in southern Bali, covering about 1,988 hectares. It lies within the richest parts of Bali encompassing Denpasar city and Badung Regency. It is also very strategic in terms of the tourism economy and politics, being situated in the middle of the 'golden triangle', the heart of Bali's tourism hub: Sanur in the north, Kuta in the west and Nusa Dua in the south.

Sanur is a pioneer in tourism development in Bali. It hosts the first five-star hotel on the island, the Inna Grand Bali Beach, constructed in 1966. To this day it remains a hub for Bali's tourism, especially for tourists who enjoy sunrise scenery.

Kuta, in the west of Benoa Bay, is the heart of tourism. This international village is a magnet for tourists from all over the world. Its spectacular sunsets draw millions of travellers, especially young people, making this area the icon of Bali tourism. 

Nusa Dua in the south is the most elite area in Bali. It hosts the hotel complex for conferences and conventions, managed by the Bali Tourism Development Corporation (BTDC). It includes the Bali International Convention Centre, which has hosted many UN meetings on the environment, including the 2007 UN climate change conference. 

Linking these three important tourism hubs of Bali is Benoa Bay.

Additionally, Benoa Bay is located between two important public facilities: the Benoa harbour in the north and Bali's Ngurah Rai International Airport in the west. These are two of the main entry points into Bali. About 98% of tourists visiting Bali enter through the airport. 

Two years ago, Bali's first tolled highway cut across Benoa Bay. The Bali Mandara toll road, 12.7 kilometres long, was inaugurated in September 2013 and connects Denpasar with the Ngurah Rai Airport, the airport with Nusa Dua, and Denpasar with Nusa Dua. It has become a new route for tourists to visit Nusa Dua.

Eyed by investors   

It is no wonder, then, that many investors want to control Benoa Bay. In 1994, PT Bali Benoa Marina (BBM) came up with plans to develop a world-class cruise ship harbour and marina, hotels, resorts, housing and golf course in the area. The location was exactly the site of the currently planned reclamation. A master plan, formulated by design and construction consultant PT Cameron Chisholm Nicol Indonesia, revealed that this plush project would be developed on four new islands covering 270 hectares, to be reclaimed and built by PT BBM. 

Under PT BBM's 1996 master plan, the four islands were given names and designations. Pulau Utama (Main Island), which would also serve as the ship harbour, would be 43.7 hectares, Pulau Bali Village 39.5 hectares, Pulau Lapangan Golf 164 hectares, and  Pulau Venice 22 hectares. It was clear that the largest island would house an 18-hole golf course, to be surrounded by hotels, resorts and housing areas. The total investment was to be $260 million, and the target market was clearly the wealthy. 

At about the same time, in the northern part of Benoa Bay, another mega-project was underway: the reclamation of Serangan Island. Originally, Serangan, in the south of Denpasar, was an island separated from Bali. It was a turtle breeding site. PT Bali Turtle Island Development (BTID), owned by two of then president Soeharto's sons, Bambang Trihatmojo dan Tommy Soeharto, and the Military Kodam IX/Udayana, wanted to develop tourism facilities here.

For this purpose, PT BTID then reclaimed 481 hectares of land in Serangan, four times the original size of Serangan Island. The company wanted to develop Serangan as a luxury tourism complex. The facilities planned were, among others, a golf course, resorts, lagoons for water sports, a yacht club, a beach clubhouse and villas. Also in the offing were a turtle research centre, hotels and restaurants. 

This was in 1995, and the new island was reclaimed on the southern part of the old island. There is a canal to separate the old island, on which about 2,500 people lived, from the new island, wholly owned by PT BTID.

Although there was opposition from many communities in Bali, including the inhabitants of Serangan itself, the reclamation continued. This was different from the PT BBM project, which did not get off the ground beyond the master plan.

These two ambitious projects were halted due to the 1997-98 economic and political crisis in Indonesia. PT BBM had not begun construction, and the PT BTID development was only about 60% complete. About 75% of the total land in the reclaimed Serangan island is lying idle.

New investment plans

Seventeen years later, Benoa Bay remains a target of investors. This time it is PT Tirta Wahana Bahari Internasional (TWBI) which is planning to build high-end tourism facilities in the area. 

PT TWBI is a Badung Regency-based company dealing in property development, construction and management services. Its director Hendi Lukman is also the director of business development at PT Jakarta International Hotels and Development Tbk. Established in 1969, this company builds and manages hotels, office buildings, shopping centres, apartments and business centres. 

PT Jakarta International is the owner of Hotel Borobudur Jakarta, Discovery Hotel & Resort Management, and PT Danayasa Arthatama Tbk. The latter is the developer and manager of the Sudirman Business Centre, or SCBD Sudirman, in South Jakarta.

Henry Sutanto, who sits on the PT TWBI board, is also involved with PT Kharisma Arya Paksi, owner of Hotel Discovery Kartika Plaza and Discovery Shopping Mall in Kuta. The Kartika Plaza owner also has hotels in Jakarta, Riau and other places. The holding company for all these is the Artha Graha Network, owned by tycoon Tomy Winata.

PT TWBI has had plans to develop Benoa Bay since September 2012. It signed a contract to cooperate with the Community Research and Service Agency (LPPM) of the University of Udayana (UNUD), the largest public university in Bali. The cooperation involves joint research between LPPM and PT TWBI for five years beginning in September 2012. 

LPPM formed a team to conduct a feasibility study on the Benoa Bay area. Its report states that PT TWBI will develop various facilities such as green areas, places of worship, a cultural centre, a Disneyland-type recreational park, social and public facilities, housing and accommodation, commercial areas and sports facilities. At one point there was also talk of building a Formula One racetrack. A marina and beachfront houses would also be built which would have direct access to the harbour so private yachts can come. The main sports facility would be a golf course. 

PT TWBI would also conduct reclamation, much like in the unrealised plans of PT BBM and the partially realised reclamation of Serangan Island by PT BTID. According to the LPPM report, the reclamation would use sand from the southern coast of Bali, i.e., the Sawangan beach, and from Sekotong in neighbouring Lombok island.

Masking the whole plan under claims of 'revitalising' Benoa Bay, PT TWBI's Hendi Lukman said that revitalisation will improve the condition of Benoa Bay, which currently suffers from sedimentation that is threatening the remaining mangroves.

PT TWBI's plans are in line with the national policy under the Masterplan for Acceleration and Expansion of Indonesian Economic Development, known as MP3EI. Under MP3EI, Bali is included in the Bali-Nusa Tenggara corridor, where development would be focused on tourism and food production. Benoa Bay is part of the Investment Focus Zone or Kawasan Perhatian Investasi (KPI), hence the intent to reclaim the bay as per the plans of PT TWBI.

There is a political-economic intent behind the reclamation plan. Firstly, investors want to create and control new lands. Islands would be constructed and these would have value like any other prime land. Bali is a small island where the land holding of investors is limited, so creating new lands would guarantee their future profits. Secondly, the intent is to develop another elite area, where local businesses would not be able to participate, thus creating a monopoly among the big investors.

Many questions have been raised on the feasibility of this plan. For instance, where would the water and electricity come from? How would waste be disposed of? Who will actually be recruited as labour? Where would the sand to reclaim the land come from? What would happen to Bali residents who want to conduct sea water cleansing rituals in Benoa Bay as part of their ancestral customs? What is the cultural value of this plan for Bali? Who will be responsible for mitigating the impacts of the new island construction? All these need answers - answers that have not been forthcoming.


Once it became known to the public, the PT TWBI plan met with opposition. Community groups, particularly in the southern part of Bali, rejected the plan for several reasons.  

For example, while the village of Sidakarya in South Denpasar district is not directly connected to Benoa Bay, two rivers - Tukad Rangda and Tukad Punggawa - that pass through the village flow into the bay. The villagers are concerned that if Benoa Bay is reclaimed, Sidakarya will be flooded during the rainy season.

There is basis for this concern. Sidakarya is only 2 metres above sea level and located about 2 kilometres from the coast of south Denpasar. This makes the village prone to flooding in the rainy season, and indeed it was badly flooded in 2009. According to villager I Made Suardana, every full moon the water from both rivers cannot flow freely into the sea because of their position which is at the same level. Even without reclamation, the people of Sidakarya have had to deal with sea water inundating their village. 'We are sure that if reclamation takes place, we will be flooded,' Suardana said.

Such fears are confirmed by a modelling exercise conducted by Conservation International (CI) Indonesia. According to the Denpasar-based NGO, Benoa Bay is like a surface runoff reservoir for five river watershed areas surrounding it.

Made Iwanatana, a researcher at CI Indonesia, said that reclamation will directly reduce flood water carrying capacity. 'When it rains during high tide, the surrounding areas would be flooded,' he said. These areas are Sanur Kauh, Suwung Kangin, Pesanggaran, Pemogan, Simpang Dewa Ruci, Bandara Ngurah Rai and  Tanjung Benoa. 

Based on this, the villagers of Sidakarya rejected the Benoa Bay reclamation project. They established a group called Jaringan Aksi Tolak Reklamasi Sidakarya (JALAK or  Sidakarya Reject Reclamation Network). Similar groups were formed in other areas, such as Tanjung Benoa Tolak Reklamasi (TBTR) and Forum Pemerhati Pembangunan Bali (FPPB) Kedonganan. They have different reasons for protesting, but the most common is fear of flooding. 

I Gede Sudiana, the head of FPPB in Kedonganan village, said that reclamation would also threaten the local fisherfolk. At present some 200 Kedonganan villagers are fishing in Benoa Bay in the very location targeted for reclamation. 'If our fishing ground is reclaimed, what would we do to make a living?' asked Sudiana.

Other livelihoods could also be undermined by the new tourism facilities in Benoa Bay. Kedonganan is a centre of seafood restaurants owned by local villagers; one can see a line of restaurants stretching along the west coast, facing the Ngurah Rai Airport. 'If there is a new tourism place, one that is supported by big capital, we will not be able to compete,' Sudiana said.

The mushrooming protests against the reclamation of Benoa Bay are in general initiated and coordinated by young people. One of the expressions of protest is through banners and baliho (billboards) placed in the streets. Kadek Tila, a young man who helped in erecting one baliho in Sukawati, about 20 kilometres from Benoa Bay, said they protested against the project out of concern that their village will experience erosion.

According to Tila, the villages in the southern part of Gianyar Regency are vulnerable to the impacts of any reclamation of Benoa Bay. Such areas are mainly the Ketewel, Purnama and Lebih beaches. Until the 1990s, the coast was still tilted towards the sea. But after the reclamation of Serangan Island in 1996, these areas experienced erosion. Many buildings were affected, including cafes, the traditional village meeting stalls and even houses. 'If Benoa Bay is really reclaimed, the beaches in our village will be damaged,' said Tila. He said this project will affect not only the villages in the surrounding areas but also other beaches in Bali.

The voices of dissent found a common register at ForBALI. This forum was initiated by activists, university students and musicians, and many village-level youth groups from all the regencies in Bali have also come on board. As of September 2015, about 70 groups have joined ForBALI. 'The voices of dissent are showing that the Benoa Bay reclamation is indeed a problem for all the people of Bali,' said ForBALI coordinator Wayan Gendo Suardana.

Protests have also taken place in Jakarta, in East Java's Banyuwangi Regency (where the people reject plans to mine the sands of Banyuwangi to be sent to Bali for the Benoa Bay reclamation) and even abroad. There are similar plans for reclamation in other coastal areas of Indonesia, and the protest in Bali is seen as important to halt the other projects. 

The protests take various forms. ForBALI regularly organises street protests in front of the Bali Governor's office and the Bali Provincial Parliament building. Protests are also given voice through musical concerts, social media, discussions, lobbying and even community prayers in the Hindu way. Thousands of people attend these events, coming from various groups such as activists, students, music fans, musicians, housewives, even local entrepreneurs.

Associated with the demands for a halt to the Benoa Bay reclamation plan are calls for the revocation of Presidential Regulation (Perpres) No. 51/2014. This regulation was signed by the then president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. It changed the status of Benoa Bay, which previously was designated as a conservation area, to an economic and tourism area, providing policy support for the reclamation plan. The protests now aim to pressure current president Joko Widodo to revoke this regulation.

Intimidation and scare tactics

In response to the island-wide rejection of the Benoa Bay reclamation project, intimidation and scare tactics were directed at the protesters in various forms: destruction of baliho/banners, initimidation by hoodlums, even arrests. I Kadek Bobby Susila, a young man from Banjar Suwung Kauh in South Denpasar, was among the first to be on the receiving end. He stays at the north of Benoa Bay and, with his friends, have voiced out their rejection of the reclamation plan. They participated in ForBALI and other group protests, and have also erected a baliho calling for rejection of the reclamation. 

Most of the baliho that have been put up bear the message 'Bali Rejects Reclamation. Revoke Perpres No. 51/2014'. Such baliho have sprung up in other areas such as Denpasar, Gianyar, Jembrana, Klungkung, even Bangli in Bali's hill region. Often, however, just a few days after the baliho appear, they would be torn down, and it is not known by whom. One destruction spree occurred in August 2014; in one night alone many baliho were torn down in 11 places in Denpasar.  

Hoodlums would also make an appearance at the sites of protests staged by ForBALI or other groups. Kadek Duarsa, a Tanjung Benoa community representative and an activist with TBTR, said that in August 2014, a clash almost erupted between the protesters and these hoodlums. 'I told the police and army officials, let the hoodlums come and watch our protests. But if any one is beaten up or our equipment is damaged, we will make Tanjung Benoa a battlefield fighting them,' he said.

The villagers of Sidakarya have also experienced intimidation and even arrest. Four members of JALAK, I Wayan Saniyasa, I Wayan Adi Jayanatha, I Made Murdana and I Wayan Tirtayasa, were arrested by the police in March 2014. They were accused of threatening the Governor of Bali during a protest. 

The arrests were condemned by many community groups at the national and local levels. Groups such as Greenpeace, Kontras and Walhi (a national-level environment and human rights group) wrote letters to the police. Almost a month later, due to pressures from the public, the four were released after their detention was suspended. 'But we will continue to demand revocation of the plan to reclaim Benoa Bay,' said Tirtayasa after his release.

The voices of people such as Tirtayasa, Duarsa and Ketut Merta continue to ring out today, three years after the first protest was launched. 'We will continue to fight until the reclamation plan is stopped,' said Duarsa.

Anton Muhajir is a freelance journalist based in Bali and has been involved in the environmental and human rights movements. This article was adapted, added on to and translated into English by Hira Jhamtani.

*Third World Resurgence No. 301/302, September/October 2015, pp 29-33