DENPASAR, Indonesia — Hundreds of people in Bali are celebrating a key victory against a multi-billion-dollar land reclamation project that would have destroyed vast swaths of mangroves on the resort island.
Aug. 25 marked four years since PT Tirta Wahana Bali Internasional (TWBI), a property development unit of Indonesian tycoon Tomy Winata’s Artha Graha conglomerate, was granted a concession to develop Benoa Bay, home to a mangrove forest. Its permit allowed it to build artificial islands for a convention center, hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues, spanning a total of 700 hectares (1,730 acres).
Under Indonesian law, however, if a permit is not renewed after four years, it is automatically cancelled. And that’s the case now with TWBI, which never received government approval to extend its permit. This stemmed from the environment ministry not approving the developer’s environmental impact assessment, known locally as the AMDAL, for its project plans.
An AMDAL is required for any project with the potential to cause disruption, from environmental degradation to posing a national security risk. The lengthy permitting process for development projects in Indonesia is also meant to give the general public a chance to weigh in.
The Benoa Bay reclamation project, valued at 30 trillion rupiah ($2 billion), has from the start been widely criticized by conservationists because it would clear much of the bay’s rich mangrove ecosystem that feeds the local fishing community. Thousands of Indonesians, from environmental activists and local fishermen to artists and rock musicians, have staged a series of protests and demonstrations in an attempt to shut down the reclamation project.
Opposition to the project has also come from Bali’s government and provincial legislature. The island’s governor-elect, I Wayan Koster, and the legislative speaker, I Nyoman Adi Wiryatama, joined a protest on Aug. 24 against the plan and any development threatening the bay’s ecosystem.
“We are here to show our official rejection of the Benoa Bay reclamation,” Wiryatama told reporters in Bali’s capital, Denpasar.
The development plan has also received little support from other provincial governments. In April 2015, the governor of East Java, the closest province to Bali, rejected a proposal to dredge sea sand off the coast for use in the project. Before that, the governor of neighboring West Nusa Tenggara province shot down a similar proposal, citing ecological concerns.
In a response to the permit expiration, the Bali Forum Against Reclamation (ForBALI) praised the national government for not issuing the required documents for the project.
“This is a win for the people of Bali who have fought against the project for five years,” said I Wayan Suardana, a coordinator for the group. “We hope this can be an example for the people to continue to be critical of unfair development, and be a lesson to investors in Bali to pay attention to environmental and social aspects.”
But even though TWBI’s concession is no longer valid, it won’t stop the development of Benoa Bay, said Hendi Lukman, former executive director of TWBI, in an interview with Mongabay-Indonesia in May.
“There’s an ongoing plan to expand the Benoa port, the Ngurah Rai airport, and a planned project for an airport in northern Bali — all of these will include coastal reclamation,” Hendi said.
“We are just one of the many companies that are interested in the opportunity,” he added.
Hendi said the termination of the project would set a bad precedent for the investment climate in Indonesia, citing the uncertainty over obtaining permits.
The controversial project was initially approved in 2012 after a feasibility study by researchers at Bali’s Udayana University said that, among other benefits, the development would provide protection against tsunamis, since the mangrove swamp would be back-filled to several meters higher than current levels.
Environmental groups, however, questioned the validity of the study’s findings, citing conflicting evidence that the development would be an ecological disaster. The study was reportedly conducted under an MoU with TWBI.
ForBALI has also called on the national government to restore Benoa Bay’s full conservation status, which it lost in 2012 when the governor at the time issued a decree that classified the bay a public zone where a range of activities is permitted, including fisheries, tourism and residential development.
In May 2014, then-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono also signed a regulation revising the conservation status of Benoa Bay. Observers saw the policy changes as a means to allow the reclamation project to proceed.
“Our hope is for President Joko Widodo to revoke the 2014 presidential regulation,” ForBALI’s Suardana said.
Governor-elect Koster has promised to rehabilitate the area. “We will reforest the destroyed area and keep it as a green zone,” he said.
Banner image shows activists staging a protest in the waters of Benoa Bay against the reclamation project. Image courtesy of ForBALI.
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