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A development project in a Bali mangrove bay gets a new lease on life

  • A controversial plan to reclaim land in Bali’s Benoa Bay for a commercial and entertainment development project was thought to have ended in August when its permit expired.
  • In late November, Indonesia’s maritime ministry issued the developer a new permit that effectively revives the plan.
  • Reclamation can only proceed, however, if the developer can obtain approval for its environmental impact assessment from the environment ministry. Its failure to do so earlier this year was what led to its initial permit expiring.
  • Activists say they will continue to oppose the project, which they fear will destroy the mangrove-rich ecosystem and harm the livelihoods of thousands of local fishermen.

JAKARTA — Four months after activists in Bali celebrated what they believed was the end of a controversial plan to develop part of the island’s mangrove-rich Benoa Bay, the scheme has been revived by the Indonesian government.

In August, PT Tirta Wahana Bali Internasional (TWBI), a property development unit of Indonesian tycoon Tomy Winata’s Artha Graha conglomerate, lost its permit for an ambitious commercial and tourism development in Benoa Bay, an area that serves as a key source of livelihood for thousands of local fishermen. The permit granted the company control of an area spanning 700 hectares (1,730 acres), where it planned to build artificial islands for a multibillion-dollar complex featuring hotels, restaurants, entertainment venues and a convention center.

That particular type of permit is automatically annulled if it isn’t renewed after four years. And that’s what happened to PT TWBI, which failed to receive government approval for a renewal. That stemmed from the environment ministry not approving the developer’s environmental impact assessment, known locally as an 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.

Opponents of the development plan in Benoa Bay celebrated the expiration of the permit as they believed it meant the project would not continue. However, the developer, previously stonewalled by the government, has now received a reprieve from the authorities.

Thousands of people in Bali have opposed a project supported by the federal government to develop part of mangrove-rich Benoa Bay, saying the planned reclamation could cause massive environmental damage and threaten local fishermen’s livelihoods. Image by Riski Darmawan/Mongabay Indonesia.

On Nov. 29, however, the maritime ministry issued PT TWBI a new concession permit, valid for two years, for development in the bay. The permit, known in Indonesian as izin lokasi, or “location permit,” crucially doesn’t allow the developer to carry out any land reclamation activities, according to the ministry.

“For them to do reclamation activities, the company will have to obtain an environmental impact assessment and a permit for the implementation of reclamation,” Brahmantya Satyamurti Poerwadi, the ministry’s director general for marine spatial planning, told Mongabay by phone on Dec. 20.

Brahmantya said the developer had met all the requirements to obtain the location permit, including paying 13 billion rupiah (nearly $900,000) in non-tax revenue.

Brahmantya also said the project was still in the administrative process, meaning no development activities are allowed yet, including sand mining or digging.

“As long as the permit for reclamation has not been issued, then reclamation [activities] can never happen,” he said. “That’s why we all need to monitor this closely.”

Marketing literature showing the development plans for the proposed artificial islands in Benoa Bay. Image courtesy of PT Tirta Wahana Bali Internasional.

The next step for PT TWBI is to try once again to obtain approval for its AMDAL from the environment ministry before getting a permit for reclamation from the maritime ministry, Brahmantya said.

This new development has prompted criticism from environmental activists, who say the Benoa Bay reclamation project, valued at 30 trillion rupiah ($2 billion), would clear much of the bay’s rich mangrove ecosystem that feeds the local fishing community.

“It’s unfortunate that a [new] izin lokasi for the reclamation of Benoa Bay has been issued by the maritime ministry when it’s clear that the people of Bali have consistently rejected the plan for five years,” Nur Hidayati, executive director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), said in a statement.

Thousands of Indonesians, from local fishermen and environmental activists 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 then-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.

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 another neighboring province, West Nusa Tenggara, shot down a similar proposal, citing ecological concerns.

Benoa Bay holds a rich mangrove ecosystem that serves as a crucial habitat for marine species and a key fishing ground for local communities. Image by Anton Muhajir/Mongabay Indonesia.

In response to criticism of her decision to issue the permit, Susi Pudjiastuti, the maritime minister, said her office had no legal basis to decline the developer’s request because Benoa Bay was classified as a public zone, where a range of activities is permitted, including development of fisheries, tourism and residential projects.

If she had rejected the proposal, Susi said, the developer could have pressed its case in court.

“I’m only doing what is stipulated in the regulations,” she said at a press conference on Dec. 21. “The issuance of this permit does not mean that reclamation will necessarily happen.”

Susi was referring to a 2014 presidential decree, signed by then-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, on zoning for the wider area covering Benoa Bay. The decree changes the bay’s status from a conservation area to a public zone, and was seen at the time as clearing a path for future reclamation.

“We wouldn’t have issued the permit if the area was a conservation zone, but in the decree, this is classified as a National Strategic Zone, where development can happen,” Susi said.

Susi called on opponents of the reclamation plan to present their case to the environment ministry once it starts considering the company’s new AMDAL proposal.

“Even if later the company obtains AMDAL [approval], I will make additional pre-requirements before issuing a permit for reclamation,” Susi said.

Indonesia’s maritime minister, Susi Pudjiastuti, speaks to the media about why her office was compelled to issue a so-called location permit to developer PT Tirta Wahana Bali Internasional. Image courtesy of the Indonesian Maritime and Fisheries Ministry.

The minister also called on advocacy groups to scrutinize the current drafting by provincial authorities of zoning plans for Bali’s coastal areas and small islands, known as RZWP3K. According to Walhi’s Bali chapter, the latest draft of the plan puts the bay back under conservation zone classification. But it still needs to pass the provincial legislature.

“We must continue guarding this RZWP3K document [through to passage] so that no stakeholder can shut down our initiative to classify Benoa Bay as a conservation zone,” Made Juli Untung Pratama, director of Walhi Bali, said in a statement.

The Bali Forum Against Reclamation (ForBALI) says it expects Governor Koster to make good on his promise to shut down the reclamation project for good, regardless of what’s stipulated in the 2014 presidential decree.

“We will demand Koster be held accountable, otherwise he truly was only piggybacking on the people’s fight during his campaign for the gubernatorial election,” said I Wayan Gendo Suardana, the ForBALI coordinator.

Environmental groups stage a protest against the reclamation of Bali’s Benoa Bay. Image courtesy of ForBALI.

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