Indonesia Expat
Lifestyle Observations

Isn’t Rural Bali Nothing Else than a Long-Gone Myth?

Rural in Bali

Governor Wayan Koster is a Bali leader who got elected on identity politics.

This kind of regional campaigning is relatively new in Bali where Koster’s predecessor, Made Mangku Pastika, had mostly played a duller and more national game when seeking the seat. But time has changed now in Indonesian provinces; identity politics is developing fast and may even become a problem in the future.

Everywhere in the world, identity politics lie on mythical past. Here in Bali, the number one myth is one of a rural perfection, a trait of Balinese civilization that should encompass every aspect of life on this once beautiful island. And it was true indeed! Like any smart politician, the actual governor of Bali is pleasing his voters with an idealistic view that is honey to their ears.

In the face of tourism development, he recently called for a roll-back to rural Bali as a means to guarantee a prosperous future for all Balinese people. According to him, his government is indeed preparing a program to strengthen the agriculture and food sector, from harvest, nutrition, food processing, to food distribution. The governor’s pledge was made recently at a gala dinner in conjunction with the 16th Asian Food Conference.

It’s been about 50 years now that Bali is surely drifting away from anything rural, with the push on tourism development and the big money that goes with it. In only two generations, the fate of most Balinese and the landscapes of the island have changed drastically, in the name of economics. Tourism is obviously the keyword here, contributing also to the national growth as a major player in Indonesian national development.

At the same time, nothing has changed in the way the Balinese think of themselves. From politicians to religious leaders, to the people, everyone claims that the idyllic rural and fertile Bali is forever. But like ethno-sociologist Jean Couteau says: “The more Bali is moving away from his agricultural past, the more the Balinese assert the contrary.” A question should be asked then: does Bali’s prosperity still have anything to do with planting crops nowadays?

Governor Wayan Koster laments the fact that agriculture now amounts only to 14.5 percent of Bali’s total income, to compare with the dominant tourism sector at almost a 70 percent share. Well, if protecting the remaining farmers would be a good thing, promoting a return to the rice fields for all Balinese is nothing realistic. You cannot turn the clock back. In politics, pretending to see what is no longer to be seen is very detrimental. This is nothing but a denial of reality – a collective delusion.

Indeed, most Balinese still see or pretend to see Bali as a rural island. The question inevitably arises: Is Bali still rural when the south of the island has turned into an unplanned megalopolis inhabited by millions? Are the Tri Hita Karana principles – which conceptualised the Balinese philosophy since its origin about 50 years ago – still relevant when pollution, deforestation, clean water shortage, over-population, inter-ethnic tensions, and proletarianisation happen everywhere?

Every time a major crisis hit Bali and scared the holiday-goers away – bombings, world economy slowdowns or volcano eruptions – leaders have always called the population back to the rice fields – with no effect, obviously. Maybe, because it would first require to break down the concrete that is spreading like a plague over the lush greenery of the island in the name of money-making. And second to restore the depleted subak irrigation system, without mentioning land-owning legal muddle.

Ironically enough, at a time when Governor Wayan Koster just promised to promote specifically the agricultural sector, a new land dispute has flared between local farmers and a developer. This time in Payangan, where a serious spat is underway between over 50 families and Ubud Resort Duta Development, for a 144-hectare site in Selasih, Payangan, known as one of the most fertile regions of Bali.

This land has been cultivated by these families for generations. Some of the local farmers even have proof of ownership. At the same time, the company in charge of the resort project and development claims to own the cultivated lot since 1994, detaining all due permits. The bulldozers were quick to arrive on the spot, protected by police officers, ready to clear the land even against the wrath of the locals.

Bali hero and activist Wayan Gendo Suardana has promptly stepped in like he did for the Reklamasi in Benoa before, a similar case where identity politics were also at play once the issue expanded to the general public. Back then, a spontaneous bond quickly formed, mostly based on the idea of Balinese standing proudly and firmly against foreign investors. The foreign meaning here is “alien to the island”, not to Indonesia as a country. Is Payangan going to be a duplicate of Benoa?

Bali is now facing a paradox where many have enjoyed the material benefits of the tourism industry, therefore dragging people away from the rice fields into the modern capitalistic world, but at the same time claiming the prevalence of the rural world over it. Why? Undoubtedly due to the fact that rural living is still at the core of Balinese identity. Unfortunately, it is nothing but a romantic statement that nobody dares to challenge, traditional communities being conservative by nature. The idea of shaping a modern new Balinese community in tune with today’s world is consequently on nobody’s agenda.

In this early 21st century, the Balinese are at a pivotal point, like other populations confronting development before them. Inward-looking attitudes are now the trend in this ever-changing modern Bali. Looking for answers in the past is reassuring and brings inner peace – at least temporarily because it is easier than redefining and adjusting constantly to the challenges of the times. But social justice won’t be in sight as long as leaders tell people to believe in dreams – even if this is what they want to hear – when the world around them is changing constantly.

Advocating over and over a traditional rural Bali in speech, discourse, and preaching when numbers prove agriculture is not even 15 percent of the GDP of the island is obviously very misleading, even if working on policies improving the fate of the remaining farmers is a good thing. But spreading the idea that agriculture is still the very essence of Bali nowadays is just an illusion. This would require more than just incentives to send back the population down on the farm. Truly speaking, it will even require something like a major global disaster to have the Balinese back in the paddy fields.

See: Bali to Run Out of Water

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