Be worried. Be genuinely worried.
At the risk of being branded an alarmist, we view the growing controversy over zoning in Bali as a potential tinder box that, if handled incorrectly, could grow into a pitched battle with tragic consequences for the people and the island of Bali.
These fears are further fueled by the fact that, try as we might, we see no easy solution at hand in resolving a controversy in which hard battle lines are being drawn between powerful financial and political interests lining up to do battle with a no-less potent grouping of committed religious devotees committed to defend both their island and its endemic religion.
At the heart of the dispute are efforts by Bali's no-nonsense governor, Made Mangku Pastika, who is determined to rigorously implement the 2009 zoning law (RTRW) that removes the power of regional leaders who bypass prohibitions on buildings within 5 kilometers of major Balinese temples and who also allows hotels and villas to violate set-back rules from rivers bank and sea shores. Further underlining the governor's resolve is a letter sent by his office, listing over 25 villas and hotels standing within the 5 kilometer "no build" zone surrounding Uluwatu temple – some with established international reputations as Bali accommodation providers, that Pastika would like to see demolished.
Regency officials who face the threat of prison sentences for granting exceptions under the new law are up in arms. The regents, reluctant to cede power or authority to the governor in the tax-and-permit-lucrative sector of investment and building permits, are asking how will businesses holding valid operating licenses issued by their governments be forced to cease trading and, assuming that can even be achieved, who is going to pay the compensation certain to be sought from demolished businesses and home owners?
Further fueling the controversy and highlighting its high volatility is the allegation made by those opposed to to the governor, alleging 4,000 jobs will be sacrificed in Pecatu and Suluban alone if the Pastika's strict application of the rules is eventually introduced.
Who's right and who's wrong in the current debate is less clear than the simple fact that Bali is now paying the price for its long-standing failure to address unplanned and uncontrolled development. Rivers and streams are drying up; natural water supply is badly compromised through over-exploitation of ground water; irreparable defacement has occurred on ocean cliffs and rice terraces; deforestation if rife; and the Balinese people's future ability to afford to live on ancestral lands is under threat due to escalating property prices and higher property taxes. With such a litany of growing problems, something "had to give" and, accordingly, the current zoning battle may be only the opening salvo in a prolonged battle, the outcome of which will determine the shape and future viability of Bali as a leading cultural tourism destination. And, sadly, should the feared social conflict eventuate, that battle may bring the highest cost yet or Bali's failure to professionally manage its future and many God-given gifts.
Those dark forces that are coming to roost in the current zoning debate are long-standing irritants for many Balinese traditionalists and that huge number of Balinese possessing a fierce commitment to the preservation of the island's culture and safeguarding of the Hindu religion. Within this group thee are, no doubt, committed "hard-liners," some of whom have publicly declared their readiness to "fight to the death" to defend and preserve the Balinese culture and religion which they see as being doomed if governor Pastika's zoning law is undermined.
A failure to acknowledge and deal with fervently held religious sentiments, can have incendiary consequences anywhere. However, in the case of Bali, where "puputan" or ritualized fights to the death are a very real part of recent history, all concerned in the current zoning debate should take special note; treading the path ahead in the zoning debate with great caution and no small amount of trepidation.