Bali in 2015. Dragon flies v.s. Tequila Sunrise?

Bali is one of the world’s most popular and mesmerizing tourist destinations. Some question how this small yet significant island manages to stay upright under pressure of the millions of visitors it attracts every year. The dark side of leaky sewage systems, plastic bottles and bad air are a reality. Where did it all start? And is history repeating itself, again?  

170px-Balinese_soldiers_1880sAround the year 1580, Portuguese explorers head to Bali with the intention of establishing a trading post. Their ship strands onto the bukit peninsula reef and only 5 men make it to shore alive. They went into service of the king of Gelgel, who provided them with housing and wives. 15 years later, the first Dutch traders arrive in Bali and they too get to meet the king, who proudly showed them the Portuguese men he welcomed 15 years earlier. The following letter reaches Prins Mauritz of the Netherlands:

“God Be Praised
The King of Bali sends the King of Holland his greetings. Your Admiral Cornelis van Eemskerck has come to me, bringing me a letter from Your highness and requesting that I should permit Hollanders to trade here as freely as the Balinese themselves, wherefore I grant permission for all who You send to trade as freely as my own people may when they visit Holland and for Bali and Holland to be one.

— 7 July 1601, Cornells van Eemskerck 


Fast forward about 300 years to 20 September 1906:

A substantial Dutch force of armed soldiers confidently marches their way to Denpasar. Only 5 days earlier they arrived at Sanur beach. A few minor attacks by Badung soldiers aside, the army had very few troubles invading the island with the aim of sealing total control over Bali.

Dutch troops landing at Sanur beach
Dutch troops landing at Sanur beach (source: wikimedia)

A loud drumming could be heard from inside the palace of Denpasar, the building was set on fire. The Raja (ruling king) expected the Dutch and dressed for the occasion, clothed in white, wearing his finest jewelry. His wives, children, guards and other staff dressed in the same manner. All had received rites of death. Ready to transition into the afterlife, turning the other cheek towards the Dutch invaders.

Dutch artillery fighting the Balinese (source: wikimedia)
Dutch artillery fighting the Balinese (source: wikimedia)

As the soldiers marched towards the burning palace, the Raja slowly and courageously moved towards them, carried by 4 men on a palanquin. As the imposing looking army reached within 100 paces of the palace, the king stepped to the ground. He signaled his priest, who, as instructed, plunged his dagger into the chest of the Raja. Women mockingly threw jewelry at the Dutch. The Balinese started killing themselves and each other in a ritual sacrifice also known as ‘Puputan’, fight to death. When the bloodshed came to an end, as many as 1000 corpses piled up outside the burning palace. The Dutch stripped them, as well as the palace ruins, of anything valuable.

Corpses outside Denpasar palace 1906 (source: wikimedia)
Corpses outside Denpasar palace 1906 (source: wikimedia)

This blood stained intervention was the 6th and second last one in a period of 50 years throughout which the Dutch East Indian Company forced themselves onto Bali. These acts of violence, driven by hunger for power and possession, mark the end of indigenous rule over Bali.

The Raja of Buleleng, North Bali, committing suicide against Dutch invaders in 1849
The Raja of Buleleng, North Bali, committing suicide against Dutch invaders in 1849

Through emerging media coverage reporting in Europe on these horrific events, the Dutch image, one of being a responsible colonial power, was severely damaged. Realizing that these interventions damaged important aspects of the rich, complex and strikingly beautiful culture of Bali, the Dutch decided to stimulate cultural visits to the island of the Gods. Promoting Bali as a living museum, 1914 is considered the year that tourism officially kicked off.

Fast forward another 100 years to modern day Bali and we witness a community struggling to balance the weight of its own ‘succes’.

Despite 2 major terrorist attacks rocking the island in the beginning of this century, tourism continues to grow fast in paradise. How will some of these aspects evolve in the years to come?

  • Sanitation. Can it sustain the seemingly unstoppable development of luxury villas and fine dining restaurants when less than 10% of these businesses are connected to some sort of sewage or septic system? (often because the owner refuses to pay for the connection)
  • Water supply. It’s mid dry season and the river Agung, which is the main water supply for some of the most luxurious resorts in southern Bali, is drying up into a milky oily mess. Let’s question how many blue and beautiful chlorine pools can dot the landscape in the years to come.
  • Social economical gap. Will the next generation of upscale hotel employees maintain their authentic Bali smile when charging a guest the equivalent of 3 months of their salary for a single night stay?
  • Waste management. Since a real organized and sustainable waste collection system is lacking, and most people still rely on dumping and burning their waste, who’s going to take charge in the toxic pollution crisis our world is facing today?
  • Harmonious development. What kind of future do developers foresee for their fenced and polished playgrounds where ‘selfie’ shooting, cocktail drinking urban professionals reside on their holiday?
A polluted beach in Bali
A polluted beach in Bali

Witnessing the rapid degradation of the mesmerizing natural and cultural beauty of the island of Bali, leads us to ask the question:

Is history repeating itself?

Has the brutal colonial force of the past simply been transformed into a corporate version? Perhaps not tied to a certain country, religion or race as was the case with colonial oppression in the past. This time the real power that drives the small island, and most of the world for that matter, is united by capitalistic values of constant economic growth and an incessant hunger for expansion and market share. The same question comes to mind when coming across the soft opening of yet another Italian restaurant or 6 star all inclusive resort:

‘What’s in it for the Balinese’?

Do we choose high rise over heritage rice? How do we measure the value of a culture so unique, complicated and often misunderstood? Who’s hearing the voice of rice farmers, witnessing more villas and less dragon flies whilst ploughing their way through a rapidly changing landscape?

And what’s the role of the environmentally conscious foreigners who seem to share a vision of wanting to ‘save’ Bali? Why wouldn’t they try to save their own country first? One answer could be that modern nations have already changed too much, too rapidly and at a very large scale. Our bees already died, our culture washed away, and we didn’t even notice it. Bali is small, therefore comprehensible, and it’s easy to sob salty tears over a pesticide spraying farmer as you watch him from your rice field villa. Back home the country side is further away, and spraying is done with tractors or small airplanes. Provided we are willing to take a long and honest look in the mirror, and not point fingers at the Balinese, foreigners are able to contribute in a positive manner. Bali is a small but powerful vortex of creation, and attracts a stream of influential visitors. It has a real chance to use its current issues to take a leading role in sustainable tourism and environmental protection.

Some of the keys:

  • Community collaboration.
  • Sharing of resources.
  • Health and well being of our community before profit
  • Long term strategies when it comes sustainable and harmonious development
  • Self sufficiency. Many businesses rely on imported goods. Instead of trying to adhere to an international hospitality standard, create your own word class Balinese standard, using local products wherever you can
  • Innovation on a small business level. Be progressive in all areas, waste management, human resources, etc. Innovate and create a new standard.

History is valuable as it allows us to learn from our mistakes. Let’s embrace the wisdom and community values that Balinese culture teaches us. Blended with the innovation and inspiration which all of us carry inside, together, like brothers and sisters in arms, we can create a brighter and more beautiful world than ever before. The time is right, the time is now.

Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti, Om

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