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Denpasar, Bali

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Working for the Yankee Dollar

Bali's Burgeoning Tourism Industry is Playing a Role in the Loss of the Island's Agricultural Roots.

Bali News:
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The Indonesian Daily Kompas recently carried a report relating the plight of women in Bali trying to eek out a living working as coolies at local markets and the role tourism is playing in the island-wide scurry to find employment.

A 32-year-old woman Nyoman Reni wipes the sweat from her face. From time to time her left hand moves to wipe the bead of perspiration as she holds firm to a basket of shopping she carries for a local housewife shopping at Denpasar's main market.

"Being a coolie is the work that I can do, "the woman explained in Balinese. "I am not educated. In Karangasem (her home region) there is no work. Here (in Denpasar), I can find enough money to pay for food, a rented room and the education of my two children in grade school."

At the Badung market in Denpasar there are tens of women like Nyoman Reni who carry other women's shopping. The "coolie" women's children are also much in evidence at the market. On an average day the mothers can earn Rp. 20,000 (US$2.15). On days surrounding holiday periods when shopping activity is brisk, such as last August 20th during the Balinese celebration of Galungan, a female "coolie" can earn more than Rp. 50,000 (US$5.40).

In a separate location, Ketut Rai, an 18-year old recent graduate of a local junior high school told Kompas she was waiting for a call to work at one of Bali's many villas. For her, working at a villa offers a more profitable existence due to the many foreigners who own or rent villas. The young woman explained, "my relations, neighbors and friends working at villas get paid pretty well and the tips aren't bad either."

Data from the year 2007 shows a population of 3,527,994 spread across the Island's nine regencies and cities. The total labor force in 2006 stood at 1.99 million or around 55% of the total population base. The greatest density of population are found in Bali's North, the Badung regency and Denpasar.

When the Balinese holidays of Galungan, Kuningan, Nyepi or other religious and traditional holidays come around, Bali's workers return to their traditional villages. On these dates, the main streets of Bali's cities become very quiet.

Thousands of people from Karangasem and Buleleng travel to Badung and Denpasar to seek work. They see Bali's South as "the promised land," rich with employment opportunities.

These job seekers tend to be young, with many aged only 18 or even younger. This is a reflection of the fact that the majority of children end their education after grade school. Finished with their education by the age of 9, these children often follow their parents by working at the hard labor of digging sand. Young girls will sometime stay at home, waiting for a young man to propose marriage.

The Irresistible Attraction of Tourism

Starting from the 1990s, tourism became a "favorite" field of work for many of Bali's young job seekers. In North Bali where most people live from agriculture and trading, the lure of a possible job in tourism was also keenly felt. Luh Tini, a souvenir seller in Kuta but hailing from Bali's North explained: "At that time the U.S. Dollar was easy to earn. Now it's not so easy. These days if I can get ten foreign tourists shopping in my store, that's already pretty good."

The southern bias in the distribution of tourist spending is reflected in the amount of taxes collected by Bali's regencies and municipalities. In 2005, the Badung regency in Bali's South collected Rp. 329 billion (US$35.4 million) in taxes. By contrast, Bangli in Bali's Northeast collected Rp. 6 billion (US$645,200) while the eastern region of Karangasem collected Rp. 22 billion (US$2.4 million).

The distribution of the fruits of Bali's tourism wealth is unlikely to change in the next 50 years. This is reflected by the rapid development of Bali's South with its plethora of hotels, resorts, villas and tourist attractions. Of the 38 five-star hotels standing in Bali, 28 are located in the southern Regency of Badung.

The Plight of Bali's North

According to Kompas, there is a feeling that no one's really in charge in Bali's North. The local government is without the funds to undertake development projects and, as a result, the people of the region focus on the many attractions of the tourist dollar to be found in Badung and Denpasar. Bali, once known for its agriculture in the 1990s, is now unable to find young people interested to work at farming. Aging parents stand in their fields waving good-bye to their children as they travel to the South seeking their fortune in tourism.

The lure of the tourist dollar also threatens the very existence of the Balinese way of life. People from outside Bali, many from Java and overseas, have seen the advantage offered by local poverty and are scooping up agricultural lands on which to build villas and hotels. It is estimated that every year some 700 hectares of rice fields disappear forever - reappearing in their new guise as tourism resorts, villas, strip malls and hotels.

Beyond any tragedy represented by the loss of agricultural lands in Bali, it is increasingly apparent that much of this development ignores the Island-wide zoning rules of 2005. Commercial villas infringe on sacred grounds surrounding Pura Uluwatu. Hotels in Kuta, Nusa Dua and Tabanan violate set back rules, barring the Balinese from use of their beaches for recreation or religious purposes and even government building ignore the 15 meter maximum height restriction. The local press carries reports of new violations on almost a daily basis; reports largely ignored by local officials who have sheepishly acquiesced to the developers wishes in allowing those projects to go ahead.

The Director of the Bali Friends of the Earth (WALHI), Agung Wardana, has expressed his sadness at the lack of serious environmental intent among Bali's provincial leaders and the resulting damage to the Island's natural beauty. Because of this, Wardana hopes that Bali's newly elected Governor, Made Mangku Pastika, will have the courage and strength to protect Bali's culture and the sustainability of the local environment.

Wardana admits he is deeply worried about Baliís future. Underlining these concerns is the fact that, according to Wardana, none of the candidates vying for Baliís governor in the last election had a detailed environmental platform.

To Governor Pastika's credit, however, he has warned of the danger to Baliís future posed by illegal logging, overbuilding and the Island's diminishing water supplies. Bali's very future depends on the will of its new Governor to halt the decline of his home island and commence the long road to recovery.

© Bali Discovery Tours. Articles may be quoted and reproduced if attributed to


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