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Jakarta Post

Reclamation and the (re)public

  • Thor Kerr

    The Jakarta Post

Ubud, Bali   /   Fri, November 6, 2015   /  04:36 pm

The pen, it seems, is threatening indeed. Last weekend, discussion of the Bali Rejects Reclamation (Tolak Reklamasi) movement was canceled at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. The festival committee announced the cancelation several days after it had given into police pressure and banned all events reflecting on the 50th anniversary of the 1965 massacres in Indonesia.

The festival'€™s national program manager, I Wayan Juniartha, said discussion of the anti-reclamation movement in the '€œFor Bali'€ session had been deemed political and therefore beyond the festival'€™s permitted scope of events. The discussion was then replaced by a hastily convened panel discussing how people were responding to the haze from fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

I had been invited to the festival to speak on the panel about my book, To the Beach, examining the dynamics of an effective social movement against coastal reclamation for property development. This was an investigation of environmental politics around a consortium'€™s proposal to reclaim 345 hectares of seabed off the coast of Fremantle, Western Australia, for a '€˜sustainable development'€™.

The book describes the consortium'€™s tactics of representing community support for its US$6 billion project and how local people responded by demonstrating publicly that Fremantle community overwhelmingly rejected the consortium'€™s imposition of this project.

With relatively few financial resources, the local community won the public contest against the consortium of powerful property developers. Community resistance was successful because it focused public discussion of the project on its immediate environmental impacts, specifically how its construction would disrupt local beaches and how the carbon emissions and environmental damage from the reclamation process would be enormous.

Local community resistance grew as people sensed an immediate threat to their cherished environment while the consortium could only offer potential environmental benefits in the long run in relation to the lifestyles of those buying into the development. The benefits articulated through the consortium'€™s '€œcarbon free'€ claim were also shown to be questionable and unverifiable.

Meanwhile, Australia'€™s green building council was not certifying any reclamation projects. The local political landscape shifted as incumbent politicians lost their seats in elections to political candidates, who took to the beach in campaigning against the reclamation project.

The environmental politics in the Fremantle reclamation case are similar, in some ways, to those around the Benoa Bay reclamation proposal in Bali. Members on the '€œFor Bali'€ discussion panel had intended to talk about creative responses to the planned reclamation of 700 hectares of water and mangroves in Benoa Bay for a commercial project being put together by PT Tirta Wahana Bali Internasional. The area'€™s zoning has been switched from nature reserve to integrated tourist development by a presidential decree to enable this project to proceed, despite the emergence of a popular local social movement against the reclamation project.

From my reading and conversations, people in Bali have many concerns about the project including environmental damage, disruption to the local fishing industry and access to resources as well as sacred Balinese places. They are also concerned by what they see as the developer'€™s tactics of intimidation, as indicated by censorship of the above panel at the writers'€™ festival. That officials of the Republic would support such intimidation is troubling.

I see Indonesia as a contemporary model of democracy with diverse media and local autonomy; a republic that my nation of Australia could learn a few things from such as unity in diversity. As the internationally-respected journalist Endy M. Bayuni said in his keynote address at the Festival, the real heroes of Indonesia'€™s independence struggle are its writers. Their writing constituted the public for the Republic despite the threat of violence from the colonial state.

Brilliant Indonesian writers are infectious, particularly when you have a chance to meet them. Goenawan Mohamad opened my mind to other ways of thinking more than 20 years ago in an Indonesian Studies class at Melbourne University. I then had a transformative meeting with the great literary figure,
Pramoedya Ananta Toer, when he was under house arrest in Jakarta.

Then, at the Ubud festival, I was recharged by the energy and intelligence of Indonesia'€™s new generation of artists including those who have created works responding to the proposed reclamation project. These are wonderful people, leading voices that continually (re)constitute the great (re)public of Indonesia. They deserve our respect as well as safe public spaces in which they can express and test their ideas. It should not matter that their work is unpalatable to those currently most capable of mobilizing state power. Disagreement is the reason for a democratic republic.

Given the extent of today'€™s environmental challenges, it is important that people are free to discuss and work out environmental concerns within their local environments. The national pledges to be made by governments in Paris in a few weeks will be meaningless without direct engagement by people in matters of local environmental concern.

People are most motivated to act in their local environments, and this is where every (re)public must deal with climate change one project at a time.

The writer is author of To the Beach: Community Conservation and its Role in '€˜Sustainable Development'€™ (2015). Dr Kerr is a lecturer in media and cultural studies at Curtin University, Perth.

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