The theft of Paradise

The views are breathtaking. Waves crash onto the island, the energy of their fury roaring up the cliffs on the wind. Tall trees with spines as straight as a ruler and trunks as white as bleached bones guard the rolling plains. There is no sign of human life. Just a vibrant green expanse that needs to be drunk in slowly, released carefully.

As I stand gazing over this precious patch of nature, that feeling is about to be sucked out of me in the most unexpected fashion. Last night it really was a case of, “I didn’t see that one coming.”

The lady beside me is also taking in the view, but her eyes aren’t filled with the same wonder as mine. Curious, I lean toward her, and say, “Isn’t this just beautiful?”

She turns her large brown eyes toward me and smiles. “Yes, it is,” she says quietly. “I grew up there.”

I quickly look back at the land. There are no houses. I’m a naturally curious person, and wonder why this hadn’t occurred to me already.

We are on the third level of a new housing development at Ayana Resort, on the Bukit in Bali. It’s been opened to interested persons and we were fortunate enough to be on the guest list. The penthouse alone has already been sold for $US3.2 million. It is spectacular. There is a spa out on the rocks that gives private sessions for a mere $1,500; a bargain to many of the Koreans wanting to experience sheer luxury.

I glance at the drink in my hand, take in the luxury around me, and know that this feeling is about to be shattered, leaving me confused and struggling in the wake of feelings of compassion that still sit with me. Feelings that are cold, begging for answers, screaming for justice, and throwing into disarray every opinion I had held about Mabo and the rights of Aborigines in Australia.

“Wow!” I said, knowing there was no turning back. “Where do you live now?”

She flicks her hand behind her. Up on the hills, she explains. I shake my head. The hills are barren on the Bukit. The soil is dry. Summer heat can rise to over 42 degrees celsius. Even though only a couple of kilometres away, the geographical difference is immense.

“Your entire village moved?” I ask, unable to fathom how a small town can be uprooted from such a fertile place as the one I am now incredulously towering over, in my Western acceptance of luxury at the expense of all else.

She smiles again, but there is such a sadness on her face. Balinese hide emotions well, but this is leaking out of her pores. She changes the subject.

“Those trees,” she says, pointing to the ghostly tall white ones. “They are cotton trees. My grandparents would take the leaves and stuff mattresses with it. The old people like to lay on them.

“Once,” she continues, “my father was out in the fields with his blade and cut himself badly. It was bleeding.” She explains how her grandmother ran to a thatch of light green trees that she points to, and took leaves from them, rubbing them over the wounds and wrapping them in a poultice. The bleeding stopped, which was lucky, because the nearest doctor was at the base of the Bukit and the only way there was by foot.

If you haven’t travelled up to the Bukit, let me explain the steepness of the hills. I once cycled up it to collect our now fixed, broken down car from a resort. The hills were so steep that I had to walk. They then became so steep I had to rest. The road is sealed, but back even only ten years ago, it was a treacherous winding length of white gravel. Today, the rain still washes out gaping holes as it rushes down the mountain. Walking this road with a severe injury would have been almost impossible.

But, the medicine worked and he returned to his fields. They would grow one crop a year, each year different. Peanuts, or whatever was decided by the Banjar, the local ‘council’ who keep order in the village.

She points to the open meadows, lush and green. “We had cows,” she smiles, remembering them fondly. As children, they had full use of the plain. They could play hide and seek in the lush forest or run down the winding track to the sea.

“Where is the temple?” I ask, my eyes scanning for the decorative roof. Every village has one, particularly if they are on the water. It is for the sea gods and as essential as having a hospital in the city. It protects, pays respect, and helps keep the demons in the water where they belong.

“It’s down beyond that cliff,” she says, but it’s out of sight. Her family is no longer permitted entry to the land. This was forbidden when they left. The only access allowed now is to the temple that guards the sea.

I take in the view again, but this time, I see the ghosts of children playing, imagining thatched roofs poking through the jungle, women making ceremonial baskets, men stroking their prize roosters, farmers preparing the fertile soil for the next crop. And I simply can’t imagine that the new land owner forced them from their land.

This gentle Balinese lady finally tells me how this happened. When she was seven years old, her uncles met and decided to sell the land. They had a buyer. He had offered $500 for it, a princely sum in those days. Without consulting the rest of the family, the sale was done. Paperwork was exchanged and the village was banished to the white dry hills behind them.

I suck in the salty air and it is bitter. I am now confused. I have always held that the original owners of the land should retain rights to it. I read and digested the infamous Mabo decision and held fears for every land owner in Australia. I agreed and disagreed. I could not find a balance that sat well with me. After all, would I then have the right to barge back to England and lay claim to the land of my ancestors?

But now, in the modern age, this felt very very different. This wasn’t one land owner making a decision to move house. This was an entire village of families, forced from their land by the greed of a couple. They did not become rich and build an empire on the hill behind them. They had to start again, build new homes, find new land to farm. Villagers can be very territorial as well, so finding land that did not conflict with the rights of others would have been a challenge.

And meanwhile, the land owner hasn’t enjoyed his land. It sits empty, devoid of the humans who once cared for it. It is wild and beautiful. It gave to these families for centuries.

Then, the kicker. There are plans to build a resort on it. Anyone who has viewed the clearing of Bali of its jungles knows that the last thing it needs is another water-sucking tourist hole. Anyone who has seen or read of the villagers impacted by the Mulia build on the other side know of what it represents to the Balinese.

“It must be stopped,” I say weakly. But I have no idea how I can help. Writing words won’t help. If you read this and are now aware, what can you do? You can feel the same terrible sadness I feel, as this injustice is representative of so much of what happened in the 80s and 90s. It may well still be happening, although Balinese now lease their land, rather than sell the rights to it.

The view is magnificent, there is no denying this. But it is tainted. Where children once played, green grass how bends in the wind. It’s ironic, I think. The land owner has created an incredible place of beauty, in leaving it vacant all those decades. The jungle is thriving and it is authentic nature in every sense.

But the original caretakers did not rape or pillage it. They lived on it and respected it. They gave thanks for it, each time it gave them food or medicine.

They honoured the demons of the ocean and saluted the spirits of the mountains.

The Bukit is in the south of Bali, the direction for dirt and trash on the Balinese mandala. I ponder whether their fate is related to this, and she smiles, saying, “Perhaps, yes, perhaps it is.”

As we drive home down the winding road of the Bukit, we see the bare bones of hotels under construction. An activist in Bali has asked countless times of this rampant development, “When is enough enough?”

When indigenous people are relocated, Westerners whisper. How can we be outraged at this, when we openly debated the Mabo decision (a landmark decision at the Full Bench of the High Court of Australia, that gave Aborigines the right to claim legal title)?

Other advocates are fighting for the homes of the Dayak people in Borneo. Forests are flattened in the pursuit of palm oil. Animals are displaced, but so are their human partners; people of grace and dignity, foreign to the concept of wealth, tantalised by the lure of this miracle commodity called money. And thirty years on, their children stand in a $3.2 million penthouse, gazing over the land of their childhood, and they shrug.

What’s done is done.

But I am not so sure. What’s done can be undone. This is not my country, but last night my chest pounded with this woman’s quiet grief of the loss of her home. Not just her house. But every single thing connected to it. Her village. Gone.

And this morning, I still have no idea what to do about it, but to write. To share her words, convey her sorrow, and hope that somebody reading this has greater insight, and can help the people of Bali restore balance.

Because for now, all I feel I have, is words.

(Note: Ayana is not the owner of the land that this article refers to and I do not know the circumstances of that property.)

A luxurious penthouse looks over the land that for an entire generation, has laid vacant and out of reach of the original inhabitants.
A luxurious penthouse looks over the land that for an entire generation, has laid vacant and out of reach of the original inhabitants.
The beauty of the view from the roof of the sunset, marred by the knowledge that once, children ran free on the land below it.
The beauty of the view from the roof of the sunset, marred by the knowledge that once, children ran free on the land below it.

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