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Villa construction frenzy paving Bali paradise

Canggu – Snatching a quick rest from a day of back-breaking work, Balinese rice farmer I Gusti Made Sukadana contemplates the grey-walled villas crowding the edges of his paddy field.

The villas are part of the latest building boom on the famous Indonesian holiday island, where homes for wealthy holidaymakers and expatriates are mushrooming across the bottle-green landscape.

Some see the growth of the villas as a boon. Others such as Sukadana, who toils not far from a beach favoured by expats, see a threat to a way of life that stretches back hundreds of years.

"Farmers are working harder now but we’re earning less. Our major problem is a lack of water," said the weather-beaten 44-year-old.

"Concrete buildings are everywhere, blocking irrigation. When it rains, the water flows to the beach instead of being absorbed through the soil," he said.

"I think mine will be the last generation in Bali working the rice fields."

While Bali is no stranger to hotels, at both the high and low end of the market, the fad for villas — many with open-plan design and swimming pools in huge gardens — is relatively new.

Developers say they are seeing very little impact from the global economic woes.

Land sales and construction of luxury villas have increased 30 percent every year since 2003, mainly due to demand from well-off Western Europeans and Asians, said Hera Heronika of construction company Bali Property.

"They usually come here during winter and rent out their villas for high prices when they are away," Heronika said.

The trend is driven by foreigners moving towards quieter parts of the island to be close to nature — and Bali’s unique Hindu village culture — and away from well-worn tourist traps such as southern Bali’s storied Kuta beach.

"They like the rice fields and a view of the beach. Even with the global economic crisis, we continue to receive a lot of requests," said Bali Villa Rentals Association board member Dharma Putra.

Rent for a top-end villa complete with swimming pool, maid service, gym and private cook can vary from 500 dollars a night to as much as 2,500, he said.

But activists said the villa fad comes with other costs to the island.

Every year, around 600 to 1,000 hectares (up to 2,471 acres) of "green space" disappears beneath concrete in readiness for villa construction, especially those areas surrounding the tourist centre hub on the island’s south, said Friends of the Earth Indonesia campaigner Agung Wardana.

The trigger for the explosive growth of the villas was national political reforms passed in the last decade that gave more power to local and provincial governments, allowing the spread of large-scale tourist developments in previously restricted areas, Wardana said.

"It’s like a cancer that spread out very quickly," he said.

The main environmental problem is one of water. More buildings mean less land to absorb floodwater, leading to the inundation of low-lying areas.

Meanwhile, increasing water use by swimming pools and paved-over land disrupt the intricate irrigation system that waters the famous rice terraces that spread from Bali’s volcanic interior to the seaside.

"Bali is a small island. If this villa development continues, it’s not impossible that in 15 years Bali will be abandoned by tourists," Wardana said.

Adding to the squeeze is the fact that the demand for villas is pushing up property prices and with them, land taxes, he said. This leaves farmers with ever-decreasing incomes.

In some parts of Badung district, where Sukadana farms, the land tax has doubled annually in recent years, Wardana said.

But Chandra Kirana, the owner of Bali Property, said farmers too can share in the boom.

"As demand increases, the price of land goes up and local people benefit. They can sell their land at a high price and buy cheap land somewhere else," he said.

Presi Mandari