Thomas Bywater – An ambitious $4 billion tourism development dubbed 'the next Bali' has been condemned by the UN Human Rights Office after shocking land grabs and treatment of the islands' indigenous people have been brought to light.
The tourist paradise of Bali has held a special place in the Indonesian archipelago. The island has long been associated with picturesque beach resorts, luscious mountains and affordable island luxury that has lured hundreds of thousands of Kiwi and Australian tourists a year.
As a party island, it something of an outlier. The spot attracts over a third of the Indonesia's 15 million annual visitors.
But Indonesia aims to change this fact. In 2017 President Joko Widodo declared what the country needed was more Balis, as many as 10. Putting the weight of the government around expanding Indonesia's tourism offerings, there have been a raft of new developments aimed at bringing more international visitors to Indonesia.
Aimed at bringing 2 million foreign visitors a year along with $2.7 billion, the project was dubbed a "New Bali".
On the Island of Lombok, just east of Bali, the state-backed project has attracted investment from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and international brands.
Among the first things to materialise is a MotoGP race track. However, the huge development has also brought scrutiny from human rights groups, who claim that the houses and livelihoods of residents have been bulldozed to make way for the luxury resorts.
The UN's Human Rights Office reports "intimidation and threats" against the Sasak indigenous peoples, many of whom have been forcibly evicted from their homes.
"Farmers and fisher folks have been expelled from their land and have endured the destruction of their houses, fields, water sources, cultural and religious sites, as the Government of Indonesia and the ITDC (Indonesia Tourism Development Corporation) groomed Mandalika to become a 'New Bali'," said Olivier De Schutter of the UN's extreme poverty and human rights programme.
De Schutter cites "credible sources" as being intimidated to abandon their land without compensation by the government-backed project.
"The ITDC has not sought to pay compensation or settle the land disputes," said the report by the Office of the High Commissioner – Special Procedures Branch.
Green credentials tarnished
The modern and eco conscious developments had won praise for their commitments to protecting Lombok's environment.
The ITDC responded to the report, saying the project was commissioned with the aim of "developing eco friendly tourism which are oriented towards the preservation of the value and quality of the environment in the community."
Developments include an "Eco-Adventure Center" and a conservative approach to the lagoons and flora and fauna.
However, the human rights abuses unearthed by the report contradict and make the eco credentials ring hollow.
Among the partners named in the report are Pullman, Paramount Resorts, and Club Med who are all developing properties in Mandalika.
A large 1,500 room property which will be operated as Paramount Lombok is among the largest of the buildings scheduled to open this year.
The UN condemned the international brands and those involved in building the tourism complex, saying their failure to address these concerns was "tantamount to being complicit in such abuses."
"Post-COVID economies should focus on empowering local communities, enhancing their livelihoods and participation in decision-making. We urge the Indonesian Government to ensure that the ITDC respects human rights and the rule of law, as well as the AIIB and private businesses not to finance or engage in projects and activities that contribute to human rights violations and abuses," said De Schutter.
The AIIB has responded to the claims by the saying it had commissioned its own report, which "found no evidence of the alleged coercion, direct use of force and intimidation relating to land acquisition and resettlement."
With regards to a complaint to the Indonesian Commission on Human Rights concerning 17 plots of lands the bank said it had found "no evidence of alleged illegal land acquisition and/or intimidation."
The ITDC disputed claims that threat and coercion had been used to clear the project area. In a response to the UN the ITDC said that it had identified 96 land owners who been compensated for their land at a rate of IDR 4,500,000 ($434.32) per 100m square of land. However, reports by the BBC's Indonesian Service found that many of these displaced Sasak people were only partially compensated for the land siezed and up to 180 households don't have any documented proof of ownership to contest their claims in court.
The Sasak people are indigenous to Lombok accounting for 85 per cent of the population, unlike neighbouring Hindu Bali their main religion is Islam.
"The time has passed for racing circuits" said De Schutter, who condemned the benefits of the large tourism infrastructure project as uneven and top heavy.
The cost to the indigenous people undermined any economic benefits of the project and would only be seen by "a handful of economic actors rather than the population as a whole."
"In light of the dark history of human rights violations and land grabs in the region, the AIIB and businesses cannot look the other way and carry on business as usual," he said.
Accor Hotels, which owns the Pullman Lombok, said it was "aware of the UN claims around the Mandalika project and is considering these matters. We take human rights issues, and the alleged issues of land grabbing, forced evictions and involuntary resettlement, extremely seriously.
"Accor has been operating in Indonesia for 30 years and, with over 130 hotels under management, prides itself on a strong record of social responsibility."
Paramount Resorts and Club Med have also been contacted for comment.
[Thomas Bywater is a writer and digital producer for Herald Travel.]