Haeril Halim and Lucie Godeau, Mandalika, West Nusa Tenggara – The holiday island of Lombok welcomed thousands of fans Sunday for Indonesia's first superbike race on a new circuit that is part of a mega tourism infrastructure project denounced by the UN over the eviction of local families.
With a population of more than 270 million people, many of whom get around on two wheels, Indonesia has one of the world's biggest communities of bike-race fans. But the archipelago had not hosted a major race since 1997.
Several villages have been relocated voluntarily or by force for construction of the new Mandalika circuit. But around 40 families – along with their cattle and dogs – are still holding out in the centre of the track despite intimidation to cede their land.
Environmentalists also question the wisdom of hosting large-scale events on an island under threat from natural disasters.
The superbike spectacle on the 4.3-kilometre (2.7-mile) circuit Sunday was a prelude to a MotoGP race – the top tier of the motorcycle Grand Prix – to be held on the island in March 2022.
"I am here to watch World Superbike. It is very cool and I almost could not believe (Indonesia has this circuit)... The event will help the economy here," said Rini Yuniarti, a fan from Bali.
The government hopes to create thousands of jobs and attract up to two million foreign tourists a year with the circuit complex, which covers more than a thousand hectares bordered by white-sand beaches.
But the gleaming new project has been the subject of bitter conflict between authorities and local residents.
Near one village in the area the houses have been abandoned and a metal sign reads: "This land belongs to the state."
But Abdul Latif, 36, and his four children have so far stayed behind because they have not received any compensation for leaving.
"Life is difficult here now... Access is very restricted," he said. "We play cat-and-mouse with security personnel guarding the area."
Another villager, 54-year-old Abdul Kadir, said young people struggled to get to school because they were blocked by security.
"We have to go through a tunnel to go to school," said her 10-year-old daughter. "I would like to go to school easily like before."
Making matters worse, local wells have run dry for six months since tunnels were built under the circuit, leaving residents without water.
'They dragged me away'
Many villagers have lost their livelihoods, with farmers confiscated of their land and fishermen relocated from the coast.
Security forces have been deployed to remove some families while others have been coerced into accepting meagre compensation packages, said human rights lawyer Widodo Dwi Putro, who is defending the villagers.
Sibawai, a 53-year-old farmer, has lost most of his land. He said the authorities tried to evict him several times before police came for him in January 2021.
"They deployed around 700 personnel just for my land. I tried to prevent the bulldozers from entering but they dragged me away," he said.
United Nations experts in March called on the Indonesian government and the companies involved in the project "to respect human rights".
Special rapporteur on human rights and extreme poverty Olivier De Schutter said the project had seen "complaints about land grabbing, evictions of indigenous communities in the Sasak ethnic group and intimidation and threats against defenders of local populations".
Several international companies previously associated with the $3 billion-dollar project denied still being a part of it, including construction giant Vinci and holiday operator Club Med.
The Accor group operates a Novotel on the site and is building a Pullman hotel.
The company told AFP it did not own the land or the hotel but would manage it on behalf of the Indonesian public company Indonesia Development Tourism Corporation.
The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which is due to contribute $250 million to the project, said it had carried out a study and did not identify any human rights violations.
'Just the start'
Lombok is one of 10 new locations that Indonesian authorities want to develop into tourism destinations in the same vein as Bali.
The impoverished island has struggled to rebuild since a major earthquake struck in 2018, killing more than 500 people.
For most locals, tickets to the motorbike races are too expensive and many have to settle for watching from a hill overlooking the circuit.
But authorities are hopeful the venture will suck in investment.
Superbike and Moto GP events represent "one of the best ways to attract visitors and for significant investments to be made in our region", said Zulkieflimansyah, governor of West Nusa Tenggara province, of which Lombok is a part.
"This international road circuit will be just the start."
Asked about the accusations of human rights violations, Zulkieflimansyah – who like many Indonesians goes by one name – said he was "very optimistic" that the disputes would be settled to the satisfaction of investors and the local community.
Maharani, an environmental activist with NGO the Lombok Research Centre, said the risks from earthquakes and tsunamis were a worry.
"A landslide could directly come down to hit and cover the circuit area. In the case of a tsunami the circuit could become a water pit," he said.
Abdul Latif, stuck in the centre of the circuit clinging to his home, had no desire to watch the race. "I feel abandoned and isolated," he said. "Like a bird in a cage."