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Story Publication logo October 13, 2023

'I Don’t Want To Perish Here': How Mandalika Special Economic Zone Drives the Locals Out of Their Source of Livelihood



Indonesia has been facing the devastating consequences of climate change.


Aerial photo of Mandalika Circuit from Seger Beach. The circuit with 17 international standard bends is predicted to be the main attraction of tourism in Mandalika. Image by Adi Renaldi/Project M. Indonesia.

This is an English translation of the story "‘Saya Tak Mau Mati Di Sini’: Perampasan Lahan di Sirkuit Mandalika" by Project Multatuli.

In the 1960s, Central Lombok's Mandalika region was a lush forest, surrounded by sweeping savannah hills, sparsely inhabited by the Sasak tribe, whose livelihood depended on the sea and agriculture. The Sasak people established settlements and cultivated a diverse range of crops and fruits. 

The New Order regime under Suharto saw the potential of a developing tourism destination. The first company called PT Rajawali Wira Bhakti Utama, with close ties to Suharto, started acquiring land by intimidation and manipulation, amassing more than 600 hectares in Kuta and Sengkol Village within five years. The company acquired land from the locals at remarkably low rates. 

In the early 1990s, the NTB Provincial Government took control of PT Rajawali's dormant land through PT Lombok Tourism Development Corporation (LTDC). In addition to the 600 hectares obtained from PT Rajawali, LTDC procured an additional 650 hectares through a land management rights (HPL) scheme. Once again, the local residents faced intimidation and forced eviction.

In 2018, the Joko Widodo administration designated Mandalika as a Special Economic Zone. The region will be developed into a world-class tourism destination and included in the Five Super Priority Destinations together with Toba Lake in North Sumatra; Borobudur Temple, Central Java; Likupang, North Sulawesi; and Labuan Baju, East Nusa Tenggara. 

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The idea to develop a new tourism destination outside the famous Bali Island has been planned since 2010. This plan is driven by the fact that a substantial 41% of the country's tourism revenue is still relied on Bali, as the famous holiday island among foreigners. 

The blueprint for these priority destinations was eventually envisioned in the 2010-2025 National Tourism Development Master Plan as stipulated by Government Regulation No. 50 of 2011. The government then established Indonesia Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) to manage the development of tourism in Mandalika. The state-owned company was a successor to LTDC. 

These priority tourist destinations are also embedded within the 2020-2024 National Medium-Term Development Plan (RPJMN). The projections are impressive, aiming for a 5.5% increase in GDP contribution, an influx of 30 billion US dollars in foreign exchange, and a surge in foreign tourist arrivals to 22.3 million, representing an approximate 29-30% hike compared to the 16 million visitors in 2019.

Mandalika was officially designated as a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in 2014 through PP No. 52, with a land expanse of 1,175 hectares and a shoreline stretching 16 kilometers. The region encompasses four villages: Mertak, Sengkol, Kuta, and Sukadana.

As per the master plan, the Mandalika Special Economic Zone is slated to be equipped with 20,000 accommodation rooms and 325,000 square meters of commercial space. These facilities will include golf courses, amusement parks, marine parks, and more, with a total investment projected at a substantial Rp40 trillion. The construction timeline spans from 2016 to 2039.

The scale of development comes with a hefty price tag. The initial basic infrastructure and productive assets development until 2026 requires a funding of Rp9.25 trillion ($500 million), with Rp750 billion contributed from state coffers via State Capital Participation (PMN) distributed in 2015 and 2020. The remainder is sourced from investments and loans, including a significant loan from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a Chinese multilateral financial institution that extended a loan of 248.4 million US dollars, equivalent to Rp3.8 trillion, in December 2018. This debt is scheduled for a 35-year repayment plan, with disbursements scheduled until 2024.

Decades-long Conflict

For Amak Sai*, the luxury of five-star beachfront hotels are clearly not meant for ordinary folks like him. Born in 1947, Amak Sai's world revolves around ensuring his crops and seafood supply are sufficient to sustain his family.

Amak Sai was among the earliest settlers who cleared the land in Mertak Village during the 1970s. He's a diligent worker, cultivating crops like corn, rice, peanuts, and bananas, alongside raising livestock, tending to seaweed farms, and fishing. Through these endeavors, he supported his wife and four children.

Today, the elderly man resides in Denong Hamlet. His hearing ability diminished due to frequent dives without proper equipment during his younger years, a practice he adopted to harvest lobsters. His residence is modest, with cement-plastered floors and unadorned walls. In front of his house stands a cowshed, alongside a line of seaweed drying.

Stepping into Amak Sai's house feels like a journey through time. Instead of a picture of the current President, Joko Widodo, a tattered poster of former President Sukarno still adorns the front porch. Perhaps this reflects Amak Sai's prolonged history of discord with the government after the fall of Sukarno.

Throughout the New Order regime's reign and its ambitious development projects, Amak Sai faced a torrent of terror and intimidation. Starting from the PT Rajawali era to the ITDC era, Amak Sai's land remained entangled in disputes.

Amak Sai said his 4.8-hectare land is still in dispute with ITDC. "We've engaged in mediation with ITDC, but there's been no resolution," he laments. "They insist the land is now under a government’s land use permit (HPL). How can it be under HPL if there was no land acquisition process?"

Aerial photo of Bukit Seger, one of Central Lombok's prime beaches that is visited by tourists every year during the Bau Nyale tradition, a tradition of looking for sea worms that is carried out for generations in honor of Princess Mandalika. Image by Adi Renaldi/Project M. Indonesia.

In 2020, Amak Sai recounts that ITDC constructed a concrete road on land owned by several villagers in the village. Residents attempted to obstruct the construction, only to be arrested for obstructing national interests. They were soon released without charges.

This protracted land dispute is an outcome of the long-standing land administration system's dysfunction, which dates back to the founding of the nation.

In a working paper issued by the Asian Development Bank Institute (ADBI), it is outlined that during the repressive New Order regime, security forces wielded their power to seize land in the name of "national interests."

Moreover, a complex web of agrarian regulations has exacerbated the challenges, particularly the overlap between customary land rights and the interests of investment. These intricacies were only meaningfully addressed during Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's presidency, with the enactment of Law No.2/2012 on Land Acquisition for Public Interest.

Amak Sai's story also underscores another facet of this issue stemming from a disjointed land administration registration system. His ownership rights are limited to a letter of permission from the village office, and he faced insurmountable hurdles in upgrading to full property rights due to prohibitive distances, costs, and inadequate information. 

Suspicions linger that the village and land office may have manipulated matters by including his land in the HPL scheme without proper authorization when PT Lombok Tourism Development Corporation entered the scene. This sort of manipulation is distressingly common.

This stark reality contradicts the claims made by ITDC, as the current management company and operator of Mandalika, that the land within the Mandalika SEZ is free from disputes. Accusations are also aimed at the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), alleging a failure in its responsibility to ensure that the land's title is clear and uncontested prior to loan disbursement. Currently, a coalition of civil society organizations reports approximately 300 hectares of disputed land with ITDC across five villages.

Amak Sai, resolute in his quest for justice, points out, "ITDC has been far from transparent in validating their documents. They are hesitant to disclose their data."

At present, mediation with ITDC is unlikely, said Amak Sai. Today he and other residents continue their customary farming practices on land that ITDC claims as a form of land reclaiming.

"Today's development resembles the Gaza Strip," observes Amak Sai. "Full of Conflicts. But I will persist and fight for my rights."

Luxury resorts and hotels in Mandalika. In its master plan, Mandalika SEZ will be equipped with 20,000 accommodation rooms, commercial spaces, golf courses, amusement parks, marine parks, etc. The total investment is projected to reach Rp40 trillion. Image by Adi Renaldi/Project M. Indonesia.

Sweet Promises, Bitter Realities

The forlorn hamlet of Ebunut, often described as a "ghost hamlet" these days, stands as a poignant testament to the transformative grip of the Mandalika Special Economic Zone (SEZ) project. In the wake of the project's commencement, the majority of Ebunut's once-vibrant community has either relocated or dispersed to other villages. Only a dwindling assembly of less than 20 families lingers, their fate veiled in uncertainty. Such is the depletion of residents that Ebunut's status as a hamlet may no longer be applicable.

Nestled on the fringe of a pristine white sandy beach, mere meters from Bukit Seger and a stone's throw from the Mandalika Circuit's perimeter, Ebunut's history, as narrated by Lukman*, is a living account of the relentless transformation that has unfolded. Lukman, born and raised in Ebunut, recalls that in the early 1950s, accessing the hamlet was a daunting challenge. The landscape was defined by dense forest, devoid of electricity and public amenities. Slowly but surely, Ebunut evolved into a thriving village, primarily composed of migrants, eventually recognized as a hamlet through administrative channels.

"Back then, the road was nothing more than dirt, and wild boars roamed freely," Lukman reminisces. "Ebunut used to be teeming with life, until the advent of this circuit project. Now, we are but remnants."

Ebunut Hamlet, which borders the Mandalika Circuit fence, seen from the air. It is now inhabited by less than 20 families, who still survive despite increasingly difficult access. Image by Adi Renaldi/Project M. Indonesia.

The third of twelve children, Lukman, at 54 years of age, has deep roots in Ebunut. His father, among the pioneers who tamed the land, left him a legacy of 6 hectares. These acres have long been his sustenance, allowing him to support his wife and six children. Apart from his agricultural endeavors, Lukman crafts woodwork and savors precious moments with his family at home.

The onset of change arrived with ITDC's presence. Lukman recollects a startling lack of socialization or communication about the Mandalika SEZ. It wasn't until 2019, just before heavy machinery entered the village, that he learned of his village's impending eviction for circuit construction.

Nearly half of his 6 hectares were claimed by the circuit project without any form of compensation. Over 1 hectare of his land is now concealed beneath the asphalt of the circuit track that saw Miguel Oliveira and his peers racing during the inaugural MotoGP event in March 2022.

Resistance was attempted, as residents initially protested the entry of heavy equipment into their community. However, this opposition met with overwhelming force, leaving the residents with little choice but to acquiesce. Mediation facilitated by the provincial government yielded no resolution.

"As commoners, we have been in the dark about how this project came into being, as there has been no communication as long as I've lived here," he laments. "I have no idea what MotoGP even is."

The Mandalika SEZ project has arrived with a roster of promises to enhance local welfare. However, throughout the process, community involvement has been lacking. A survey conducted by the Coalition revealed that a staggering 94% of respondents felt they were entirely excluded from Mandalika project consultations.

Lukman recounts ITDC's assurances that the circuit would usher in a better life and job opportunities for local residents. Yet, to date, he remains uncertain about the nature of this welfare. Many locals have indeed found employment as laborers on the circuit, but their future remains veiled in doubt.

"Our livelihood revolves around farming and fishing. If everything vanishes, what are we left with? Do we remain laborers indefinitely?" he questions.

For Lukman, life has taken a more challenging turn. During the international motorcycle racing event, houses in Ebunut, including his own, served as gathering points for officials tasked with securing the event. This presence induced fear among the residents and restricted their movements.

Not solely limited to the event, Ebunut Hamlet often feels estranged from the world. Access to the city has become even more remote, as the public road has been absorbed by the circuit, necessitating a circuitous route for residents. Public amenities have been shifted about 5-7 kilometers from the hamlet.

"Everything was right here. Religious facilities, markets, educational institutions, and cemeteries," Lukman laments. "Perhaps this is a means to drive us away, as access becomes increasingly elusive."

One of the houses that still survives in Ebunut Hamlet, which is adjacent to the Mandalika Circuit. Residents experienced various difficulties after the Mandalika Circuit was established, one of which was the increasingly difficult access to public facilities. Image by Adi Renaldi/Project M. Indonesia.

Lukman and some of his neighbors have chosen to remain in Ebunut, preserving what's left of their land. This decision reflects their quest for clarity from ITDC regarding their destiny. He confesses that he is at a loss as to where they would go, at least until the issue of land ownership is settled.

"I hope for fair compensation," Lukman states. "If my land is indeed required for the project, we don't oppose, but transparency is crucial."

Today, the once-thriving Ebunut hamlet stands encircled by a fence crafted from dried coconut leaves. A narrow wooden gate, 1.5 meters in width, remains, but no marker bearing the hamlet's name is visible. It's as if the hamlet has been erased from history's annals.

From Lukman's courtyard, the Bukit 360 Mandalika Circuit looms large, offering VIP-class race views at a price point of tens of millions of rupiah per entry. This opulence sharply contrasts with the village's modest existence. Despite their proximity, the pursuit of justice remains an unbridgeable chasm.

Rangkep Hamlet, nestled around 200 meters from the circuit gate in Kuta Village, defies the conventional image of a village and is more aptly described as a barracks shelter. This settlement has become the temporary refuge for dozens of families formerly hailing from Ebunut Hamlet.

The Indonesia Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) had once promised the permanent relocation of Ebunut's residents outside the Mandalika SEZ. In 2019, ITDC identified around 150 families residing on the HPL land who were slated for gradual relocation over the span of a year. However, the count was not meticulously calculated by ITDC but rather based on "information from the hamlet head."

In practice, residents mandated to move by ITDC found themselves living in temporary relocation sites without any assurance. At that time, the construction of permanent residences had not been completed. Only in December 2022 did 61 of the affected families finally find their way to permanent settlements in Ngolang Hamlet, Pujut Subdistrict, situated roughly 4 kilometers from Ebunut.

The remainder had little choice but to relocate far beyond the Mandalika zone or to stay confined in the temporary shelter within Rangkep.

It's been nearly four years since Fadilah* set foot on the temporary relocation site in Rangkep Hamlet. During this time, this bespectacled woman in her 50s has endured a persistent state of anxiety and uncertainty. Fadilah now resides alone in a modest dwelling composed of gypsum walls and a lightweight steel frame. In front of her dwelling, she manages a small stall, where she sells essential groceries.

Once, Fadilah lived with her family in Ngolang Hamlet, a short distance from Rangkep Hamlet. However, she chose to relocate to the temporary camp, driven by the promise of a permanent residence from ITDC. Regrettably, Fadilah found herself marooned, unable to return to her garden for cultivation. Her meager stall often fails to meet her daily needs, and she has received no support from the local government or ITDC.

"I don't want to perish here," Fadilah expressed, her tears flowing. "Everything is a struggle here. I yearn for a swift relocation."

A temporary relocation site for residents affected by the Mandalika Circuit project in Rangkep Hamlet, approximately 200 meters from the Mandalika Circuit gate. There are still dozens of families living in simple houses with minimal facilities, waiting for confirmation of relocation to permanent housing. Image by Adi Renaldi/Project M. Indonesia.

Fadilah recollects that when she initially arrived at the temporary relocation site in Rangkep, conditions were turbulent. Many families dwelled in tents made of tarpaulin. Gradually, they embarked on independent initiatives to build rudimentary homes, using readily available makeshift materials.

The ITDC's Resettlement Action Plan document indicated that most affected families acknowledged the land they occupied in Ebunut belonged to ITDC. Moreover, during a consultation in July 2019, it was stated that the affected community was amenable to moving elsewhere if ITDC needed the land at any point.

Nevertheless, vital details, such as the rights conferred and the timeframe for permanent relocation, never reached the residents at the Rangkep relocation site. There was no explanation for why only a fraction of families had successfully moved to permanent settlements while the majority remained in limbo.

The Coalition's findings revealed that approximately 87% of respondents did not receive sufficient information from ITDC regarding the resettlement plan. They were excluded from the planning and execution of the resettlement plan, denied the opportunity to provide input, and were never informed of their rights during the resettlement process.

Currently, 59 families remain in Dusun Rangkep, left in limbo. As if they’re waiting for Godot.

Located atop Silaq Hill, Ngolang Hamlet is the designated permanent relocation site for those affected by the Mandalika Circuit project. It sits quite a distance from the main highway, accessible through a newly constructed, steep, narrow concrete road.

The land allocated for permanent settlements in Ngolang is provided by the Central Lombok Regency Government as part of the relocation program for affected families. There are 67 housing units constructed under the ministry's purview, with each family receiving a 6x6 m² house and a 20 m² yard. However, these houses are not provided for free; residents must pay in monthly installments of Rp300,000 for five years, totaling Rp18,000,000. This revelation drew criticism from the Coalition, as residents had not been informed about the payment terms until a mere month prior to their relocation. These installments undeniably burden the residents.

"The earliest families to move to permanent resettlement sites all believed that their homes would be provided free of charge, as part of the Mandalika project compensation," the Coalition emphasized.

Mahmud*, despite the remote location and its stark contrast with his original residence in Ebunut, makes an earnest effort to adapt to his new environment. He lives with his wife and two children, an aged Toyota Corolla sits in front of his house, bearing peeling paint and an engine that grumbles with a "grok, grok" sound at startup. In the front yard, he maintains an array of medicinal plants and vegetables in plastic bags.

Since moving in December 2022, Mahmud has had to find innovative ways to sustain his gardening activities in the limited space. One such method involves planting in plastic bags.

"The important thing is to keep planting. When we harvest, we can use it to make herbal medicine or cook at home," Mahmud shared.

Mahmud was born and raised in Ebunut,. His family had lived there for generations, making a living as farmers and ranchers. However, since joining the relocation program, he and many others have transitioned to working as laborers for the circuit project.

Mahmud openly acknowledged that he previously resided on ITDC's HPL land, so when he was included in the relocation program, he had no objections. He feels fortunate to have his own land now.

The place he calls home is far from perfect. Clean water flows for only a few hours each day, distributed from house to house. Public facilities are minimal. Schools, shops, and health care facilities require traveling several kilometers, and not all residents possess motorized vehicles. Those with livestock, such as cows, are compelled to utilize their front yards for cowsheds due to the scarcity of space.

Currently, the villagers are collectively constructing a musala, as Mahmud, now a small stall trader, explained. Women in the community prepare herbal concoctions from medicinal plants within their homes, which they market through a farmers' cooperative.

"We do what we can do," Mahmud remarked.

One of the houses on a vacant lot near the beach. The residents, who are mostly farmers, ranchers, and fishermen, decided to move from their permanent relocation house in Ngolang Hamlet due to limited land and increasingly distant access to livelihoods. Image by Adi Renaldi/Project M. Indonesia.

However, not everyone adapts to Ngolang as adeptly as Mahmud.

Marto*, a man in his 30s, resided in his new permanent home for only a few months before deciding to relocate nearer to the sea. He brought his family along and constructed a shack with woven bamboo walls on an ITDC-controlled vacant lot.

Marto is a traditional fisherman, catching shellfish and fish, which he subsequently sells to collectors. His wife operates a stall in front of their home, offering bottled drinks and snacks. Marto admitted there was little to do at his permanent residence, and the considerable distance to the sea notably strained his livelihood. Changing his profession was out of the question, given his lifelong connection to the sea.

On the ITDC vacant land, residents have the freedom to raise livestock. The cows graze freely without concern about intruding into other residents' yards or homes.

"At least here, we don't have to ponder what we'll eat tomorrow," Marto remarked.

'Where there are SEZs, people are always excluded.'

Staking the future of its people, the Mandalika SEZ project faces the shadows of mounting debt and significant losses.

The much-touted Mandalika Circuit, which hosts two premier motorcycle racing events, is reported to have incurred a loss of Rp150 billion. This staggering deficit can be attributed to a lack of sponsors, even though ticket sales were initially anticipated to surpass expectations. Regrettably, the project hasn't yielded immediate profits, as underscored by the government.

InJourney, the state-owned entity responsible for overseeing ITDC, finds itself grappling with losses amounting to Rp4.6 trillion. This substantial figure encompasses outstanding debts, including Rp7.8 billion owed to the NTB Regional Hospital and debts to MotoGP vendors. These debts comprise short-term obligations of Rp1.2 trillion and long-term commitments totaling Rp3.4 trillion. In an effort to address this financial challenge, InJourney sought an additional injection of Rp1.19 trillion in PMN, a request greenlit by the DPR in June 2023.

Bukit 360, which is the VIP class of Mandalika Circuit for tens of millions of rupiah, seen from Ebunut Hamlet. Image by Adi Renaldi/Project M. Indonesia.

It's important to note that these losses do not encompass the socio-economic and environmental impacts yet to be quantified.

Harry Sandy Ame, representing the Alliance for Agrarian Reform Movement (AGRA), a part of the Indonesian Infrastructure Development Monitoring Coalition, underscores that the Mandalika SEZ project has irrevocably transformed the landscape of Central Lombok. Mangroves and swamps, essential environmental assets, and sources of livelihood,have been decimated to make way for the construction of infrastructure that supports the area and circuit.

"Mangroves and swamps play a vital role as an environmental carrying capacity and constitute a source of livelihood for local communities," Harry emphasized.

Beyond their intrinsic value, mangroves and swamps serve as natural shields against the perils of tsunamis. Central Lombok, as identified by the National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB), is exposed to the potential risks of tsunamis and medium-to high-intensity earthquakes. These seismic events could imperil over 430,000 people across 12 sub-districts.

From the outset, the Mandalika project lacked a comprehensive vision, as it fixated on a mass tourism paradigm, opines tourism observer Prof. Azril Azahari. According to Azril, who also chairs the Indonesian Tourism Scholars Association, the global tourism paradigm has shifted toward prioritizing factors such as visitor quality, duration of stay, and overall expenditure.

Ultimately, an overzealous tourism industry may boomerang when ecological considerations, such as environmental carrying capacity, are overlooked. Azril further contends that accumulating debt in pursuit of tourism development aspirations is a misstep, as public funds translate into an encumbrance on society.

"Where there are SEZs, people are invariably displaced," Azril concludes.

*All names of citizen sources have been withheld for security reasons

Editor: Ronna Nirmala


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