One of the first things anyone notices when they come to Ubud is the rice fields. Miles of green, swaying in the breeze, usually with some palm trees in the distance and maybe a farmer or two, waving plastic bags or rattling tin cans to scare away the birds. There’s no better way to spend the hour or so between dusk and sunset than talking a walk in the rice fields or taking a motor bike ride through the small villages and back roads that surround them.
Unfortunately, the very beauty of these fields is also the thing that risks their extinction. Land prices in Bali are rising fast and everyone wants in on a sure investment. Balinese families can’t resist the temptation of selling unused land to tourists and foreign investors when the money they receive in return would be impossible to raise any other way. The average Balinese person makes only a million or so rupiah a month (about 100 USD) and big ceremonies like cremations can easily run into tens of millions.
Some areas of Bali have already become somewhat of a concrete jungle, with only small patches of green in between the 5 star hotels, luxury villas and ubiquitous mini-marts that have sprung up like mushrooms in recent years. Little Ubud, nestled inland is famous for its rice fields but it’s almost at risk of becoming a second Kuta, the way things are going. I’ve been here only 4 years but Ubud has changed and expanded so much with the green space shrinking before my eyes. We rarely even go into central Ubud anymore as the traffic is terrible, and try to stay away as much as possible in the peak tourist season of June to August.
It’s a difficult problem with no solution that’s going to make everybody happy. People choose to settle in Ubud because of the laid back vibe and the beautiful scenery – naturally they choose to build their homes somewhere they can enjoy this scenery daily. But as another villa goes up, and another, and another, soon there is no view at all. Areas like Penestanan are already like mini tourist towns, way overdeveloped with the expats outnumbering the locals by far. Are you really living in paradise when you can hear your next door neighbour singing in the shower every morning; you have to walk down an unlit motorbike path for 10 minutes in the dark every night because it’s so far from the road and your view is of a building site?
We too have been guilty of buying rice field land, but in between existing plots that other houses have been built on. We built our house from wood and alang-alang – the traditional thatching material so it would blend in with the landscape. I made sure the perimeter wall was low painted with natural stone paint to avoid the concrete scar on the landscape that is so common around those awful big boxy houses which seem so popular.
Foreigners technically aren’t allowed to own land in Indonesia but of course there are ways around that, like everything else here, if you have enough money. Not that it stops the rich developers from Jakarta or Surabaya anyway.
Last night at the supermarket I was browsing the noticeboard outside and was shocked to see a very large plot of land for sale on one of the most popular beauty spots in Ubud. Known locally as the Campuan ridge walk or sunset hill and popular with expats and locals alike, this gorgeous footpath rises up out of the village giving panoramic views of the stunning scenery that surrounds it. The advert suggested it would make an excellent location for a hotel.
Another local walk known simply as ‘the rice field walk’, leading to the Sari Organik restaurant and beyond has already been developed beyond recognition in recent years with another new building appearing every time we go there. It makes me really sad that all this natural beauty is disappearing and I really wonder where is the limit? How many more hotels do we need? Most of Ubud was just fields 20 years ago. I dread to think what it may become by the time my children are grown.
The above picture was taken by my friend Lucy when we were driving around looking for a location for my first Sling Diaries shoot. The rice fields in the north of Ubud used to be my favourite place to drive around on the motorbike at sunset, which would never fail to dissolve my stress and clear my mind. In the last couple of years this area has become a development hotspot with new houses appearing all the time. I recently found out this “not for sale” sign is actually an art installlation in protest of the disappearing rice fields, which you can read about here.