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Bali’s Markets: Can The Traditional Be Super Too?

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traditional-market-baliAbove and below the cloudy surreptitious dream of Wall Street’s market, the stars are brilliantly lit and the actual market thrives. It’s cool, dark, and tranquil here this Balinese morning. Well before the crack of dawn, the first pick-up truck stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables softly enters the parking lot of Ubud’s traditional market. As he rolls into his favorite spot, Ketut waves inaudibly to a familiar street sweeper working down the lane. Halfway emerged from his truck, he asks me what I want. Time is short here in Ubud’s market lot; by 8am the trucks must give way to the souvenir sellers and restaurants. He fills my bag. I point to the massive new tourist shopping project adjacent to the traditional market but Ketut only shrugs while organizing his goods. Soon the place is buzzing with more human life than a Black Friday in NYC. This teeming synergism materializes every morning.

Can the shopping differences be reconciled? How will the traditional and the ‘super’ markets coexist here? One thing is almost certain: the spirit of Ubud will doubtless change, and perhaps more radically than it ever has—with the cut of a ribbon. And with the $200 million (US) massive upgrade of Ngurah Rai Airport in Denpasar, increasing passenger capacity to 25 million a year, one cannot help but laugh; it is the best medicine, no? Nevertheless, it is nothing shy of ludicrous that the newly introduced “four pillars” of the Bali Tourism Agency’s new blueprints (destination and tourist development, promotion, and tourist industry) excludes sustainable socio-environmental considerations, and no one should hesitate to say so. So much for community and holism in 2013.

Bali is a good place for a Darwinian kind of economic observation: it’s an island and the cultural and economic changes are rapid and significant enough for a visitor to behold in just a few months stay. Bali’s not quite big; the island hasn’t been able to support its growing population for decades, since the Jakarta-based government turned it into a traveler’s paradise in the earlier part of the 19th century. Bali and the Balinese have continuously struggled to absorb the added numbers while striving for self-sufficiency. Truth be told, tourism has been an important, albeit rather uncompromising, aspect of the Balinese economy. Yet, although the greater part of Bali’s monetary flow relies on tourism, the industry composing some 80% of Bali’s income, alas, tourism is not the island’s largest employer: agriculture still is.

Bali’s dichotomous spirit between tourism and agriculture is enough to puzzle any dialectician. Many have answers to this dichotomy yet few have efficacious thoughts that can reconcile the difference, that can satisfy both camps. Entrepreneurs think about market health and consumer trends and take their financial risks; farmers base their crop on prospective consumer demand and weather then pray for the best. And those of us in between, foreign and local, observe with characteristic and learned assumptions, or, just ‘can’t be bothered.’

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Repeated complaints of waning tourism in Bali have ruled the front pages of local prints. Nyoman Wardawan, head of the Tourism Agency’s marketing division, said the provincial government has slashed the tourism promotion budget in half from Rp 2.3 billion last year to Rp 1.1 billion this year. The provincial government has “more urgent matters,” he said, like poverty eradication, infrastructure development, and the gubernatorial election. However, here in Bali, the most precious concern is the preservation of the traditional market in regards to the first two matters: reducing overall poverty and bolstering infrastructure.

Traditional markets are vital for community competence and self-sufficiency. They keep our farms close to home and in view, distribute money evenly into the pockets of residents, and subsequently, kick citizens off the boredom of roving the streets and place them under the wing of their own district’s socio-economic setting. Indeed, the supermarket provides needed work for workers too but the employment ratio favors the traditional market significantly.

What do the buyers say and favor? In a survey taken in the Denpasar area, 65% of shoppers say they shop at both the traditional market and supermarket; about 30% say they only shop at the supermarket; and a bit less than 5% say they alone shop at the traditional marketplace. They shared typical thoughts about each market. The traditional market is crowded, dirty, and cheaper, with no Western food. The supermarket is expensive, clean, big, modern, and cold. The former has bargaining-potential and enjoys community-orientated interaction, whereas the latter is easily navigable and often includes high taxation. The shoppers swinging both ways said they plan on shopping at both markets with age.

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Besides the local views expressed above, how does Bali’s marketplaces compare to similar foreign markets? One with travel experience may easily see that Bali’s traditional markets are decaying compared to other markets in South East Asia and South America, for example, wherein the traditional marketplace does not appear to be as threatened and is still effectively the kernel of community and civilization. It can also be observed that product diversity is lesser in Bali’s markets due to island margins, and often deficient cleanliness in the food zones hollers—time for a scrubbin’.

One can form an understanding of where Bali is socially and economically headed by looking to the global picture, by discovering the effects of super and hypermarkets in other economies, and by observing the products and services that are being locally sold in Bali. On Jalan Ubud, one sees a traditional hand-made batik and silk shop squeezed between stores selling sweatshop clothes from Java; southward near Denpasar, across the highway from the Bintang supermarket is a village store where the owner sells his papayas and porridge. Considering Balinese sustainability, native traditional goods contain classic tourist appeal, and local papayas are more vitally substantive than corn flakes and salad spinners.

The products available to us at the traditional markets and supermarkets are based on Mother Nature, convenient acquisition, consumer demand, and, last but not least, profit margin. Yet, while supermarket wholesalers generically stock imported goods like cheap fruit from Australia and China raised on massive factory farms, many local sellers at traditional markets, like the ones at Badung, Sanglah, and Telaga, directly buy their fruit from regional farmers at village auctions. They buy local because it expressly supports the community and imported fruit is deemed substandard for religious offerings, besides. But because of season downpours, both domestic and imported goods have been affected. The ‘hype’ of global warming terminology is inconsequential to farmers and fishermen. Torrential rains and high waves this season have caused distribution channels to slow while fishing boats rest and crops rot. Food prices have thus soared. The prices of red pepper, garlic, onion, and chicken have risen by 25-30%, and the price of tomatoes has doubled.

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Myriad questions arise regarding the desirability of Bali’s economic, social, and sustainable affairs. It is important to note that the GDP of Bali does not represent the overall health of her economy, nor does it accurately comprehensively reveal tourist draw. While large hotels grab overseas bookings and expand their enterprises in particular areas or complexes, other small businesses and agencies may be losing or going out of business, causing a flood of unemployment, poverty, and social frictions. Smaller accommodations are not blameless, however; out of the island’s 90,000 rooms, some 40,000 are unregistered.

One may ask how long Bali’s development will last. As Bali’s sons and daughters continuously build attractive housing on top of millennial-old rice paddies for long and short-term tourists seeking fun, sun, and serenity—with dreams of gaining some lineal rest from the slog, toil, and volatility of farming life—business and the arts stalk each other, taxes are paid, and the government gets its share.

A recent edition of the Bali Daily discusses the government’s plan to preserve subak, Bali’s aesthetically awesome and splendidly sustainable irrigation system…only because UNESCO has recognized it as a world heritage site last June. The preservation plan is at best questionable and pivots on tax subsidization for rice farmers instead of the regulations that are critically needed from municipal resolutions. As it goes, the rice paddies adjacent to lucrative tourist-responsive land are tariffed by their appraised values. Then, generated taxes pay-off the government-dictated charges and go right back in authoritative coffers. How the money is spent ought to be transparent.

Natural and sustainable economic independence looks like this: the more taxes generated from endemic tourism that threatens subak and other island treasures, the more monetary power ought to protect those treasures. Otherwise Bali’s self-sufficiency will further diminish in concurrent step with the loss of her aestheticism, land, and health.

Indonesia, which has the fourth-largest population in the world, has seen a biblical flood of corporate money stream in this past year. Somebody call Moses. By 2015, the country’s high earners bloc of 33,000 is expected to swell to 105,000. How the rich’s businesses will shape the rest of the population (the other 249,895,000 people) is certain to the degree of seeing the bulging sectors and investigating where employees spend their money. It can be cogently assumed that if employee pay stagnates in the larger businesses, and these businesses boost employee population, that prices of goods produced in similar settings will share similar trends—trends of cheap stuff made possible by weak wages—and this will ‘offer’ buyers, most of which are outside the high earner bloc and increasingly working for these large enterprises, prices and packages they can no longer refuse. The sweatshops, convenience stores, and super and hypermarkets will thus perpetually scuttle grassroots and fertile traditions.

Aye, compared to oligarchic corporatocracy, traditional life shelters and espouses grassroots.

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How does all this affect the tourism engine? We can easily grasp that the receding of the traditional marketplace will turn away the culturally-conscious eco-friendly local-foodies, a ubiquitous coalition of tourists on the exponential rise. Likewise will it affect any tourist wanting to step outside the gates of their resort into the active community. Overall, the image of Bali as a religious and cultural masterpiece will be further tainted with the same stink of over-commercialization and exploitation that many tourists vacation away from.

Unless Bali’s wealth is more equitably distributed to meet the rise of the tourism moneyball, poverty and unemployment (not the hypermarkets) will reign supreme. Those choosing to live behind closed doors will surely be spending more time behind them while the streets become increasing disreputable, the laws more sharply defined, and the police stations perhaps more welcoming.

The solution to all this may be found in diversification, equative consideration, and creative enterprise. We can apply traditional wisdom to contemporary economics. Real farmers (the ones with profound bonds with their land) know that mono-cultures are before long depletive. Mono-cultures rob land of its natural replenishing cycle and adulterate it where chemicals and pestilent synthetic substances are used, and then run-off. Way off the farm, over by the cashier’s line, the apparently short diversity-range within the supermarket product-line is perpetually exacerbated by large-scale streamlined consumer buying practices and centralized management.

Those actively ignoring or simply ignorant are like the slaves in Plato’s cave allegory: chained and unbeknownst to the workings of reality above; or, like a dancer amidst blackness unknowingly dancing with the devil for cheap lazy goods and quick exploitative currency.

Allegorical talk aside, what is incontrovertibly true is, as just alluded, the financial unfeasibility of locals being able to afford quality hand-made traditional products after collecting corporate wages. If the markets further recede and decay, workers will have no traditional shopping option as these small businesses fizzle out. The corporate money will thus stay all in the regal family.

The Surakarta administration is revitalizing traditional markets in Java and could do the same in Bali with the mass of taxes collected from Bali, Indonesia’s tourist engine. The old Elpabes traditional flea market in Banjarsari is just one of the markets desperately getting attention in Java. The city is overall receiving Rp 27 billion for traditional market improvements. Tourists do not travel to Bali because of the allure of centralized government, but because of the myriad marvels of cultural and natural Bali. Since these charms are the express reasons why tourists come and Balinese stay Balinese, then these are what ought to be consistently refreshed and supremely protected. And it is the traditional marketplace that feeds the Balineseness and their energies that nurture Bali’s natural splendor. Tourists can crucially help in saving Bali’s magic, however, by experiencing real Bali culture: shopping where Balinese shop, eating where they eat, sleeping how they sleep, praying how they pray, etc. Bring the best of your cultures and characters to Bali and wherever you go, not that which degenerates an already fragile land.

Despite it all, those fashionable organic markets, stores, and products you see around town are not entirely wholesome either. Many organic and artisan promotions turn basic healthful necessities into grand novelties: the parasite becomes the host.

Filed under: Articles, Changing Cultures, Economics, Food, Indonesia

About the Author:

Brannon Gerling is a world traveler, writer, and philosopher specializing in existential phenomenology and Taoism. He publishes work in holistic health, politics, shamanism, eco-travel, psychology, and philosophy. Check out his book: On Top of Beacon Hill: Eastern Approach to Enlightenment, Western Recipe for Madness, wherein he fuses Eastern and Western thought in a roadmap unto spiritual transformation and self-possession. has written 2 posts on Vagabond Journey.

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