Sydney Morning Herald | 3 April 2010
by Tom Allard
JAKARTA: The Indonesian government plans to create a vast agricultural estate in the restive province of Papua, sparking fears of environmental destruction and a return of mass migration policies that have done much to antagonise the indigenous population.
Launched last month and already piquing the interest of foreign investors, the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE) will initially earmark 1.6 million hectares of land for development but could expand to 2.5 million hectares, or about half the area of Merauke district, in south-east Papua.
The ambitious proposal marks a return to the huge agricultural developments promoted by the former dictator Suharto, some of which were spectacular failures, such as the 1 million hectare ''mega rice'' project in central Kalimantan that devastated peatland forests and did not produce a bushel of rice.
But Indonesian officials insist the land around Merauke is suitable for agriculture and that the new estate will help the world's fourth most-populous nation become self-sufficient in food within five years, and later earn it valuable export income.
''Feed Indonesia, then feed the world,'' was the catchcry of the President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, when the plan was announced last month.
Rice, corn, sugar cane, soya bean and palm oil plantations and grazing land for livestock are planned for Merauke. The district encompasses tracts of rainforest, including swamp forests that are ecologically fragile and which contain stores of peat that absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The project will require about $6 billion of investment, up to 49 per cent of it coming from foreign investors.
It is expected to swell the population of Merauke from 175,000 to 800,0000 people, agricultural ministry officials say. Few of those extra workers are expected to be indigenous Papuans, as they are tied to their local areas.
''We have two concerns,'' said Father Decky Ogi, the director of the Justice and Peace Secretariat of the Merauke Diocese of the Catholic Church. ''The first is ecological and the second is about what happens to the indigenous people.''
While Indonesia's Co-ordinating Minister for the Economy, Hatta Rajasa, has insisted that scrubland or areas already logged will be converted to farmland, a recent study says that assertion is wildly optimistic.
Using satellite images and data from Indonesian government agencies, the non-government organisation Greenomics has found that more than two-thirds of the land needed for the project will have to come from felling virgin forests.
''In total, based on our assessment, there's 500,000 hectares of unforested land that can potentially be used in Merauke,'' said Greenomics' executive director, Elfian Effendi. ''And those areas are not in one place, they are scattered everywhere.
''Foreign investors will not be interested in using small, separated landholdings … In any case, if they want to use the maximum area designated for the food estate, they will have to cut down 2 million hectares of forest.''
The Indonesian environmental group Wahli warned that large-scale land conversion would decimate water catchment areas and ''could result in a faster intrusion of sea water to the land''.
Father Ogi said Merauke's ethnically Melanesian indigenous people were anxious about the plan. They feared land traditionally used by them would be taken, and were apprehensive about a likely influx of workers from other parts of Indonesia.
In the early 1970s, the Suharto regime began a massive program of internal migration, known as transmigrasi, subsidising people from Java, Sulawesi and other regions to move to Papua.
Papua was annexed by Jakarta following a hotly disputed vote of 1025 handpicked delegates in 1969 known as the Act of Free Choice. At that time, 96 per cent of Papua's residents were Melanesian. At the last census, in 2000, Melanesians represented less than 70 per cent of the population, and the proportion is widely thought to have continued its decline.
Moreover, the non-indigenous population of Papua dominates formal employment and business, creating tensions among the Melanesians and fuelling separatist sentiments.
''The transmigrasi policy has been stopped [since 2000] but its impact is still going on,'' said Father Ogi. ''Indigenous people are marginalised and there is a social gap. It has created a lot of social jealousy. If the MIFEE is implemented, I think indigenous people will be more marginalised than they are now.''
Even so, the proposed estate has the strong support of the local government and the qualified backing of the Governor of Papua, Barnabas Suebu.
Mr Suebu's senior adviser, Agus Sumule, said the scheme should proceed gradually, first targeting 150,000 hectares of under-utilised land already converted into farmland as part of earlier transmigrasi programs.
Under Papua's special autonomy status, Mr Suebu had a veto over transmigration, Dr Sumule said, and the Governor had already vowed to preserve all swamp forests.''The Governor introduced a special bylaw that transferred the unused forest in the province to the communal ownership of the people,'' said Dr Sumule. ''You can't just go and transfer the ownership of it, like under the New Order [the era of Suharto].''