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Mega-Plantations in West Papua: A Growing Problem

27 October 2010

Joe Gonzales, MRG’s Media Intern in London, reports back from a meeting discussing the negative consequences of a commercial agriculture project on the indigenous people of West Papua, Indonesia.

While wearing a shirt bearing a West Papuan national flag, and noting that she wears it while abroad because it is illegal to do so in her own country, Rosa Moiwend steadily guides a mostly uninformed yet captivated audience through her homeland’s troubled recent past.

Rosa Moiwend

Moiwend is a grass roots human rights activist from West Papua, the Indonesian region comprising the western half of the island of New Guinea, 200 miles off the northern coast of Australia. It has been occupied by Indonesia since 1963, bringing an end to a West Papuan self-rule that had only begun in 1961, when the Netherlands renounced its colonial authority over the region.

Despite being part of Indonesia, however, Moiwend claims that the vast majority of ethnic Papuans do not identify themselves as Indonesian.  “It is very clear that West Papua is part of New Guinea, not Asia. We are a Melanesian culture, not Asian.”

In recognition of this, in 2001 the Indonesian government gave West Papua a status of special autonomy, entitling the province to a greater level of self-rule than most other Indonesian regions.  In June of this year, however, the Papua People’s Council rejected West Papua’s status of special autonomy owing to its lack of implementation by the Indonesian government.  Indeed, Moiwend reveals that Indonesia maintains a strong paramilitary presence in West Papua, remarking that one of the militias currently in the state played a large role in the East Timor massacres.

Regardless of the actual effectiveness of Papua’s rejection of its autonomous status, Moiwend points out that West Papua’s standing within Indonesia will be re-evaluated in 2026 (West Papua’s special autonomy was initially agreed upon for a 25-year period, nine of which have already passed).  She fears, however, that as the province’s population becomes ever more comprised of ethnically Javanese migrants who would not think of voting for special autonomy from the Indonesian state, chance for change in West Papua may be fleeting.  As it stands presently, indigenous Papuans only make up 40% of the populace owing to previous waves of migration.

Moiwend is a member of the Malind people, native to the Merauke region located in the central portion of the island’s southern coast, close to Indonesia’s border with independent Papua New Guinea.

In addition to its status as the ancestral lands of the Malind people, the Merauke region is home to the Merauke Integrated Food & Energy Estate, or MIFEE. MIFEE is a project that aims to convert the region into an agricultural super-hub that will supply grains necessary for the production of food and biofuels to the global marketplace.  This transformation, however, is having catastrophic results for the Malind indigenous to the area.

Ms. Moiwend’s London lecture, made possible by War Resisters International, makes the intimate links between the MIFEE project and Indonesia’s occupation of West Papua clear. Alarmingly, she reports that the Malind people’s land is being auctioned off to over 30 commercial investors without prior consent from the Malind landowners themselves. MIFEE aims to convert 1.6 million hectares into commercial farming estates. As such, this is a problem that can only be expected to continue to grow.

Indonesian palm oil plantation on Java (Achmad Rabin Taim)
Indonesian palm oil plantation on Java (Achmad Rabin Taim)

MIFEE will eventually grow a variety of agricultural commodities, from palm and soy to corn and sugar cane.  Rice production, however, is already well underway owing to the presence of the Merauke Integrated Rice Estate, MIFEE’s predecessor. The paddies necessary for rice cultivation, however, differ drastically from the savannah-like landscape Moiwend depicts when describing the natural state of her homeland.  As such, the hunting, gathering of sago, and all other methods of sustenance known to her people after generations of experience, are being rendered useless, leaving the Malind unable to continue their chosen way of life.

With the forest being cleared to make room for rice fields, crucial elements of Malind culture are also being destroyed. The forest’s role as the foundation of Malind culture is present in the Malind language. Moiwend speaks of the close, generation-spanning links her people have with their land and how, as a child, she learned the Malind language while being guided through the forest by her parents and grandparents. “Our language is inseparable from the livestock and forests,” she notes, and then laments that its use is declining owing to the intrusion of the MIFEE project.  Even the name Meruake is itself an Indonesian corruption of the region’s name in the Malind language, Marokehe.

In addition to the cultural loss, Moiwend suggests that MIFEE will have further consequences that will affect the entirety of West Papua.  The large number of labourers needed to cultivate 1.6 million hectares of farmland means that considerable numbers of Javanese and other non-Papuan Indonesians from the rest of the country are migrating to West Papua.  In doing so, these migrant labourers are causing a momentous shift in the island’s demographics that could have far-reaching effects on West Papua’s political future.

Indonesia’s insistence on selling parcels of Malind land in Merauke to commercial farmers simply confirms a belief that Moiwend holds: “Indonesia doesn’t want our people, they just want our land.” She insists that Papuan self-rule is the only way to resolve the human rights violations that continue to plague indigenous Papuans.

She expresses concern, however, over the previously mentioned nullifying effect continued Javanese migration could have on future votes concerning independence in West Papua. As such, Moiwend worries that the migration swell that projects like MIFEE induce will eventually bring about the end of indigenous Papuan peoples, something she believes has been the goal of the Indonesian government since 1963.  This potential ability of MIFEE to eventually eliminate Papuan culture brings about a strong reaction from Moiwend.  “No one should be surprised when people describe the activity at MIFEE as genocide.  This is a kind of genocide.”

West Papuans protest biofuels in London (Bernard Burns)
West Papuans protest biofuels in London (Bernard Burns)

Moiwend’s own work consists of coordinating different Papuan student groups in an effort to present a more unified front on threats to Papuan peoples, but she insists that West Papua needs the support of international NGOs and the international community as a whole.  She cites a need for international media coverage to make human right violations occurring in West Papua more ubiquitously known, particularly the negative effects MIIFE is having on her Malind people.

“There is still some time to act,” she optimistically states, because although the Malind people’s land has already been sold, most of them have not been removed from their land as of yet.  That optimism fades, however, when she thinks about where her people will go when the rest of their land is confiscated.  “I don’t know where my people can stay. Maybe they think we should move to the ocean.”

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.