Development, Environment & energy, Trade and industry | Asia, The Pacific

6 June 2017

Indonesia’s plans to transform Papuan forests into industrial estates could yield food and biofuels, but they need to be adapted to local customs, knowledge and environment if they are not to further undermine justice and sustainability, Julian Caldecott and Mochamad Indrawan write.

Southeastern Papua has long attracted loggers and transmigrants. Indonesian government plans also target the region for industrial plantations that aim to turn forests into land for food and biofuels.

Since 2008, these plans have included the million-hectare Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE) created during President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s administration. This would grow food crops, oil palms and trees for chipping, and was endorsed by President Joko Widodo during his 2015 visit to Papua. The chief national interest lies in food and energy security, with land-hungry corporations and speculators having their own motivations. But the priorities of local people and the government of Papua province are not necessarily one and the same.

One concern over the MIFEE proposal draws on the trauma caused by the cancellation of traditional rights to lands and forests in the 1960s, when those resources were allocated to the central government. The disastrous million-hectare Mega Rice Project in Central Kalimantan in the 1990s is also a case that still burns in people’s minds, just as the greenhouse gas emissions it released still affect climate worldwide.

Previous failed and destructive plantation schemes in Papua also contribute to a widespread fear that MIFEE will extinguish the resource rights of local people and replace ecosystems that have supported them for millennia while displacing communities and importing millions of workers and their families from other parts of Indonesia.

There is also indignation that the Special Autonomy rights of Papua province are being infringed by pressure to accept an initiative that is neither understood nor accepted by Papuans. While MIFEE was being designed, the provincial government was formulating its own low-carbon, biodiversity-friendly development plan, which includes maintaining 90 per cent (and totally protecting two-thirds) of its territory under forest. Forest conversion through MIFEE will release massive quantities of greenhouse gas emissions, thus violating national and provincial commitments that include a national target of a 29 per cent reduction in emissions. A starker contrast in intent and impact between these plans can scarcely be envisioned.

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Nevertheless, large-scale land development is already underway in Papua, so the aims should be to minimise harm and maximise sustainability. To have some chance of meeting the needs of stakeholders, this would depend on modifying MIFEE by applying existing Indonesian and Papuan laws and policies, including mandatory attention to seven key principles.

The first is free prior and informed consent, based on negotiated rather than imposed settlements, and in line with a Constitutional Court ruling that requires the land rights of peoples living by customary law to be fully recognised by government. The nation’s highly-regarded Indigenous People’s Alliance has been advocating such that an act of law and implementing regulations are needed.

The second is transparency, to prevent corruption, collusion and nepotism, and to build public understanding and potential support for decisions. Papua province’s open access data on spatial planning could be a key tool in helping achieve this.

The third is inclusive policy-making, with consideration of public welfare, security, agriculture, forestry, and village development. Factoring in greenhouse gas emissions, the risk of asset devaluation due to climate change, and the over-arching priority of climate change adaptation is also essential.

The fourth is maintaining ecosystem goods and services, considering flood control, carbon storage, biodiversity, and sacred areas. This should include detailed, precautionary, and comparative analysis of costs and benefits that cover all ecosystem goods and services even if they cannot be quantified. In several provinces, developments are being connected with “green budgeting”, which means that social and environmental aspects are increasingly recognised as part of economic development.

The fifth is environmental change management based on compliance with environmental assessment laws and capacity-building for the district governments concerned.

The sixth is spatial planning built on compliance with laws on planning, consultation and the dissemination of information to all stakeholders, including to local communities.

The seventh is private sector participation, including the positive and inclusive evaluation of all proposals for their contribution to net local benefits and social and economic sustainability in Papua.

The drivers of demand for MIFEE are complex, and Papuans may or may not benefit from opportunities linked to land speculation and commodity exports. But, the global economy is now constrained by environmental limits, notably by climate change, so the days of freely liquidating carbon-storing ecosystems in order to export food and biofuels are clearly numbered.

Indonesia is already trying to help create a lower-carbon world economy, and this participation is vital and must continue. If despite this, ecosystem change is decided upon, educational dialogue is essential to build consensus around new ways of relating to living systems. This applies also to in-migration since indigenous Papuans have much to teach settlers about how to live sustainably in a land with unfamiliar climate and biota.

Meanwhile, as a new common vision is developed, revenue sharing, arbitration, new investment, compensation, and legal compulsion all have essential roles in putting aspiration into effect. Applying the principles of Indonesian and Papuan law to the MIFEE initiative would help preserve elements of justice and sustainability that are currently seriously at risk.

This piece is based on the authors’ article for Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies. You can read and download the article for free at

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