‘The Mahuzes’, a film about conflicts between indigenous people and agribusiness companies in Merauke, was released in Indonesian last year, and now it is available with English subtitles. It’s one of a series of documentaries produced as part of the ‘Ekspedisi Indonesia Biru’, a one-year road-trip on motorbikes by filmmakers Dandhy Laksono and Ucok Suparta, visiting diverse communities around the archipelago, often communities in struggle.
The Mahuzes follows one clan of Marind people in Muting village, where oil palm companies have started clearing land in the last few years on five massive plantations. The effects of these plantations are having a major impact – even the water from the Bian River has become undrinkable. The Mahuze clan is resisting – refusing to sell their land, erecting customary barriers to forbid the company from entering – but the company (PT Agriprima Persada Mulia) just pulls up their boundary markers. As well as these direct conflicts with the plantation companies, we see how they attempt to deal with the conflicts that inevitably arise when irresponsible companies show up with compensation money – there is an emotional peacemaking ceremony between the Marind and the neighbouring Mandodo people, but also anger in meetings that some elders in their own clan may have struck a secret deal with the company.
The Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate was originally launched as a massive industrial agriculture project in 2010, but it failed to reach the stated ambition in its original plan, and the cluster of oil palm plantations around Muting were some of the only developments that have actually started work in the last years. However, in May 2015 President Joko Widodo travelled to Merauke to relaunch the plan to convert over a million hectares of forest and savannah to mechanised rice production. The filmmakers also visit the site of the new rice development, revealing that once again the central government is ordering a mega project without due consideration of the local social and environmental conditions. One issue is the water – Irawan, who works for the water provider, explains that most of the water in the flat Kurik sub-district comes from rainfall. How could these conditions possibly support huge areas of irrigated rice-fields?
The Marind people’s staple food is sago, and sago palms grow abundantly in groves in the forest. As Darius Nerob explains in the film “If we plant rice, it’s 6 months before we can eat. But with sago, any day we need, we can just go and fell a tree… This tree can feed a family for half a year…. Even though the transmigrant program has existed for 33 years, Marind people have stuck with sago, they haven’t shifted to rice.”