As oil palm moves in, the Yei people’s forest slowly disappears.

Yance Mahuze, a well-known member of the Yei ethnic group from Toray village, Sota sub-district, Merauke Regency, was unable to conceal his sadness. His eyes were glazed with tears. What was going on? He looked over his ancestral forest, now an oil palm plantation. Some individuals from the Yeinan tribe (a sub-ethnic group of the Marind people), had agreed to sell their land to plantation companies.

The land is situated at the upper reaches of the Maro River, which flows through many villages on its way to Merauke city. Villages inhabited by the Yei people include Erambo, Toray, Poo, Kweel, Bupul and Tanas. To reach these villages, you have to follow the Trans-Papua road.

Oil palm is not only found in Sota sub-district, it has also arrived in Elikobel. Mahuze feels a sense of pity, since as far as the eye can see the forest that was formerly full of trees is now replaced with oil palm

Previously, he said, the forest was dense, and so if people wanted to visit relatives across the border in Papua New Guinea, they just had to walk for a few hours. Now, with the trees gone, it is too hot. “You need more than a day to reach PNG”, he said.

The local government in Merauke and Papua Provincial Government have allowed oil palm investment to enter the Yei people’s land, and they have been free to fell trees on a seemingly limitless area. Many sacred places, places where the ancestors used to stop or burial sites, and even sago groves, have been cleared.

“Places which used to be totally forbidden to clear are now being felled for oil palm”, he said.

He said that there are two companies operating in the Yeinan forest on the Indonesia- Papua New Guinea border: PT Internusa Jaya Sejahtera and PT Agriprima Persada Mulia.

When they first arrived, the companies promised to give work to Yei people. “But promises remained mere promises, Now, the forests, rivers, swamps and animals in the Yeinan area no longer belong to the Yei people”, he said.

The forest has always been their source of food, he said. They meet their everyday needs from the forests, whether frrom the different kinds of plants or the many species of fish. The area is also rich in animal live, including cassowaries, other birds, ground rats, pig-nose turtles, crocodiles and more.

When the Catholic church arrived in the Yeinan area, it introduced rubber, which the local people have diligently planted.

The upper reaches of the Maro River where deforestation has occurred have silted up. Riverine wildlife can’t bear living in the Maro River. He explains that many turtles have been coming onto the land to take shelter under tall trees. Normally, the people find the turtles on the banks of the Maro River. The same goes for crocodiles – there used to be many in the Maro River, but now they have moved to the Wanggo River.

“The Merauke local government must stop any more investors coming to Yeinan”, he said.

Currently, officials in Toray village are planning to recreate the forest by replanting native plants known to the Yei people. They plan to use village funds. Before the oil palm, a common plant was gambier, which is also part of the cassowary’s diet. Aside from these native crops, they also plan to  plant rubber trees along the road through Toray village. Apart from providing tree cover, the sap can be tapped. “We’ll plant rubber along the Trans Papua road between Merauke and Boven Digoel, and the road between Merauke and Jagebob”, he said.

Egenius Baljai, the traditional chief of Kweel village, in a discussion about participatory mapping held in Merauke, said that the whole Yeinan community should refuse to sell forests or other land to oil palm investors.

Now he said, there is little left of the Yeinan people’s land, and it needs to be kept as the community’s own food reserve.

“Live and death, its all down to mother (earth). So stop selling forest and land. Let’s live and die on the Yeinan land,” he said.

According to him, there has actually been an agreement signed by the Bupati of Meruake, Frederikus Gebze and witnessed by several NGOs from Merauke, Jakarta and Jayapura, concerning the boundary of the Yeinan land which cannot be disturbed by companies.

YL Franky from Yayasan Pusaka stated that in Merauke, only two companies were members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, PT Agriprima Cipta Persada and PT Agrinusa Persada Mulia, subsidiaries of the Ganda Group. [awasMIFEE note: I can’t confirm this information – neither the individual companies nor Ganda Group or its other names Agro Mandiri Semesta or AMS Plantations could be found on the membership list on the RSPO website].

When a company becomes an RSPO member, he said, it must follow standard criteria for investment, such as the principle of transparency, respecting human rights and asking for community agreement before entering an area.

“That means the community must know what sort of company it is, how much land it will use, and they have to map important places, such as sago groves, riverbanks on so on.”

Even if the land has already been planted with oil palm, he said, the community should still have access “That means the community should have access to the area, even the palm oil mill. They must also conserve the sago groves, and not let them be cleared,” he said.

Yosehi Mekiuw, Deacon of the Agriculture Faculty at the Musamus University Merauke, said that the upper reached of the Maro River had experienced drastic changes and expressed regret that people living near the oil palm plantations have beome the object of suffering.

Even though “green” standards for oil palm exist, laid down by the RSPO or the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO), but they have not been able to protect the people from problems, and the Yei people’s forest is gone too. “What is environmentally-friendly oil palm supposed to look like? None of us know”.

The lecturer, who is a member of the Yei ethnic group feels that since the companies started clearing the forest they have exceeded the limits placed, meaning sacred places have been cleared, sago groves, burial grounds and ancestral village sites have all been covered with plantation.

Mekiew is also concerned about logging in the upper Maro region saying that it should be in harmony with the surronding vegetation.

“Don’t just clear the forest any-old-how, and as a result disturb the water available to all living beings far into the future. Remember, water is always going to flow downstream, so if the upper reaches are damaged, it will affect the river’s whole course.”

Mekiew also spoke about the problems of mapping sacred sites, which he said had been done both by the Merauke local government and environmental NGOs. “One map and then another map, eventually it becomes chaotic and it doesn’t work. The results don’t match. The community end up losing out, the last remnants of their land are sold to the company, which just clears even more forest.”

In fact, the local government should establish a single body to deal with investment, so there is clear surveillance. “Let’s not just talk about it like a nice idea”

Mekiew feels it is a shame that it appears that researchers from outside Merauke study the natural resources in the area but live in Java “They only come if there is a need for their physical presence” he said. Meanwhile Unmus, the university in Merauke has plenty of experienced researchers who live and work in Merauke, but who are never involved.  Unmus could have a role in discussing land management in the area.

Agapitus Batbual

Source: Mongabay Indonesia:

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