MIFEE: The stealthy face of conflict in West Papua

West Papua, the easternmost island under Indonesia’s control, is a land beset by troubles. Rarely a week goes by without news of some new tragedy in a relentless conflict that has endured and evolved over fifty years.

Last June has been a particularly bloody one: troops have gone on the rampage in Wamena, burning houses and shooting indiscriminately. On the island of Yapen, security forces have been carrying out raids on villages, arresting several people and forcing thousands to flee in fear. Around the West Papuan capital, Jayapura, several supporters of the West Papua National Committee (KNPB) have been killed by police in separate incidents: three men were killed on a demonstration, Teyu Tabuni was shot in the head by a uniformed policeman and finally Mako Tabuni, a KNPB leader, was also shot, unarmed, running from plain-clothes police.

Adding to the climate of tension and fear has been a spate of seemingly random fatal shootings, presumably carried out by someone with a vested interest in promoting conflict. The police say the shootings are the work of persons unknown, who they never seem able to track down. Intelligence agents blame ‘separatists’. Papuan groups suspect the state somehow plays a hand.

It is this unstemmed tide of bloodshed and terror that earns remote West Papua any little attention it might attract. And so it must be; a conflict that causes such deep suffering across West Papua must be responded to, whether in Papua, in Indonesia and overseas.

However in Papua there are many other aspects of conflict, more complex and subtle than the headline-grabbing news of shootings and terror.

One factor driving continuing conflict is the lucrative appeal of the natural riches that are to be found in and around West Papua: wood, minerals, fish and land. The military, for example, have a financial stake through their private business such as illegal logging, protection rackets around mining areas, or prostitution or gambling outfits, while using the violent conflict to justify their presence. Meanwhile the lure of possibly finding well-paid work continues to draw many migrants from other parts of Indonesia. This creates tension as native Papuans find themselves stigmatised and marginalised, with no place in the booming economy.

This is the story of how resource conflicts are building in the southernmost part of West Papua, as agribusiness companies stealthily invade the forests, leaving its people dispossessed.

The Claim that West Papua can feed Indonesia and the World.

West Papua’s deep south, the hinterland of the city of Merauke, is less often a flashpoint in the violent conflict than some areas, such as the Central Highlands, the area around the Freeport gold and copper mine in Timika, or the Papuan capital Jayapura. However, a different kind of conflict is occurring in this mostly flat land. Companies are moving in to colonize the land for their plantations, cheating and coercing local people to give up their land.

This conflict goes by the name of MIFEE – the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate. It is an ambitious program designed by the former leader of Merauke Regency Johannes Gluba Gebze together with the national government and certain companies. Together they conceived the idea that the flat and fertile land around Merauke would be the ideal location for a major agricultural expansion, guaranteeing Indonesia’s national food security into the future, and establish Indonesia as a food exporter.

The plan was given extra impetus by a Saudi investor, the Bin Laden Group, which promised to invest four million dollars to cultivate rice on 500,000 hectares of land. In the words of the Indonesian President, Merauke would “Feed Indonesia, then feed the world”.

Eventually the Saudis pulled out, and the scheme was redesigned, now allowing for the cultivation of agro-fuel crops as well as food. 50% of the land was designated for rice and other basic food crops, while 20% would be oil palm and 30% sugar cane plantations. A ‘grand design’ was elaborated for efficient, modern agribusiness, which divided the project area into clusters and provided for associated processing facilities.

MIFEE was officially launched in August 2010. Then as 2011 progressed there was some speculation of whether the program would go ahead or not. For the moment, the ambitious dream it promotes of highly mechanised intensive agricultural production still persists, even if only in glossy reports of Indonesia’s national development strategy, the ‘Master Plan for the Acceleration and Expansion of Indonesia’s Economic Development (MP3EI)’, where Merauke is earmarked as a hub of food production.

Seen from the Forest, MIFEE looks a little different

Looking beyond the grand plans, what is actually happening on the ground? Well agricultural development is certainly going ahead, but it’s not exactly as had been promoted. There has been limited interest from companies wanting to plant rice or other basic food crops, and those companies that did make such plans complain that there is no-one to foot the bill for the infrastructure development needed.

Instead, companies attracted to the area in 2008, 2009 and 2010 are now starting to develop vast oil palm, sugar cane and wood chip plantations. By May 2010 local government data revealed that there were 36 large plantation plans on the table.

Those plans are indeed vast. If every company in possession of provisional location permits were to exploit their allocations, the new estates would cover more than two million hectares.

Some companies are moving forward faster with their plans, others more cautiously, whilst there has been no news of recent activity from several of the potential investors. However the pioneers are ploughing ahead, and have already started clearing land. Medco, a company whose principal interests lie in oil and gas exploration, has been clearing forest to export wood chips. Another Indonesian company, the Rajawali group, has been planting sugar cane. Korindo, an Indonesian-based Korean company with a history of operating in the area, has been clearing land for oil palm.

Other companies are a few steps behind; applying for the extra permits they need, evaluating the terrain, trying to win the support of local communities and waiting to see how the political and economic climate develops. They include companies owned by some of Indonesia’s richest people, including husband and wife team Murdaya Poo and Siti Hartati Murdaya and Martua Sitorus, chief operating officer of Singapore-based Wilmar.

While many of the companies interested in MIFEE are owned by the Indonesian elite, there are also foreign companies planning investment in Merauke, mainly coming from South Korea. Apart from Korindo mentioned above, and the LG International Corporation, which holds a 25% stake in Medco’s wood-chip operation, two other Korean companies are involved. One is Daewoo International Corporation (owned by Posco), which is trying to establish itself in West Papua planting oil palm after meeting heavy resistance to its planned land grab in Madagascar, and Moorim Paper, who bought a controlling stake in local company Plasma Nutfah Marind Papua in order to develop an industrial forestry plantation.

When Agribusiness Arrives at Your Village…

The Malind, the indigenous people of Merauke, live in close connection with the forest. Their staple food is the starch of the sago palm which grows in groves in the forest, which they supplement by hunting wild animals. Each person belongs to a clan, which represents an important plant or animal and so connects them to some part of the forest ecosystem. The forest is divided between the different clans for hunting, using a geography based on remembered stories of the ancestors’ journeys.

Indonesian law also recognises that local people have collective ownership rights over the forest, which are known as ulayat rights. A company wanting to take control of the land must ensure that it secures the consent of the ulayat holder to be able to use the land.

This becomes the first point of conflict. Big companies, experienced in the art of manipulation and deception, and easily able to buy influence and military protection, flex their muscles against villagers who have always allocated land on a collective basis through age old customary practices.

Armed with GPS machines to delineate exactly the boundaries of their allocation, the companies offer the villagers compensation based on what they regard as the value of the land: the marketable timber contained in the trees that grow on it. By doing this, they claim that they are buying the right to use the land for industrial plantations.

Yet to the Malind, this forest defies valuation: it is not only where they find their sago and hunt animals to nourish themselves, but also their culture, their history and their very identity.

Villagers, local NGOs and local media have reported how companies involved in MIFEE have been cheating local people even out or this limited compensation. In Nakias village, for example, which lies in Korindo’s operational area, the company gave villagers the equivalent of $6000 US dollars for the wood they had already taken from their land. This was far below the levels stipulated by the provincial governor, which should include a premium for valuable timber species. But since it was the company who did the accounting of the volumes of wood they had taken, the people had no way to check their calculations.

Villagers from Muting village have also reported that PT Bio Inti Agrindo, a company linked to Daewoo International Corporation, has bought up land for the pitiful price of six dollars per hectare.

Meanwhile in Zanegi village, villagers told researchers from the NGO Pusaka how they were cheated by Medco. In a ceremony in 2009, Medco staff and villagers signed what the company called a “Certificate of Appreciation”, which was accompanied by a gift of $33,400. They took it as a goodwill gesture. Only later, when Medco had felled the forest and wanted to take away the wood did the company’s real intentions become clear. They produced a document which they claimed was an appendix to the “Certificate of Appreciation” which stated that wood was to be compensated at 2000 Rupiah per cubic meter, about one-hundredth of what the community would have received if they had sold the wood directly to a local wood-trader.

Other villages in Medco’s concession area tell similar stories of deception. They also report broken promises – the schools, clinics, churches and roads which the company was supposed to build and never did.

From around the affected area, the Malind people have regularly voiced opposition to MIFEE and their shock at the people who have already suffered at the hands of Medco, Rajawali and Korindo. Few villagers may want this form of progress, but it is hard to know how to prevent these developments. In May 2012 news came through of communities trying to make it as difficult as possible for the companies. Four villages were refusing to release the land that Korindo wants for less than 100 billion Rupiah, or over $10 million.

It is a large amount of money, but far from unreasonable, as it is the price for the whole population of four villages to accept a permanent dislocation from their current ways of subsistence and somehow join the money economy. Korindo was refusing to offer more than 4 billion Rupiah. But even if they managed to get the full amount that they have demanded, would such a financial prize really reflect the heartfelt aspirations of those villagers?

Sums of money which may be insignificant as a replacement for the forest can nevertheless be large amounts in day-to-day life. This then becomes the cause of further conflict, not directly with the company this time, but between the people themselves. Disputes over land and money have caused envy and conflict between the people of Sanggase and Boepe villages, as it has between Domande and Onggari villages. The arrival of development brings social breakdown in many subtle ways.

Adding to the pressure will be the military and police presence, and the effects of large numbers of migrants from outside Papua who arrive to work on the plantations. The Marind people will be forced to find ways to adapt quickly to new ways of living, or if not, face a life of poverty squeezed between the plantations, the latest victims of the enclosure of land for private economic interests.

This is a slow and stealthy conflict, the transformation of such a great expanse of forest into farmland cannot be done overnight, nor can forest people casually leave behind their identity and livelihood to enter this brave new world. The Malind have a long struggle ahead of them, whether they aim to reject the developments entirely or find some way to adjust to life in very different surroundings.

On the most basic level many Malind people can expect to face hunger, with their sago forests gone and too poor to buy rice. This is the grand irony of MIFEE, a project that was supposed to ensure the food security of the whole of Indonesia cannot even provide a secure future for the people in its immediate area.

Originally posted on the Asian Human Rights Commission website. The views shared in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the AHRC, and the AHRC takes no responsibility for them.

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