Land grabbing in a forgotten country – MIFEE-affected villager visits Netherlands

By Selma Zijlstra – 11 February 2013‘Feed Indonesia, then feed the world’. Backed by this slogan Indonesia companies are buying land in the Indonesian province of West Papua in order to grow crops.  Papuans themselves however are not reaping the benefits from this economic activity. Instead, they see their forests, known as the ‘lungs of Asia’, disappear.

The villagers of Kaliki in West Papua receive 25 rupiahs per square meter of land, which is less than 0,03 eurocents. They still haven’t seen the contract with the company Medco Group. Apparently this contract is of indefinite duration, so the chances of ever regaining ownership of their lands appear scant.

The person that is brave enough to oppose these practices only needs to be reminded of what happened in a neighboring village. A critical question of a local inhabitant was answered with three bullets.

Zefnat Kuhubun, a minister from Kaliki tells his story during the yearly Dutch Papua Solidarity Day, organized this year on February 2nd by the Papua Working Group in Amersfoort. “People are selling their land very cheaply. The companies promise jobs to the villagers but nothing is happening. Companies spread discord within and between families and tribes. To prevent conflict in their village, a lot of Papuans see no other option than to sell their land.” Meanwhile, the motorbikes that villagers have bought from the companies with the 14.000 rupiahs they earned with the land sale proved to be defective. “They betrayed us”, says Kuhubun.

Kaliki is not an isolated case. In numerous villages in Merauke companies negotiate unfair deals with Papua, or worse, ignore the local population and deal directly with the Indonesian government. Although land grabbing in Papua is not a recent phenomenon, large scale land acquisition has increased since the Indonesian government started the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE) agricultural program in 2010.

The program was started in response to the food crisis of 2008. With the slogan ‘Feed Indonesia, then feed the world’, the government wants to make sure that Indonesia can meet its own food and energy needs, and export the surplus. The government intends to use the land for the production of palm oil, sugar and rice. Besides that, companies have set their sights on West Papua’s large forests for the production of biomass and wood shavings. The majority of the companies are Indonesian, but there are companies from South Korea, China and Singapore as well.

The goal is to cultivate around 1,2 million hectares of land. Many of the ecologically rich forests will have to be cut down. This would be a substantial blow to the ‘lungs of Asia’, the second largest forest on earth after the Amazon forest.

“God gave us a paradise, we say in Papua”, says Septer Manufandu, an activist who is present in Amersfoort. The question however, is what will remain of this paradise.

While the Indonesian government considers the MIFEE program as a development program, the Papuan populations of West Papua don’t share in the abundance of natural resources in the province, claims Soei Liong Liem of UK-based human rights organization Tapol. During Solidarity Day in Amersfoort he argues that the economic development of the local population is not a priority for the Indonesian government.

The slogan ‘food security for Indonesia’ means little to the Papuans. “The people of Papua don’t eat rice. They are used to eating sago and are happy about that,’ according to Manufandu. Since sago is extracted from palm trees, cutting down forests threatens to jeopardize the food supply of local populations.

The number of testimonies about unfair practices is growing. Companies are required to consult the local population, but a widely cited report by the independent organization Awas MIFEE describes the track record as ‘a shocking catalogue of deceit, broken promises and coercion.’ Compensation that was promised has not been paid out and it is difficult for Papuans to get a job, or they have to settle for very low wages. Rivers and lakes have been polluted and forests have been cut down. In some villages, the local residents have been forced to move. In other villages their freedom of movement has been limited. The protests and complaints of a growing number of villages are usually ignored.

Act of Free Choice?
All of these developments have made West Papua part of the global discourse about food security. The current plight of the Papuans, however, is only the last chapter in an ongoing process of repression and marginalization that began with the transfer of authority over Papua from the Netherlands to Indonesia in 1963. Indonesia was to form the interim administration until 1969 at which point the Papuans could vote for independence or Indonesian citizenship in the Act of Free Choice. The referendum was everything but ‘free’ and was characterized by intimidation and fraud. It came as no surprise that the outcome was in favor of joining Indonesia.

Since the Act of Free Choice, Papuans have been marginalized in their own homeland. One of the causes of this marginalization is the mass immigration from other parts of Indonesia to West Papua, which is intended to promote economic development in the province. Under the MIFEE program, 2 to 4 million workers will be brought in from the outside to provide labour for the new companies, according to Manufandu. “There are about 1,5 million Papuans in West Papua. This means we will become a minority in our own homeland.”

According to Soei Liong Liem  the Indonesian government is only prepared to talk about autonomy once the economic objectives have been attained. However, Papuans might only comprise about 40 percent of the population of West Papua at that point.

Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Frans Timmermans Manufandu believes the international community has the obligation to help solve the problems and he thinks The Netherlands can play an important role in this process. The Dutch government should listen to the Papuans and urge the Indonesian government to open up West Papua for foreign observers.

The Dutch government however, appears to be hesitant to accept such a role. Minister of Foreign Affairs Frans Timmermans carefully remarked that he will discuss the matter “with respect for the Indonesians.”  Meanwhile, he denies structural repression or human rights violations by the Indonesian authorities.

Pro Papua is an advocacy group from The Netherlands that stands up for the interests of Papuans in Indonesia.   Koen de Jager, board member of Prop Papua, has his doubts the commitment of Frans Timmermans to the Papuans, despite his promises to make human rights a priority of Dutch foreign policy. “As member of parliament he has never shown any enthusiasm for the Papuan cause. During parliamentary consultations in December 2011 he indicated that he did not understand why things got out of hand after the 3rd Papuan People’s Congress since “it has been so quiet in the past five years.””

Nevertheless, political attention for the issue has increased since 2000. In particular, the Christian SGP and Christian Union, the socialist SP, and the nationalist PVV regularly ask questions in the Dutch Parliament about the issue.

What does Pro Papua expect from the Minister of FA Timmermans? De Jager: “Timmermans will have to point out that dialogue and access to journalists are an inseparable part of any functioning democracy. These things will have to be brought up bilaterally as well as multilaterally at the EU-level in order to maintain pressure.”

However, Soei Liong Liem expresses skepticism about the effectiveness of Dutch pressure. Indonesia is wary of criticism from their old colonial occupier. Besides, the growing economic power of Indonesia feeds the self confidence of the government. “The world has changed. Indonesia belongs to the fastest growing economies in the world. Indonesians have build up an enormous amount of confidence and have become arrogant. Do you really think they will listen to Prime Minister Mark Rutte?”

De Jager thinks the Indonesian government will not be entirely indifferent to Dutch pressure. “Obviously Indonesia will not be happy with negative press on the international stage, so bringing up these issues can certainly be useful.”
Whereas Pro Papua focuses on the political side of the fate of Papua, Dutch NGO HAPIN specializes in development cooperation. One of the ways in which HAPIN tries to address the issue of land grabbing, is to record the various adat (traditional) laws that regulate local land use. In the absence of official documents of ownership, Papuans need something to demonstrate that they have been using their lands throughout their history, according to Sophie Schreurs, director of HAPIN. Furthermore, in cooperation with human rights activists, HAPIN has plans to spread awareness amongst the Papuans about the consequences of land grabbing and about their rights related to this matter.

Besides HAPIN, the only Dutch organizations that are active in Papua are the WNF and Kerk in Actie (Church in Action). Many organizations have withdrawn from Papua, because their activities were thwarted by the Indonesian authorities.

This is typical for an issue that, apart from the Papuan diaspora and from a small group of committed people, generates little international attention. Even within the context of debates about hot topics like land grabbing and climate change the developments within Papua suffer from a pronounced lack of interest. The fate of the ‘lungs of Asia’ deserves a more prominent place in these debates, says Sophie Schreurs.

Fortunately, the visit of Zefnat Kuhubun and Septer Manufandu to the Netherlands didn’t go unnoticed. They paid a visit to the Dutch Parliament, where they were received by the PVV, Christian Union, SGP, PvdA and VVD. Following the visit of the Papuan delegation, these political parties have submitted questions to the Minister of FA Timmermans in which they ask if he is aware of the problem of land grabbing in Papua and if he is prepared to press for improvement of the socio-economic position of the Papuans and for laying down their property rights.  Timmermans will visit Indonesia from 19 to 21 February. “This visit will show if Papua is close to his heart,” according to De Jager.

Original article in Dutch:

Translation by ProPapua

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