Three Years of MIFEE (part 2): First Villages Feel the Impact as the Plantation Menace Spreads.

looking over BIA concessionThe forest villages of Merauke are as remote as it is possible to imagine in the twenty-first century. Nowhere in Indonesia is further from Jakarta – 3700 kilometres as the crow flies. 662 km of forest and a high mountain range separate Merauke from the Papuan capital, Jayapura, which is also the focus of most of West Papua’s social movements. Many of the villages are not accessible by road, and have no electricity or telecommunications links either. Local indigenous people, who mostly identify as belonging to sub-ethnic groups of the Malind people, get most of what they need from the forests, grasslands and swamps that cover the area.

When a convergence of national and local political interests decided that this area was to be intensively developed as a new centre of industrial food and biofuel production, the Malind people faced an immediate threat to their cultural survival. Since the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE) was officially inaugurated three years ago dozens of companies have applied for plantation permits, and proceeded to try and get control over the Malind People’s ancestral lands.

As the area is so remote, and as so many different villages and companies are involved, the impact on the Malind people can easily go unnoticed by those outside the area. Therefore the most basic act of solidarity with the Malind people as they face this huge upheaval in their livelihoods, is to make sure their isolation does not allow the companies to force their way in with impunity, and where possible, allow their voices to reach the wider world.

That is exactly what awasMIFEE has been trying to do since the website was launched in early 2012. However, we realise that not all readers follow the blog posts as obsessively as they are written, and for that reason, felt it might be helpful to provide a summary of the different ways MIFEE has been affecting communities.


Under Papuan law, indigenous people have rights over their ancestral land, known as ulayat rights. If a company wants to use that land they have to negotiate access with the ulayat rights holders first. According to Malind tradition, different clans hold the rights to different areas of land, which also become their hunting grounds and place where they look for other foods. Each clan has a chief and companies will try to get the signature of the clan chiefs, by fair means or foul.

The first companies to make deals often did so through simple deception. For example, in Zanegi village in 2009, Medco gave the villagers 300 million rupiah and a ‘Certificate of Appreciation’. The people interpreted this as a friendly gesture. They did not realise that they were signing away rights to their land, and also agreeing to be compensated for the wood on the land at 2500 Rupiah per cubic meter, a fraction of the price they would get selling individual logs to wood traders.

In other places companies have continued to try to deceive communities by referring to money as ‘appreciation money’ (uang penghargaan) ‘money to open the door’ (uang kelok pintu), ‘ex-gratia payments’ (uang tali asih) and so on. The people are led to believe that the money is a token of encouragement, rather than a legally binding land deal. This has been recorded in villages such as Kaliki and Domande by Rajawali Group companies, and in Bupul and Muting by AMS Ganda group companies.


A slightly different form of coercion has been seen in Kampung Selor and Kampung Onggari, where local people have reported that companies brought clan leaders to Merauke city where they were put up in hotels and provided with money to buy alcohol and the services of prostitutes. Later, when they were drunk, they were asked to sign a land release agreement.

Although the whole village will lose out if the forest is gone, normally companies only focus their efforts on trying to convince community leaders (administrative and traditional village leaders and clan chiefs) to sign away the land. These community leaders have been flown by the company to visit other plantations, in one case (Wilmar) as far away as Sumatra.

Companies have also made promises to build village facilities and these have rarely been honoured. A typical list might include schools, clinics, churches, new houses, roads, electricity supply and sports facilities. However once the deal is signed the new facilities fail to materialise. Or only a church is built.

By the time other companies were ready to make deals, other communities had heard of what happened in Zanegi and were more wary. Some villages decided that they would demand what they considered fair compensation for their land, based on the community’s real needs over the nominal 35-year lifetime of a plantation. For example, in May 2012 four villages said they would only permit Korindo subsidiary PT Dongin Prabhawa to operate if the company gave them 100 billion Rupiah. Sums a plantation company is never going to pay. Making these high demands can be understood as a strategy to resist the plantation plan, but from a community which doesn’t believe that it still has a chance of refusing to sell its land and preventing the company from moving in. Some of those villages have reportedly since settled for a lower sum, others continue to resist.

This feeling of coercion is underlined by the fact that each company is accompanied by military or military police (Brimob) who are present each time the company describes its plans to the community or negotiates a land release agreement. Even if the military are ostensibly present as security guards or witnesses and do not directly threaten the people, their presence alone can be sufficiently intimidating to create the impression that refusing the company’s plans is not a realistic option.

In other cases the military threat has been more direct. Using a technique reminiscent of how plantation companies obtained land in Sumatra during the Suharto era, threatening people as communists, MIFEE companies have been accused of trying to politicise the struggle, by threatening communities that they will be treated as OPM separatists. The military’s violent and indiscriminate repression against alleged OPM members in West Papua is well-known, and is enough to cause widespread panic. These allegations have been reported from the concessions of one of the main oil palm companies, where the guards are all Kopassus members. Most recently, PT Mayora caused panic in Yowid village by making similar allegations. As women and children were preparing to take refuge in the forest, some village elders felt they had no option but to sign the document PT Mayora presented them with.

The amount of compensation that companies have paid has varied, but recently has tended to settle on a standard of 300,000 Rupiah per hectare (about $30). Once shared out between all the families in the clan this is really not very money to compensate the loss of their land which had sustained people all their lives. Even worse, the money is delivered in a lump sum so it is usually finished very fast.

Here is a comparison which shows the low regard in which indigenous communities are held. Siti Hartari Murdaya, one of the owners of a MIFEE company, was recently convicted in a graft case for bribing the district leader for a permit for a 4500 hectare oil palm plantation in Buol, Sulawesi. She paid 1 billion Rupiah  for the permit, which works out as 222,000 Rupiah per hectare. Her company, Hardaya Inti Plantations has yet to reach a settlement with the villagers in the area, but other companies have paid a maximum of 300,000 Rp, not much more than she paid this one official.


As the companies move in, local people learn about poverty. Throughout their history, the forest has always been there, with abundant sago groves to provide sustenance and forest animals easy to hunt. Selling forest products such as gambier resin provides some money to buy other essentials. With the forest gone, food is hard to find, ironically for a project that was supposed to ensure a nation’s food security, and people become dependent on the cash economy.

The descent into poverty has been seen most clearly in Zanegi village. With the forest gone, food is hard to find. Interviewed for the video Mama Malind Su Hilang (Our mother is gone), Moses Kaize said that before Medco moved in, a hunter could find meat within about an hour. To hunt a deer now, it would take a full day or even two. Even to find sago the villagers have to travel to temporary camps far from the villages, their sago groves destroyed by the company that promised to preserve them. The village is often empty as everyone is away. Those that find work with the company have no security, they are without contracts and paid enough to feed a family, no more.

Children are reported as suffering from malnutrition, and this has sharply increased since the company moved in. In the first six months of 2013, five young children died of malnutrition or respiratory diseases in Zanegi village.

There are reports that in recent months Medco has started to take responsibility for the disasters it has created in Zanegi and Boepe villages. The company has apparently started supporting teachers and ensuring healthcare and supporting the village economy by preparing land and providing seeds and fertilisers for people to grow vegetables which they can sell through the company.

The process of impoverishment can start before the forest is felled however. As infrastructure is built to support MIFEE and company personnel, their military guards and more transmigrants move onto the Malind people’s land, they also consume forest resources such as meat and fish. This makes it harder for the indigenous people to obtain their subsistence needs from the forest, and face increasing pressure to engage more with the money economy, including selling their land to the companies.

An example is the Inggun Swamp, which was recently split in two by a new road. Original plans were for a bridge to cross the swamp, paid for from the national budget, but in the end earth and concrete were piled up to split the swamp in two. There was no environmental assessment to examine the road’s effect on the local hydrology, ecology, or the subsistence needs of people in nearby Kampung Wayau. Visitors to the area have reported meeting local policemen riding out on their motorbikes to go fishing in the swamp, using the new roads. As such areas become more and more accessible it is likely that people from the urban areas come to hunt and fish. The people from Wayau have not yet agreed to surrender their land to the Wilmar or Hardaya group companies, but if the integrity of the local forest is diminished, their choice is also reduced.

When through choice or coercion communities do eventually sell, the money they receive is a pittance if it is seen as a replacement for all the forest could provide for decades to come, but at the moment it is handed over it is a considerable amount, paid in cash. People know they should use the money wisely, but what options do they really have for investment? More often than not the money is finished almost immediately as traders come up from the city and persuade people to buy goods for vastly inflated prices, leaving the community with nothing once more, except the small compensation for wood as the trees are cut.


Plantation development brings widespread environmental destruction which also directly affects communities. In Zanegi pesticides from Medco’s tree nurseries have entered the swamps, causing the respiratory diseases that contribute to infant mortality and also skin problems.  Villagers further upstream along the Bian and Kumb Rivers also have experienced similar symptoms, possibly caused by the oil palm plantations and transmigration areas in those rivers’ headwaters. Big fish and even crocodiles have been reported as dying in the Bian River, near to Korindo and Daewoo’s oil palm plantations, and also in the Kumb and Digul Rivers. Villagers in the upper Bian River area report that they can no longer use the water for drinking, cooking and bathing, and now have to walk for miles to find clean water.

Forests in the Bian valley around PT Bio Inti Agrindo’s concession have also been cleared for oil palm by burning. This illegal practice is widespread all over Indonesia, and is most famous for causing the annual smogs over Sumatra which reach as far as Malaysia and Singapore. Local impacts include air and water pollution, and wildlife killed in the fire.


Nearer the coast, not far from Rajawali’s sugar plantations, streams near Onggari and Kaiburze have been drying up because of new irrigation canals to service the plantations and agricultural development in the transmigration zone. Birds are reported as disappearing from villages around the MIFEE area, their voices are no longer heard as before.


A major impact of MIFEE has also been the conflicts it has provoked between villages, clans and individuals. In Malind society, people know which land each clan has rights to. While they have no maps an unwritten geography has been developed through their history, belief system and collective memory. When the developers move in they bring with them maps drawn up in a Merauke Government office, GPS and other machines to check their position and large amounts of money which they will give to the head of whichever clan can claim each piece of land. Conflict emerges when the precision equipment unearths old disputes. A common example is when one village or clan is recognised as the land owner according to customary law, but another clan or village has been allowed to use the land, even though they have no ownership rights.

When Medco built its wood-chip mill in Kampung Boepe, villagers from Kampung Sanggase accused the company of compensating the wrong people, that the land actually was part of their village’s area, and the people of Boepe were only using it. A long conflict ensued between Medco and the people of the two villages, with Medco eventually settling paying the people of Sanggase as well. Another conflict occurred around Rajawali’s area, where the villagers of Domande who had released their land to the company became engaged in conflict with those from Kampung Onggari, who had resisted signing over their land. In Selil, two clans from different tribes have contested the land which PT Bio Inti Agrindo plans to use for an oil palm plantation. After tribal wars long ago the resolution had been to describe this land as ‘borrowed land’, which the borrower has no right to sell. Normally this would not be a problem, but when the company moves in to develop the land, both groups want compensating. The potential that this conflict could erupt in violence remains high.

Such a conflict starts with suspicion and distrust, adding to the stress of the pressure for change coming from the company, and potentially dividing and weakening the opposition to resist. Violence is also not uncommon. What makes it worse, local people have a strong belief in suanggi or black magic, which is thought to be the cause of all deaths. If someone should die in a village, people will wonder who might have ordered the death.

Once again, the most tragic story comes from Zanegi village. A villager, who also worked on the Medco plantation, had been accused of using suanggi to kill people. Village leaders assembled for an adat meeting, and decided that he would have to be killed to prevent more deaths. Police found out and arrested fifteen people, and seven were eventually sentenced to prison. Whatever the rights or wrongs of their decision, the arrests have only exacerbated the problems for the community as a whole. Many of those arrested were outspoken critics of Medco and other companies, but also having to support prisoners financially has made the village considerably more dependent on Medco and its compensation money than before. A long-running blockade of Medco’s logging operations lost all its momentum around the time of this case, and the company keeps clearing forest as before.

On top of this, three of the seven people sentenced have died while being detained in Merauke prison. Local people put it down to suanggi of course, and indeed it has been reported that the last two deaths were sudden, without a sickness. The relationship between this conflict and the company are complex, but undeniable.

Conflicts can emerge at an even earlier stage, before compensation is paid, even at the moment a company first arrives on the scene. When a company first sends representatives into an area, they often to persuade or employ certain individuals to become pro-plantation and promote their interests, deliberately causing conflict within a village. Villagers in several villages in Tubang, Ilwayab and Okaba have accused two companies PT Astra and PT Mayora of deliberately pursuing this strategy, moving in to the area at an early stage in the investment process in order to create divisions and manipulate suspicions. In some villages they recruited middlemen to act on their behalf, who collaborated with security guards to accuse others of being OPM rebels, as described above. In the same area, villagers from Woboyu village were concerned when they heard news that Welbuti villagers had agreed to work together with PT Astra to map customary land boundaries. There had been an agreement between all the villages in the area not to work together with the companies at all. Any village perceived to break that village could be the trigger for a conflict to erupt, and, because of the belief in suanggi, this could quickly become deadly.

In fear that such conflicts could quickly spiral out of control, people from the area took action in the city, occupying PT Mayora’s office. They argued that the way the two companies had come into the area and started surveying and approaching local people without prior information, was a strategy to cause fear and conflict between local people. If a company wanted to move in, it should sit down first with all involved to discuss their plans. In this particular case, the regency leader said he would command PT Mayora and PT Astra to stop work until further discussions could take place.

Working for the company.

In order to be able to make a living once their land is gone, villagers are lured with promises of work once the plantations are operational, but in reality many of the jobs have gone to migrants who already have training or experience to work on plantations. Local people do not always receive work, and when they do, many times it is without a contract, just hired daily when there is work to be done. Examples of jobs which local people have been hired to do include work connected to corporate social responsibility programmes, supporting survey teams, drivers, security, porters, plantation workers putting seedlings in polythene bags or preparing demonstration plots, stripping bark and operating chainsaws.

When wages are paid they conform to the regional minimum wage for unskilled labour, 1,710,000 Rupiah per month or 70,000 Rupiah per working day. However, in rural Papua prices are much higher than elsewhere in Indonesia, which means that this money is only enough for the most basic day to day expenses such as food.

However, villages where companies have not yet moved in see the change in economy from forest-based to wage labour as a threat to their identity. Malind people see themselves as Anim-ha – ‘the real people’. Now people have coined a phrase when they think about a time that they will be dependent on shops for their food and everything they need for their traditional customs – no longer ‘Anim-ha’, they will be ‘Plastic Malind‘.

In a submission to the UN Commission on Racial Discrimination, twenty-seven organisations made the case that working for MIFEE companies amounts to forced labour, which can legitimately be regarded as a contemporary form of slavery. The basic argument is that when indigenous people’s land is taken from them without their free, prior, informed consent, their traditional livelihood becomes untenable and so they have no option other than to accept whatever work the company, the sole employer in the area, chooses to offer them – in the case of MIFEE, menial and low-paid. If they were offered land as smallholders, as Merauke local government claims to want, the situation is little better, there the same dependency on the company, but it becomes a kind of feudal serfdom.

Women in a Changing Village Economy

A study by the Sajogjo Institute has focussed on the particular issues facing Malind women when the companies move in. It examined the typical household economy before companies move in, where the tasks are divided by gender, the role of both women and men are important. Men hunt, but women have the main responsibility for fishing, and for processing sago starch, although they may be helped by the younger men. While men have the primary responsibility for forest gardens, women also help out. Women also are responsible for main household tasks such as collecting firewood, cooking and cleaning.

malind women

When the forest is gone, the people are dependent on the company to give them work, and in the case of Medco in Zanegi, most of the jobs have been for men. Indeed the company has made it policy not to employ village women after a non-Malind women working as kitchen staff got pregnant by another worker. Women could still get informal work from subcontractors looking after newly planted trees, but when the study was conducted, all the workers were from the outside settler community. Local Malind women claimed they were scared of wild pigs.

Women are also largely excluded from participation in decisions of whether or not to sell the land to companies. Although the Malind usually refer to the land as representing a mother, land ownership under the clan system is patrilineal with a very limited role for women, who have land use rights in certain circumstances, but no land ownership rights. An often-repeated phrase is “to speak of land is to speak of customary law”. Customary law, however, is the terrain of men. Using business logic, when it wants to negotiate a land deal, the company will approach the land owners, ie the male clan chiefs, without considering women’s use rights.

Although they do not have a say in land deals, women are likely to suffer most from the effects of poverty when the companies move in. This has also been seen in Zanegi, where in times of food shortages, women let their husbands and children eat first, and maybe only eat once a day. For the rest of the day, they chew tobacco and betel nut, building up debts with the village store until the next payment for wood compensation arrives, and they are clearly becoming thinner because of this.

Meanwhile, the young men who find work sometimes spend their wages on alcohol and prostitutes. As a result of this five women in Zanegi have tested positive for HIV, probably infected by their husbands. School-age girls have also become targeted for sex by young people working for the company.

Becoming Plastic Malind

Some of the most significant impacts of MIFEE are those that it is most difficult for those of us who are not Malind to grasp, such as changes in social relationships, in identity, in the paradigm in which they are forced to see the world, and eventually in cosmology. To even conceive of the loss of the forest is hard for Malind people to comprehend, because they are the forest, they describe it as their mother. Each clan has totem animals which they are responsible for, for example the Samkakai clan is connected to tree kangaroos. If the forest is gone the kangaroos are gone, if the kangaroos are gone then what becomes of the Samkakai clan?

Here are some words from the Malind Woyu Maklew Anim intellectual forum (SSUMAWOMA) which express the importance of the Malind culture to their sense of identity:

“The Malind Anim culture is not just a dance, a ritual or a carving. It is not a mere representation of a culture, decorated in mud, leaves and vines or other forest fibres. If the Malind Anim culture is not protected and nurtured it will disappear, and with it the Malind Amin people’s sense of self. The Malind Anim culture is indistinguishable from the ways of thinking, feeling and acting that encompass the Malind People’s existence as a whole.”

As companies and more outside migrants move in, this culture is places under stress. Sometimes in subtle but important ways. For example, as transmigrants have set up new villages, they have been given names in the Indonesian language. However these places already had names connected to Malind geography, history and spirituality. When those names are changed, that history gradually becomes forgotten.

Another example: in many parts of Indonesia people like to relax by drinking the sap of the coconut and certain other palm trees, which naturally ferments within a few hours to produce an alcoholic drink, but this has never been part of Malind culture. However, as a short film from Papuan Voices has documented, now a strange new fruit appears to be growing on many coconut trees as people place jerry cans amongst the branches to collect the sap. Elsewhere, police officers bring stronger alcohol to villages which they share with village leaders. Today it is free, maybe tomorrow it will be for sale.

With such an onslaught of plantation companies moving in across the whole Malind land, the survival of the Malind-Anim as a people is under grave threat. In some cases the threat is to people’s direct physical well-being, as has been seen so tragically in Zanegi, in others it is through a process of cultural attrition which severs people from their heritage and leaves them marginalised as underpaid labourers on the very edge of the economy. In almost all cases it is against their will, yet the companies are still there, still looking for a way in.

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