The land earmarked for the MIFEE project is ecologically rich, encompassing varied ecosystems with high biodiversity. It ranges from mangrove forests and wetlands to savannah and dense forests. WWF identified it as a key part of the ‘Transfly Eco-region’, in conjunction with similar habitat across the border in Papua New Guinea. Their research found many endemic plants in the area, as well as rare animals such as the Fly River leptomys (Leptomys signatus – a water rat), the dusky pademelon (Thylogale bruinii – a marsupial similar to a small wallaby), the Fly River trumpet eared bat (Kerivoula muscina), the New Guinea marsupial cat and the bronze quoll (a carnivorous marsupial). The area is an especially important refuge for freshwater turtles, with nine species found in the area, some of which are endemic.(4)
Papuan wildlife in general is very different from that found in islands further to the west. Deep water separates Papua from most Indonesian islands, while the Torres Strait between Papua and Australia is quite shallow and would have formed a land bridge during ice ages. Therefore most mammals are marsupials, such as the cuscus and tree kangaroo, and other flora and fauna are also more similar to that of the tropical parts of Queensland than to Indonesia. It also means that habitats in Papua are likely to be home to biodiversity found nowhere else on the planet.
Despite having been a centre for agriculture since colonial times, the majority of Merauke regency is still classified as forest. A survey by Jakarta-based NGO Greenomics found that 95% of the territory was classified as forest, of which 75.16% had intact forest cover. Although 505,945 hectares have been classified as degraded scrubland(5), this land alone would not nearly meet the requirement of 1,28-1.6 million hectares that the MIFEE project claims to need. Going ahead with the project would therefore necessarily entail widespread forest destruction. Greenomics pointed out that the logging itself could be a major economic incentive for development; they calculated that timber harvested from the MIFEE area alone would have a value of $12.72 billion at local prices, or $39.53 billion on the international market.(6)
Underneath the trees lies another vulnerable part of the ecosystem. Much of the Merauke regency is made up of peatland. Destruction of peat has serious implications for climate change: if peat bogs dry out then the organic material decomposes, releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Logging and the establishment of plantations on peatland has been severely criticised in Kalimantan and Sumatra, and although the mapping of peatland is supposed to be taken into account during the land-use zoning for MIFEE, studies of peat coverage are inconsistent. What’s more, once plantations are developed on a large scale, irrigation and drainage can have drying effects on peatlands even far outside the plantation area.(7)