The Merauke Integrated food and Energy Estate is planned to cover a huge area. Exactly how huge is as yet unclear, as plans change, and different government agencies propose conflicting visions for the project, which will be discussed below. The estimate given at the time of MIFEE’s inauguration in 2010 ran to 1.28 million hectares. That’s about two-fifths the size of Belgium (or over twice the size of Bali). The area is mostly forested, the traditional land of the Malind people, and ecologically diverse. The scheme would also require hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions, of new workers to move to the area.
A mega-project such as MIFEE needs a very strong justification if it is to explain away the destruction of millions of hectares of rich ecosystems and the dispossession of many thousands of people of their ancestral lands. MIFEE locates its bid for legitimacy in the set of global crises that have started to afflict our world in the last few years and threaten to do much worse in the future. These three interlocking crises which MIFEE is supposed to address are of food, fuel and climate change.
First and foremost is the global food crisis, which sent prices spiralling upwards at markets across the world in 2008 and has hardly calmed down since. The basic logic is simple enough: if around the world population is increasing, people are eating more, and also eating more high-input food such as meat, then a corresponding increase in agricultural production is required. Indonesia currently imports basic foodstuffs equivalent to around five percent of the state budget.(17) In particular, there is currently a shortfall in sugar production: Indonesia would need to produce 5.5 million tonnes of sugar to be self-sufficient by 2014, yet it only expected to harvest 2.57 million tonnes in 2011.(18) The need to import has serious implications for Indonesia’s economy.
This food crisis is aggravated by a knock-on effect of rising fuel prices. The price of oil climbed from $50 per barrel in 2005 to around $148 in July 2008. The result in Indonesia was that the government reduced the subsidy on fuel, increasing prices at the pumps and causing riots across the country as people feared that this would trigger a rise in the price of all essential goods and services. On a global level, part of the reason for this increase is the increasing cost of obtaining fossil fuels. This in turn has opened up the floodgates for new sources of combustible materials, and one of the major growth areas has been agrofuels. The term agrofuels refers to any planted crops where the energy stored can be converted into a usable fuel. The fuels therefore need to be grown, meaning there is an obvious competition for land between food crops and crops grown for agrofuel. The use of a considerable part of the US corn harvest to produce ethanol, alongside similar examples around the world, were in fact thought to be one of the main reasons behind the sudden food shortages in 2008.(19)
Plans for MIFEE would involve a lot of crops being grown for use as agrofuel. Most of the applications for investment in Merauke are for oil palm or sugar cane. Palm oil can be converted into biodiesel, while sugar-cane is fermented to become ethanol. It is likely that a considerable amount of MIFEE’s harvest of these two commodities would be destined for use as agrofuel rather than as food. In addition, companies are intending to produce energy directly from biomass. Medco, in partnership with a Korean company, LG International, is producing wood chips and wood pellets from tree plantations, which would be sold as fuel for use in power stations etc. (20) Meanwhile, a state-owned company, PT Padi Energy Nusantara, is hoping to generate electricity from burning rice-straw and husks.(21)
The demand for all these fuels is increasing. This does not only come from the markets pushing prices up, but governments set targets on the percentage of fuel that should be met from agrofuel sources, and those targets increase every year. The EU currently has a 10% target of all transport-related fuel to come from so-called renewable sources, i.e. agrofuels.(22) Indonesia has also set a target of 5% of its energy needs to come from agrofuel by the year 2025. The president also created a National Team for Biofuel Development in 2006, alongside a Presidential Decree (Inpres 1/2006) to ensure the supply and use of agrofuels.(23)
Amidst all the alarm about climate change, agrofuels have been described as a ‘renewable’ fuel. After all they convert sunlight into carbon which would be released anyway when the plants decompose, therefore it is a completely different process from burning carbon stored in the earth for millions of years in the form of fossil fuels. However, many reports indicate that agrofuels are often highly ecologically damaging, and even do not result in significant savings in carbon compared to burning fossil fuels. A recent report by the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) calculated the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere by the burning of agrofuels when the net emissions from the original destruction of forests was included. It concluded that it would take several generations before the burning of agrofuels would repay this initial carbon debt. Of the case studies they researched, the fuel with the largest ‘carbon debt’ was Indonesian palm oil, especially when it took place on peatland.(24)
The uncertainty that climate change may bring, coupled to other changes in human and environmental systems, prompts nations to consider how their food security needs can be met into the future. This was how Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yuhoydono managed to connect MIFEE to a nationalist sentiment of unity in the face of coming adversity when he proclaimed the mission of MIFEE was to “Feed Indonesia, then Feed the World”(25).
Other states have also been thinking about the future. Although it now seems not to be going ahead, the precursor to MIFEE was the Merauke Integrated Rice Estate (MIRE), and the biggest investor, the Saudi Bin Laden Group was planning to invest four million dollars to cultivate 500,000 hectares of land.(26) This was one example of a huge ‘global land grab’ that was emerging at the time, where Gulf states were some of the principal countries involved in buying up swathes of land across the world (and especially in other Muslim countries). With limited possibilities for food cultivation on their own arid lands, this was to ensure that they would still have access to food at acceptable prices should any future crises prevent their traditional suppliers from selling on the international market.(27)
The irony of MIFEE is that aims of ensuring food security at a national and international level are absolutely contradictory with the food security of the area’s local people. The indigenous peoples of Merauke do not eat rice as a staple, instead they eat sago, which comes from a palm tree that is adapted to grow in the forests of lowland West Papua. Because sago is abundant, there is no danger of going hungry, and a healthy forest can also provide protein through hunting and fishing. However if the forests and savannah are replaced by monoculture agriculture then the local people’s food security is considerably compromised. At best they could hope to get a job in the new plantations, but experience shows that even in this, they would be disadvantaged in comparison to experienced migrant farmers from other islands.
In parts of Merauke, for example, local inhabitants were given houses at the same time as families arriving as part of the transmigration policies of the 1980s and early 1990s. A recent visit by Pusaka as part of their research on MIFEE showed that while migrants had often constructed new houses, indigenous residents still lived in the houses constructed for them, many of which were falling into disrepair. They were not using their rice-fields, but instead frequently returned to the sago forest.(28) In West Papuan cities also local Papuan people are discriminated against, the economy is almost entirely dominated by migrants from other parts of Indonesia.
The catastrophic effects of mega-projects such as MIFEE on local people is no secret. But using the logic of global crises means that it can be made to seem legitimate to sacrifice the needs of the few for the supposed well-being of the many. As they are massive problems, these crises appear to call for massive responses, and so vast enclosures of land into the capitalist economy can be sold as necessary for the well-being of all. In Merauke it takes the form of a land-grab, while forest communities in other parts of Indonesia are trying to come to terms with REDD, an attempt to justify the corporate acquisition of forests using a similar crisis logic, this time a form of creative carbon accounting that is meant to be an answer to climate change.(29) As the world’s social, economic and environmental problems evolve ever faster, supposed crises will come thick and fast, and it is vital to understand that solutions which cause new problems are likely not to be solutions at all.