Whatever form MIFEE might eventually take, one thing is certain: it would require huge numbers of workers. Just how many is hard to predict with plans as unclear as they are now. One frequently-used estimate, based on four workers per hectare, would come to a total of 4.8 million new workers in Merauke. This is likely to be an over-estimate, because it is based on rice farming and many of the applicants for MIFEE are planning oil palm or plantation forest, which are less labour-intensive.(90) Nevertheless, as indigenous Papuans currently make up less than half of the 233,000 population of Merauke Regency (2010 figures), it can be foreseen that local people would be a tiny minority under any future grand development plans.(91)
The significance of these potential demographic changes cannot be underestimated due to the economic discrimination indigenous Papuans face compared with migrants from other islands. A stroll through any Papuan city will reveal the absolute dominance of the migrants in every sector of the economy: almost every business, small or large, is owned by a non-Papuan. This means that the local people are not only a minority in terms of number, but also lose influence both economically and politically, and become thoroughly marginalised in their transformed ancestral land.
The huge influx of migrants needed for a scheme such as MIFEE is important for the political future of the whole of West Papua as well. In 1959 just 2% of residents in Papua came from outside Papua, and by 1971 the figure was still only 4%. In 2000 35% of residents in Papua came from outside Papua but by 2011, the non-indigenous residents reached 53.5%. As we know, many Papuans regard their political status as still unresolved. Indeed, as well as dialogue, a referendum is one means that several Papuan groups advocate as a peaceful way to determine the wishes of Papuans, and to be a replacement for the flawed 1969 Act of Free Choice.(92) Even though the idea of such a referendum is that it would be conducted amongst indigenous Papuans and not recent migrants, the pace of migration is nevertheless unsettling. By flooding Papua with migrants, Indonesia solves the Papuan problem for itself by default, as there will come a point when it is no longer possible to imagine that all those millions of people could ever return to live on crowded Java, Sulawesi and the other islands they migrated from.
Migrants come to West Papua either on their own initiative, seeking well paid employment, or as part of a government resettlement program known as transmigration. Since the origins of transmigration programs, reaching back to even before Indonesia gained its independence, they have been viewed as a tool of nation building, mixing people from different cultural backgrounds until ‘Indonesian’ emerges as the default identity.(93) That doesn’t mean they are a good deal either for the migrants or the indigenous communities whose land they settle.
Papuans often talk of what is going on in their land as genocide, and when they do, they do not refer to the killings that take place by the military alone, although there is a case to be made that the history of military violence in West Papua has fulfilled the conditions that are used to define genocide.(94) Genocide is also interpreted in the cultural sense, the obliteration of people’s identity, cosmology and traditional life patterns. The Malind people understand themselves as part of the landscape, with each clan taking responsibility for one important plant or animal. So what about when people’s traditional means of subsistence have been usurped and they have had to become plantation labourers, if they are lucky enough to get a job at all? Or else they move to the city and are stigmatised by the generalised racism of the incoming majority which harms both their self-esteem and employment prospects? Or when the beliefs and clan structure that traditionally described the access to land are destroyed and the tracks and resting places of ancestors that formerly mapped the terrain in the collective memory are replaced by the plantation boundaries on the maps in the local planning office? Would it not be accurate to describe these changes as genocide?(95)
Migrants to Papua are arriving in an environment where racist assumptions are widespread but attempts are rarely made to challenge this. So for example, it is often the case that indigenous Papuans, who have been subjected to a forced dislocation from their traditional means of livelihood, do not find the skills or motivation to adjust to make a successful living as a rice farmer. In the cities, they rarely start successful businesses. Racist rationalisations for this are frequently heard, stigmatising Papuans as being lazy, drunken and undisciplined by nature. The slightly more charitable version, that Papuans have not had the same possibilities to receive an education, is also unsatisfactory. Both explanations gloss over the systematic discrimination that Papuans face in their own land, and legitimise how new migrants to the area come to dominate. It is not so different from the rationalisations that the old European colonial powers used to justify their own empires.
Nevertheless, Papua’s education system has always lagged well behind the rest of Indonesia and educational disadvantages do further disadvantage Papuans who are looking for work. Although companies frequently promise communities that they will employ local people when they propose their plans, they do not always mean it. Kompas newspaper has reported that Marius Moiwend, and other colleagues from Sanggase village, were refused jobs as security guards by PT Medco Papua, just because they had not completed junior high school.(96)
The impacts of population changes on health should also not ignored. A particular worry is HIV/AIDS. An alarming epidemic of this disease is taking place in Papua, and Merauke already has the second highest incidence after Mimika, home of the Freeport mine. As extra migrants move into the area, so do the police and military, who often run private prostitution businesses, and also sell alcohol, which has its own detrimental effects.(97)
In consideration of the fact that transmigration to Papua was such a politicised issue, when the Special Autonomy (Otsus) policy meant to solve Papuan problems was negotiated the Governor of Papua was given the right to approve or reject any new transmigration schemes.(98) However, this seems to have been ignored by MIFEE’s architects. The plan for MIFEE was developed between the local Bupati and the Jakarta government, effectively bypassing the provincial level.(99) There are no indications that the huge population flows it would necessarily entail were given much consideration at all.
The potential effects of such a huge number of migrants arriving in Merauke, and the effect it is likely to have on local people, is one of the reasons why thirteen Papuan, Indonesian and international organisations have written to the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination asking that the committee considers the MIFEE under its early warning and urgent action procedures. They also recommend that Indonesia suspends the MIFEE project until such time as indigenous people’s rights have been secured in law and practice.100