After two years as president, Joko "Jokowi" Widodo has yet to meet his promises to engage meaningfully with the people of Papua. Early on in his presidency, he made a trip to the region and released political prisoners, but since then he has prioritized infrastructure development. He has failed so far to understand the needs and demands of indigenous Papuans. This is no more evident than in his foundering plans for a rice estate in Merauke.
The project first targeted an area of 274,403 hectares spread over Jagebob, Tanah Miring, Kurik, Sota, Malind and Semangga districts. This was to be followed by 285,249.10 ha in Animha, Muting and Jagebob districts; 171,701.84 ha in Okaba and Animha; 278,390 ha in Tubang and Nggsti districts; and finally, 200,042 ha in Okaba district.
Jokowi instructed the Indonesian Military (TNI) to play an active role in accelerating the program, as he targeted 3,200 hectares of indigenous rainforest to be converted and ready for planting by the end of 2015. The program has been a spectacular failure. As of June 2016, these soldiers had only managed to plant 1,800 hectares.
According to its spatial pattern, Merauke's land area is 4,670,163 hectares. About 2,455,694 ha have been allocated for protected areas and 1,598,822 ha for investment purposes as part of the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (Mifee) program. The fundamental question is whether a policy of 1.2 million ha for the national food program will directly replace Mifee and use the land that had previously been allocated. It is not yet clear.
The Merauke Agricultural Production Center (KSPP) is essentially a replica of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's failed Mifee plan, which was launched in 2010 to convert 2.5 million hectares of Marind indigenous forest. It was considered as a solution for Indonesia's food and energy crises. Mifee was designed to spare 1.2 million ha to be converted into paddy fields and 500,000 ha for palm oil plantations, while the rest would be planted with sugarcane.
By 2014, the government had managed to secure nearly 2 million hectares. But rather than prioritize rice or food production, the pattern of land allocation appeared to follow the general preference for large-scale industrial plantations seen across Indonesia. About 973.057 hectares (50,48 percent) were earmarked for timber plantations, 2.800 hectares (12.14 percent) for wood processing, 433.187 hectares (22,47 percent) for palm oil plantations, 415.094 hectares (21,53 percent) for sugarcane plantations, and just 103.219 hectares (5,38 percent) for rice.
The Mifee project violated the rights of the Marind indigenous community. The United Kingdom-based nongovernmental organization Forest Peoples Program documented severe food insecurity, malnutrition and the deaths of at least five children following deforestation and pollution near Zanegi village as a result of the Mifee project. The project also affected Marind culture. The Marind people have a strong connection to the forest. Deforestation does not only entail loss of livelihood, but can also result in disconnection from their ancestors, history and culture.
Taking indigenous land for mega-projects has always led to agrarian conflict. News publication Tempo has reported how the Mifee program led to conflict in Merauke – one of the few areas in Papua that has historically been considered conflict-free.
Olivier De Schutter, United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, warned that Mifee had the potential to affect food security of 50,000 people. In their submission to the UN Human Rights Council in 2011, Franciscans International, the Faith-Based Network on West Papua, and the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) also cautioned the Indonesian government over the potential ramifications of Mifee.
However, Jokowi ignored these facts.
Plans for the food estate have continued to move forward. On Sept. 18, Jokowi announced that the rice project will be supported by a new body called Papua International Rice Research Center (PIRRC). Indonesian experts and academics living in the United States were to be invited to participate.
Jokowi has stood by the project and said he believes Merauke will be able to meet 30 percent of the national demand for rice. He said the Merauke estate will be managed in a manner similar to modern rice plantations in Europe or the United States, and has confidently predicted that each hectare will be able to deliver about six tons of rice annually.
But most Indonesian rice is produced by smallholders operating on plots of less than a hectare. The average rice yield across the country has increased in recent years, but is still only 5 tons per hectare. Indonesia has very little experience with large-scale agricultural production outside of palm oil and timber plantations and the experience it has had has not been positive.
The Dutch spent 50 years on the so-called Kombe Project in Kurik subdistrict, Merauke, which was designed to meet the rice needs of the South Pacific. After 50 years, only 46,000 hectares had been developed. One of major obstacles was that there was no farming culture in Merauke – the Marind preferred to gather food from the forest – and locals ate sago rather than rice. With no other options, the Dutch brought in Javanese migrants to farm the land.
The most notorious of all Indonesian government failures, however, was the mega-rice project in Central Kalimantan, launched by former President Suharto in 1996. One million hectares of forest in Kapuas district was cleared, and Dayak Ngaju indigenous communities were evicted. The project failed and Indonesians are continuing to pay the price through annual forest fires and haze. It has started in Merauke now. The Pusaka Foundation and Mighty International found that over the past 10 years, Merauke has begun to contribute to forest burning due to a rise in the number of oil palm plantations.
Jokowi has also ignored the fact that there are only 500,000 ha left in Merauke that can be used. This is the remaining forest, where several Marind-Anim indigenous communities are still hanging on. Within it are sago forests, which are the community's main source of food.
Indonesia has options. Its culinary tradition shows that sago, cassava, sweet potato, banana and taro are healthy alternatives to rice. In Merauke, and Papua in general, sago is the main food source and it plays an important role in indigenous cosmology. Destroying sago forests – as is happening – will lead to malnutrition and cultural degradation.
Jokowi still has choices. He can promote food diversification and forest protection, or follow his predecessor, who destroyed forests and violated indigenous rights.
Andre Barahamin is a researcher for Pusaka Foundation (Center for Study, Advocacy and Documentation of Indigenous Rights). He also serves as an editor for IndoProgress, an online publication connecting progressive scholars and activists in Indonesia.