In his four-day trip to Papua and West Papua, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo promised to complete the construction of the Trans-Papua highway, which has been postponed due to various reasons since its start in 2013. He compared the differences among the western, middle and eastern parts of Indonesia and said that when the infrastructure was built, commodity prices in Sumatra, Java, Sulawesi, Maluku and Papua would be more equal.
“The gap will no longer be as big as we see right now,” he said.
The aims of road construction have been widely discussed. Economists have written extensively about the link between roads and market access and economic growth, as well as the health of households and national economies in most developing nations. Most economists love roads — seeing them as a cost-effective way to promote economic growth, encourage regional trade and provide access to natural resources and land suitable for agriculture.
Focusing on food is vital because with continuing rapid population growth and changing human diets, global food demand is expected to double by 2050. Roads affect food, especially in Papua where new regencies are being developed and are populated by small-scale farmers who produce much less food than they could if they had new or better roads. Such roads could give them ready access to fertilizers, modern farming methods and urban markets to sell their crops.
External investments in agriculture have been the main driver of the economy in both Papua and West Papua provinces. The agricultural sector is the main source of employment, providing jobs for the locals. However, roads pose a particularly challenging problem, because a poorly planned road can be devastating. Roads cutting through delicate ecosystems have been linked to deforestation, pollution, invasions of exotic species and wildfires. For wildlife, a road can create a barrier that may be deadly to cross, keeping animals away from food and potential mates, or it can provide easier access to illegal hunting that threatens endangered species. How do we learn from the road development program in other parts of Indonesia?
The extension of the 2,508.5-kilometer road network in Sumatra has increased human-wildlife conflicts that have led to an increase in the number of human victims, at the same time reducing the population of the endangered Sumatran tiger and other wildlife species.
In Kalimantan, the development of Malinau at the edge of the Kayan Mentarang National Park has also destroyed large areas of wildlife habitat, and threatened nomadic and large vertebrates, such as Malayan sun bear, the bearded pig and the orangutan. In the island of Sulawesi, improvements to the highway connection between North Sulawesi and other provinces of Sulawesi, such as Gorontalo and Central Sulawesi, have also led to an increase in the importation of wild meat from other forest landscapes of Sulawesi for wildlife market demand in Manado and Minahasa.
Consequently, the pressure of hunting on wildlife populations, such as the babirusa, anoa, flying foxes and other mammal species, has escalated over time.
Our survey along the coast of the Bird’s Head Peninsula found that the 571-km stretch of the Trans-West Papua Highway along the coast has split pristine forests and increased the trading of wildlife from remote villages into the nearest market towns. However, despite the tremendous expectations and vast investment in the road development, communities in the region still live below the poverty line. Road improvement is expected to help farmers in transporting their agriculture produce to urban markets. Regrettably, they have to struggle with the upsurge in transportation costs of getting the mass products to the markets. To further complicate the issue, the impacts from deforestation and poorly planned coastal development such as landscape changes because of road expansion, mining, logging and commercial plantations have increased flooding, erosion and the run-off of topsoil to coastlines and created beach modifications that threaten marine environments including the Abun Regional Marine Protected Area. We believe that some land conversions are needed and unavoidable.
Land conversion, including road development, is vital to make room for economic activities. There is no doubt that road access will have significant effects on efforts to fight rural poverty. But it must be followed by other strategic plans related to affordable transportation. We need to sensitize political decision-makers, economists, infrastructure planners and the general public about the myriad environmental costs of road expansion, especially into intact forests.
Improved environmental impact assessments (EIAs) for planned roads must be conducted. In many developing nations, EIAs focus solely on the roads themselves, completely ignoring the knock-on effects. Otherwise, new roads will continue to drive rainforest destruction so long as the EIA process is so fundamentally flawed.
It is also urgent that local government agencies improve their overall coordination for development planning. For example, institutions like the Public Works Agency, Regional Environmental Board, Conservation of Natural Resources Bureau and Forestry Agency need to sit together in order to plan further for road expansion. Furthermore, relevant regulations need to be implemented and strengthened law enforcement is needed to encourage better extraction industry practices, such as in logging and mining.
Finally, Bill Laurance, a conservation biologist at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia, leading a group of researchers or “Road Warriors” from Harvard, Cambridge, Melbourne, Minnesota, Sheffield and James Cook universities and the Conservation Strategy Fund published A Global strategy for road building, which lists regions that should stay road-free, those where roads would be most useful and those where there is likely to be conflict between the competing interests of human development and protecting nature.This should be considered as a guide for future road development.
The writers Freddy Pattiselanno and Agustina Y.S. Arobaya,
are lecturers at the Animal Science Department and Forestry Department of the State University of Papua (UNIPA), Manokwari