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Can REDD save the rainforests of Papua and West Papua? (Part 2)

Earlier this week, REDD-Monitor wrote about a 2,800 square kilometre oil palm plantation that threatens a huge area of forest in the district of Boven Digoel in the east of Papua Province. REDD proponents are silent on how REDD could stop this destruction and to prevent the setting off of a deforestation carbon bomb.

But oil palm plantations are not the only threat to Papua forests and the indigenous peoples who live in them. The Indonesian government is constructing a 4,000 kilometre road network across the provinces of Papua and West Papua.

In an article on Yale Environment 360, William Laurance, Professor at James Cook University, Australia, describes the plans as a “massive, ill-advised, and exceptionally risky road-building scheme”.

Laurance writes that the roads will “penetrate deeply into densely forested or remote mountainous regions to increase access to minerals, fossil fuels, timber, and land for agri-business ventures, including vast palm oil plantations.”

Laurance was part of a research team that recently published a paper in Environmental Science and Policy titled, “Hidden challenges for conservation and development along the Trans-Papuan economic corridor”.

The paper predicts that the road construction will result in major new hotspots of deforestation, increases in forest fragmentation, biodiversity loss, and greenhouse-gas emissions. The paper identified three challenges:

    (i) peatland conservation amongst agro-industrial development,

    (ii) unresolved land claims threatening social equity and local economic development, and

    (iii) the emergence of deforestation frontiers and corridor routes of dubious merit.

Work on the Trans-Papua Highway started in 2013. Almost 90% of the road route has been bulldozed, but much of the earthworks and road paving remains to be completed. Hundreds of bridges with a total length of more than 6.4 kilometres are still to be constructed.

The Indonesian government claims that the roads will bring jobs, infrastructure, and improved living standards. But Timotius Murib, chairman of the Papuan People’s Assembly, recently told the BBC that, “We don’t need development, because with development we lose control of our land.”

Roads built by the Indonesian military

The road-building project started with then-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Presidential Regulation 40 of 2013, titled, “Road Construction in order to Accelerate Development in Papua and West Papua Provinces”.

In a 2013 post, the website awas MIFEE pointed out that,

One of the most controversial aspects of Presidential Regulation 40/2013 is that about half of the roads will be built by the military. Those roads tend to be in mountainous areas where geographical conditions are difficult, or in zones prone to conflict. This increased military presence is greatly worrying as it can be expected to bring several problems. Even if outright violent conflict does not occur, it is inevitable that local people living close to the road-building areas will feel afraid and intimidated.

In December 2018, about 30 construction workers were killed in Nduga Regency in Papua. The West Papua Liberation Army claimed responsibility for the attack, saying that the construction workers were not civilians but armed members of Indonesia’s military.

In a response to the attack, Human Rights Watch put out a statement asking for Indonesian police to investigate the killings:

The circumstances of the killings remain unclear. Papuan militants should cease unlawful killings, and the Indonesian government should ensure that its security forces act in accordance with international standards and not commit abuses in response to the attack.

There has been a long and unpleasant history in West Papua of abuses at the hands of the Indonesian government and military.

Slow motion genocide in West Papua

In 1949, when Indonesia became an independent nation state, West Papua remained under Dutch control. On 1 December 1961, West Papua held a Congress, declared independence, and raised the Morning Star flag.

Within months, the Indonesian military invaded. In 1962, after signing the New York Agreement, the Netherlands and Indonesia agreed to hand over administration of West Papua to a United Nations Temporary Executive Authority. In 1963, the country was renamed West Irian.

In 1969, 1026 supposedly representative people out of a population of one million, were allowed to vote on whether to be part of Indonesia or to become an independent nation.

The vote was a farce. It was run by the Indonesian military, which had between 6,000 and 7,000 troops in West Papua. The military bribed the 1026 people and threatened to kill them and their families if they voted the wrong way.

In a speech in April 1969, President Suharto assured the military of the impending “return of West Irian into the fold of the motherland.”

In July 1969, a member of Indonesia’s Parliament told the New York Times that,

“We are going through the motions of the act of free choice because of our obligations under the New York agreement of 1962. But West Irian is Indonesian and must remain Indonesian. We cannot accept any alternative.”

The result was unanimously in favour of remaining part of Indonesia, despite wide-spread resistance to Indonesian rule on the ground in West Papua.

The United Nations accepted the vote, despite the reservations of Ambassador Fernando Ortiz-Sanz, special representative of UN Secretary General U Thant. Ortiz-Sanz arrived in Jakarta in August 1968 as an adviser to the Indonesian government on the vote.

The Free West Papua Campaign reports that “Papuans now dub this episode ‘the Act of No Choice’.”

Richard Harries, Baron Harries of Pentregarth ex-bishop of Oxford, describes what’s happening in West Papua as “slow motion genocide”. He told New Matilda that,

“Ever since Indonesia invaded West Papua in 1961 Papuans have been bitterly repressed, with hundreds of thousands being killed. The Indonesian Government are desperate to hide what is happening from the rest of the world.”

“A whole new level of destruction”

Laurance, writing on Yale Environment 360, states that the Indonesian government is exploiting Papua’s resources, while consolidating top-down control:

Both objectives have been advanced by vast logging, mining, oil palm, and agri-industrial projects that have flattened tens of millions of acres of forest — often while running roughshod over the land claims of its indigenous peoples.

But as bad as Indonesia’s exploitation of Papua’s priceless forests has been to date, the Trans-Papua Highway is bringing a whole new level of destruction, essentially tearing the heart out of a damaged but not yet decimated tropical paradise.


PHOTO Credit: Roads and mining concessions threaten the Lorenz World Heritage Site in Papua, William Laurance.

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