Tag Archives: Land Grabbing

New film ‘The Mahuzes’, documents conflicts between indigenous Merauke people and agribusiness

from our partners at AwasMIFEE

First Published: February 20, 2016

‘The Mahuzes’, a film about conflicts between indigenous people and agribusiness companies in Merauke, was released in Indonesian last year, and now it is available with English subtitles. It’s one of a series of documentaries produced as part of the ‘Ekspedisi Indonesia Biru’, a one-year road-trip on motorbikes by filmmakers Dandhy Laksono and Ucok Suparta, visiting diverse communities around the archipelago, often communities in struggle.

The Mahuzes follows one clan of Marind people in Muting village, where oil palm companies have started clearing land in the last few years on five massive plantations. The effects of these plantations are having a major impact – even the water from the Bian River has become undrinkable. The Mahuze clan is resisting – refusing to sell their land, erecting customary barriers to forbid the company from entering – but the company (PT Agriprima Persada Mulia) just pulls up their boundary markers. As well as these direct conflicts with the plantation companies, we see how they attempt to deal with the conflicts that inevitably arise when irresponsible companies show up with compensation money – there is an emotional peacemaking ceremony between the Marind and the neighbouring Mandodo people, but also anger in meetings that some elders in their own clan may have struck a secret deal with the company.

The Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate was originally launched as a massive industrial agriculture project in 2010, but it failed to reach the stated ambition in its original plan, and the cluster of oil palm plantations around Muting were some of the only developments that have actually started work in the last years. However, in May 2015 President Joko Widodo travelled to Merauke to relaunch the plan to convert over a million hectares of forest and savannah to mechanised rice production. The filmmakers also visit the site of the new rice development, revealing that once again the central government is ordering a mega project without due consideration of the local social and environmental conditions. One issue is the water – Irawan, who works for the water provider, explains that most of the water in the flat Kurik sub-district comes from rainfall. How could these conditions possibly support huge areas of irrigated rice-fields?

The Marind people’s staple food is sago, and sago palms grow abundantly in groves in the forest. As Darius Nerob explains in the film “If we plant rice, it’s 6 months before we can eat. But with sago, any day we need, we can just go and fell a tree… This tree can feed a family for half a year…. Even though the transmigrant program has existed for 33 years, Marind people have stuck with sago, they haven’t shifted to rice.”

Trial starts for two people arrested on demonstration at PT Permata Putera Mandiri’s offfice.

from our partners at AwasMIFEE


Aksi-PT.PPM-1On 15th May this year, dozens of students and others from the Iwaro ethnic group from Metamani and Inanwatan in South Sorong Regency, staged a protest action with banners and speeches, blocking the offices of oil palm company PT Permata Putera Mandiri (PPM), on Jalan Ahmad Yani, Sorong City, West Papua Province.

According to Simon Soren, one of the participants on the action, “the people were demanding that PT PPM offer a solution to the problems of land grabbing, the destruction of the forest and sago groves, illegal logging and an unfair level of compensation, and indications that illegal exploration for oil and gas were also taking place”.

The company refused to meet with the demonstrators, and then police from the Sorong City station, who were already present at the area, broke up the action and arrested dozens of participants. After questioning, several detainees were released little by little, until eventually only two people were being held: Obed Korie and Odie Aitago from Puragi village, Metamani District, South Sorong.

On 14th July 2014, Obed Korie and Odie Aitago attended the first session of their court process at the Sorong District Court, where the prosecution read out the accusations. According to Loury Dacosta, their legal support who attended that session, “Prosecutor Ola Dimara read out the accusations which formed the basis of charging the two people under article 170 of the Indonesian Criminal Code, which refers to violence towards persons or property, and carries a threat of a five year prison sentence”.

Justice appears to be very distant for the victims of PT PPM: the company has not met their demands, and now on the contrary the victims of development are criminalised by the government.

The ANJ Group’s business in South Sorong

PT PPM is a subsidiary company of PT Austindo Nusantara Jaya (ANJ) Group, owned by business tycoon George Tahija. ANJ also owns two other oil palm plantations in South Sorong and nearby Maybrat, PT Putera Manunggal Perkasa (PMP and PT Pusaka Agro Makmur (PAM). The ANJ Group also owns PT ANJ Agri Papua which is engaged in exploiting sago forests and in the sago processing industry, with operations between Metamani and Kokoda districts in South Sorong.

Before being acquired by the ANJ Group, the three oil palm companies were believed to be owned by Jakarta-based PT Pusaka Agro Sejahtera with the majority of the shares held by foreign companies (most likely offshore holding companies). 90% of the shares in PT PPM were owned by Xinfeng Pte Ltd, and 90% of PT PMP was owned by Xinyou Plantation Pte Ltd, both based at the same address at 30 Cecil St, Singapore. In January 2014, these shares were transferred to the AnJ Group. PT PAM, whose shares were registered in the name of another Singapore-based company Wodi Kaifa Ltd, was acquired by the ANJ Group in October 2014.

The company obtained the land for their plantations through mechanisms based on Indonesian state law, ignoring local customary law mechanisms. This actually contravenes the provisions of the 2001 law concerning special autonomy for Papua, which state that if any party requires access to customary land, a meeting of indigenous people must take place to reach a consensus decision before any permits to operate or land title may be granted.

Local indigenous people, who actually have control and title over the land and forest are never involved in land acquisition, including in this case involving PT ANJ. The process of land acquisition takes place furtively and without transparency, with police and military involvement, and without the community having the opportunity to understand or find out what the wider impacts of forest clearance might be.

Land acquisition and compensation documents reveal that the average compensation paid is 75,000 Rupiah per hectare (US$6), with a stipulation that the land will be used for the duration of the company’s operational permit, 35 years. This amount is extremely unfair if compared to the benefits the community would otherwise obtain from forest products in the area. The company on the other hand, will receive huge profits from its exploitation of forest products and large-scale land management.

Source: http://pusaka.or.id/demo-menuntut-pt-ppm-dua-warga-dipidanakan/

Three Years of MIFEE (part 3): As the forest is felled where’s the rice?

Special Investigation
First Published: October 23, 2013 by our friends at awasMifee

Three years ago, on August 11 2010, Agriculture Minister Suswono travelled to remote Kampung Serapu, inland from Merauke in the south-east corner of West Papua, He was there to launch the Merauke Integrated Food And Energy Estate(MIFEE). It was an ambitious plan for 1.28 million hectares of high-tech agribusiness development, with the aim of restoring Indonesia’s national self-sufficiency in rice and various basic food crops, bringing this vast untamed wilderness under the plough.

Of course, the land was not empty. Merauke is the home of the Malind-Anim, many of whom live in isolated villages deep in the forests or along the coastal plains, and an integral part of that forest system that provides for most of their needs, material and cultural. They have had to struggle to comprehend this inconceivably different fate that has been decided for them in distant offices, and in many cases, are having to learn to resist plans they know will devastate their livelihood.

Now MIFEE has reached its third birthday, although it is unlikely there were celebrations anywhere to mark the anniversary. Certainly not on the ground: the forests of Merauke only echo with worry as tragic stories of deception, intimidation, inter-community conflict, forest destruction and even starvation pass from village to village. MIFEE’s proponents are hardly satisfied either since development plans are advancing much more slowly than they hoped, and the Jakarta-based media has made it seem that by 2012 MIFEE was all but over: “MIFEE reduced by 80%”, “Food Estate moves to East Kalimantan”, the headlines have proclaimed.

After three years it is time for a progress check on MIFEE, and to set the record straight, because there is an awful lot of conflicting information out there. Different vested interests, pulling in different directions, have caused great confusion, and a lack of publicly available information hasn’t helped.

Agriculture minister Suswono’s latest public comment on the issue was in late July 2013. “MIFEE is still on”1 , he said. Undeniably MIFEE is very much still alive and it is one of the most audacious land grabs currently taking place in Indonesia, possibly globally. It is just looking less and less like the high-tech rice estate Suswono promised.

The problem is Jakarta that is 3700km from Merauke, and so it has been possible for two quite different understandings of MIFEE to develop in parallel. People in Merauke, and others who are concerned with the fate of the forests and indigenous Papuans, look at the line of companies waiting to invest in the area and call that MIFEE. It includes some of the largest oil palm and industrial forestry plantations anywhere in Indonesia, as well as plenty of sugar cane. This plantation plan has come to represent MIFEE as it is being experienced in Merauke.

It is quite a contrast to the version of MIFEE which was envisaged in Jakarta, which required just as much land, if not more, but aimed to be more diverse, better managed and more productive than the typical plantations model. In this version the land would be divided into 5000 hectare bundles in ten integrated clusters, and developed in stages over twenty years. This version of MIFEE was designed as the answer to Indonesia’s shortfall in the production of basic foodstuffs such as rice, soya and sugar, large amounts of which are currently imported. MIFEE was to be Indonesia’s new rice granary. Jakarta’s version of MIFEE, being an ambitious and visionary plan, has been taken up as an important part of Indonesia’s development strategy.

Either way, the losers at the end of the day, of course, are the Malind people. Some might say it makes little difference if your ancestral forest is destroyed for paddy fields or for an oil palm plantation and course that’s true. Nevertheless, it is important to understand how these two parallel versions of MIFEE emerged, how they continue to coexist alongside one another, and crucially, how the image of MIFEE as a vital national food security project has continued to facilitate the start of Papua’s plantation explosion, without ever admitting that the two versions of the mega-project weren’t exactly the same thing. This essay will examine in some detail the parallel realities of MIFEE, together with some of the supporting policy that has been emerging over the last few years to support it and the wider paradigm of top-down development in West Papua.

MIFEE (Jakarta Version)

Wind the clock back to 2010. States and companies were buying up land all over the world in the wake of the 2008 food ‘crisis’ that had sent agricultural commodity prices soaring. A major land deal had just fallen through where Saudi investors had planned to buy up 500,000 hectares of Southern West Papua as part of a 1.9 million hectare ‘rice estate’. Local politicians were keen to find replacements. National politicians concurred – like many other countries, Indonesia had got caught up in the global panic wave of wanting to ensuring its future food security in an increasingly uncertain world. More immediately, Indonesia has for some time been dependent on imports for some key commodities such as rice and sugar, affecting its trade balance.

And so the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate was born. 1.28 million hectares were allocated for the plan, based on industrialised farming and modern management techniques. A map was drawn up with ten clusters, each with it’s own target crops and time-scale. Projected outputs for ‘food crops’ were even supplied: 1.95 million tons of rice, 2.02 million tons of maize, 167,000 tons of soya beans, beef from 64,000 cows . Oil palm and sugar cane were also part of the grand design, but limited to 20% and 30% of the total cultivated area respectively.

The MIFEE launched on August 11th 2010 was an ambitious plan, and several food and seed companies expressed their interest. State-owned enterprises said they were ready to get on board, supplying seeds and fertilizer, creating farmer-owned enterprises that could market by-products of rice cultivation and generate electricity from waste.

However, very swiftly there was no new news. There was some conflict with the Papuan provincial administration, which felt slighted by having been bypassed when MIFEE was created. Another obstacle was that it seemed like nobody wanted to foot the bill for the infrastructure development needed. What’s more, somewhat amazingly for such a major and complex development, no new body was set up to oversee MIFEE’s implementation. We could be forgiven for thinking that from the outset, no-one really had any intention to ever implement this MIFEE (Jakarta Version) at all.

 MIFEE (Merauke Version)

Suswono travelled to Merauke in August 2010 to launch MIFEE, and was photographed shaking hands with the leader of Merauke Regency at the time, Johanes Gluba Gebze. Gluba Gebze smiled as he held a ribbon-wrapped copy of the MIFEE (Jakarta Version) Grand Design, but maybe he didn’t let on that he had other plans that might sabotage the food estate.

launching mifee

In the months of July and August 2010 at least 20 location permits were issued or renewed by Gluba Gebze’s local government. Only one of these permits was for food crops other than oil palm or sugar cane, but there were several industrial forestry permits. The location of these permits encompassed nearly all the land in Merauke Regency, except for a few protected areas, stretching far beyond the boundaries of the ten clusters allocated in the MIFEE (Jakarta Version) plan. Many of these permits were for the legal maximum size of 40,000 hectares each – in Papua plantations are permitted to be twice as big as elsewhere in Indonesia.

What could be the reason for this frenzy of permits? Well, in late August 2010 there were elections for a new regency leader. Gluba Gebze had already been in power for two full terms so he wasn’t eligible to stand, but had a favoured candidate that he hoped would help him with his ambition of creating a new province of South Papua and becoming the governor. Could the permits have bankrolled this election campaign?2

That candidate did not win the election, but it is these initial location permits, together with others issued before July 2010, that form the backbone of MIFEE (Merauke Version). In a sense this is the real MIFEE, because it is this onslaught of plantation development that the Malind people are currently having to deal with.

 Which companies are investing in MIFEE?

The location permits given out by John Gluba Gebze are only the first stage in a legal process a company must follow before it can develop a new plantation. After that, an environmental impact assessment must be prepared and the forestry department must agree to release the land from the state forest estate. The company must also show that it has obtained the consent of indigenous landowners and compensated them for use of the land during the lifetime of the plantation, before it can apply for the final permit.

Faced with various obstacles, not all the companies have continued with their plans, but many have persevered, and so a huge amount of land continues to be under immediate threat.

Although the non-active concessions may of course be re-activated or reassigned, to look at the actual developments that are taking place right now gives a more accurate picture of how MIFEE is shaping up. So here’s the key data on plantation development in Merauke, as of August 2013, three years after MIFEE’s launch.

  •  Since 2007 around 80 initial location permits have been issued, but not all are being actively pursued. Somme permits have been revoked.
  • At least twelve major corporate groups are actively trying to start new plantations, between them operating 24 subsidiary companies.
  • Four corporate groups (Korindo, Daewoo International, Agro Mandiri Semesta and Central Cipta Murdaya) are developing eight oil palm plantations estimated to cover around 304,000 hectares.
  • Six corporate groups (Wilmar, Rajawali, Astra Agro Lestari, Mayora, Medco and Central Cipta Murdaya) are investing in sugar cane, planning eleven plantations on land estimated at around 330,000 hectares.
  • Between two and four companies wish to develop industrial forestry plantations, using up to 459,000 hectares. (including Medco and Texmaco which are definitely active, Moorim (status currently unclear) and newcomer PT Wahana Samudra Sentosa, which we don’t know much about yet)
  • Only one company, the somewhat mysterious PT China Gate Agriculture Development is definitely interested in farming food crops other than oil palm and sugar cane. Its permit is for 20,000 hectares, which it will use for cassava Another company, PT Kharisma Agri Pratama, part of the Modern Group, is also reportedly still active in the area, although there has been no recent information to confirm this.
  • That means that the grand total of land to be used in Merauke Regency, based on currently active companies only, can be estimated at 1,213,667 hectares.3
Company Name Parent Company Permit Size Acquired land from customary owners? Started Land clearing?
PT Berkat Citra Abadi Korindo (possibly sold to Daewoo) 40000 Yes Yes
PT Bio Inti Agrindo Daewoo International 39900 Yes Yes
PT Papua Agro Lestari Daewoo International 39800 Yes Yes
PT Dongin Prabhawa Korindo 39800 Yes Yes
PT Hardaya Sawit Papua Central Cipta Murdaya 31507 Possibly No
PT Central Cipta Murdaya Central Cipta Murdaya 40000 Possibly No
PT Agrinusa Persada Mulia Agro Mandiri Semesta (Ganda Group) 40000 Yes Yes
PT Agriprima Cipta Persada Agro Mandiri Semesta (Ganda Group) 33540 Yes
PT Cenderawasih Jaya Mandiri Rajawali Group 22145 Yes Yes
PT Karya Bumi Papua Rajawali Group 22145 Yes Yes
PT Anugerah Rejeki Nusantara Wilmar international 27457 Only a small amount No
PT Lestari Subur Indonesia Wilmar International 40000 No No
PT Hardaya Sugar Papua Central Cipta Murdaya 44812 No No
PT Papua Daya Bio Energi Medco Group 13396 No For trial farm
PT Tebu Wahana Kreasi Medco Group 20282 No For trial farm
PT Dharma Agro Lestari Astra Agro Lestari Group 40000* No No
PT Randu Kuning Utama Mayora Group 40000* No No
PT Swarna Hijau Indah Mayora Group 30000* No No
PT Kurnia Alam Nusantara Mayora Group 30000* No No
PT Selaras Inti Semesta Medco Group 169000 Yes Yes
PT Merauke Rayon Jaya Texmaco Group 206800 No No
Wahana Samudera Sentosa 79033 No No
Plasma Nutfah Malind Papua 64050 No No
China Gate Agriculture Development 20000 No No
Kharisma Agri Pratama 40000 No No
TOTAL 1213667

* = estimated

Three years later, the impacts of these plantations are being felt. Local people complain that they have been tricked out of their land, compensation has been inadequate, conflicts have emerged between local people, ancient forests and other ecosystems have been destroyed, sago groves damaged, forest animals have become hard to find, people have experienced hunger and children have even died of malnutrition, rivers and swamps have been polluted, military presence has increased, people resisting companies have been threatened as separatists, local people cannot get work with the companies or work for low wages and without contracts, companies break their promises to build community facilities. These impacts are explored in greater depth in Three Years of MIFEE – part 2.

This is only the beginning… of the twenty-four companies holding permits, only eight companies have started land clearing or planting. It is believed that fourteen have yet to start paying for land. That means a lot of the worst impacts have yet to be felt.

The graphic details.

Map 1: MIFEE as seen from Jakarta 

To help visualise the different plans for Merauke, here are a selection of maps which indicate where the two plans fit together and where they diverge. You can click on them to see them as big as we can make them, because unfortunately we don’t have access to higher-resolution versions. First of all, here is a map of MIFEE as envisaged by Jakarta, showing the clusters which were designed to be centres for food production. This recent version has changed slightly from the one published in the original MIFEE grand design.

cluster map

Map 2: Permits for Plantations

The next map is the latest version we have available of the map of location permits given to investors, produced by the Merauke local government. It is undated, but is probably about a year old. That means there are a few permits which are not shown: three subsidiaries of the Mayora Group, Wilmar subsidiary, PT Lestari Subur Indonesia and forestry company PT Wahana Samudra Sentosa. Texmaco is also not shown as that company is trying to start an industrial timber plantation based on old permits obtained from the national government.

active investments 2013

Well, to look at that map it doesn’t seem like there is going to be any forest left at all! That is the result of John Gluba Gebze’s permit bonanza in 2010. At the time, the big white hole in the centre of the map in Ngguti District was occupied by Kertas Nusantara’s forestry permit. Texmaco would be in the North-Eastern white area, in Muting and Ulilin Districts. The only other white areas on the map, which have not been allocated for plantations are designated conservation forests.

Map 3 Which areas are currently under threat from plantations?

As we know, not all those companies are not moving forward with their investments. To give an indication of which land is most directly under threat the following map shows the plantations concessions where it is known the companies are still active on the ground, or pursuing the additional permits they need before they can start planting. Mayora’s location is estimated based on reports of the areas the company is not active. Texmaco and PT Wahana Samudra Sentosa are not shown on this map, as there is insufficient data about the location of their concessions.concession map

Map 4: How oil palm and sugar cane plantations have overtaken the food estate plan.

How do the maps match up? First of all, let’s take a look at the clusters allocated for the food and energy estate super-imposed on a map of the plantation permits. The MIFEE clusters are hatched and the areas covered by plantation permits are coloured. Areas allocated to oil palm plantations are shown in green, sugar cane in blue, other food crops in yellow and industrial forestry in brown. A darker colour indicates the company is currently active.

mifee clusters compared to plantation permits

From this map you can see that permits for oil palm and sugar cane plantations (and the two possible food-crop plantations) occupy almost the whole area allocated for MIFEE. These plantation permits actually cover a larger area, extending beyond the boundaries of the clusters in many areas. Because there is almost no space left, to allocate land for other crops, such as large-scale rice or corn cultivation, local government would need to revoke oil palm or sugar-cane permits.

On the other hand, in almost all cases, industrial forestry plantations are outside the MIFEE clusters.

An important implication of this is that all the past and present planned industrial forestry plantations in Merauke should be considered as additional to MIFEE. All of the various government estimates of the size of MIFEE over the years do not include these forestry concessions, even if the timber is destined to be burnt as an energy source, as is the case with Medco’s plantation.

Between the two major groupings of MIFEE clusters there is a huge swathe of forest that appears to have been set aside for industrial forestry. At present some of the big forestry concession holders are not active, but there appear to be few barriers that would stop others moving in. As Merauke becomes increasingly developed and infrastructure improves, this land could be an attractive proposition for industrial forestry companies. Which means that in the long term, there really could be no forest left.

Map 5: A closer look at currently-active plantation companies within the MIFEE area.

By looking at the plantation companies which are still actively following the bureaucratic steps necessary to start operations within MIFEE clusters we can get an idea of how much land is actually available for agricultural development. This will indicate whether the cultivation of food crops (excluding sugar cane and oil palm) is still a viable possibility in Merauke – ie, MIFEE as it was originally envisaged. To illustrate this, the map of MIFEE clusters is the base, with hatched outlines of the plantations overlaid. Only active plantations are shown:

permits overlaid on clusters

What does that show us? The most striking thing is that after all the plantations have taken their share, there is not so much land left for MIFEE’s food crops plan within the clusters! Even only taking into account the active companies, Remember, oil palm and sugar cane are supposed to be limited to 50% of the area between them. The four clusters inside the oval are the ones to be developed in the short term.

Intended in MIFEE Actual Situation
Cluster 1cluster 1 Dry and wet rice cultivation, corn. 40% OCCUPIED BY ACTIVE PLANTATIONS(65% ALL PLANTATION PERMITS)There is a sizeable chunk of sugar-cane in the Northern part, but there is still some unallocated land. However, the map doesn’t show land which is already owned and cultivated mostly by transmigrant farmers near to Merauke.
Cluster 2cluster2 Sugar cane, livestock, corn, ground nut and soya beans 30% OCCUPIED BY ACTIVE PLANTATIONS(80% ALL PLANTATION PERMITS)Rajawali’s sugar plantations eat up a substantial chunk, and Wilmar is in there too. There are also two plantations which are not listed as active but take up most of the rest of the space (PT Bhakti Agro Lestari and PT Reski Kemilau Berjaya) in this cluster.
Cluster 3cluster3 Corn, ground nut, soybean, fruits and livestock 80% OCCUPIED BY ACTIVE PLANTATIONS(90% ALL PLANTATION PERMITS)Already almost entirely assigned to sugar and oil palm companies.
Cluster 4cluster4 Ground nut, palm, fruits and livestock 85% OCCUPIED BY ACTIVE PLANTATIONS(95% ALL PLANTATION PERMITS)Nearly all allocated to oil palm companies, including the most northerly part around Selil which was originally supposed to be a different cluster, assigned for long term development.
Cluster 5cluster5 Rice and livestock 80% OCCUPIED BY ACTIVE PLANTATIONS(80% ALL PLANTATION PERMITS)Food crops, most likely cassava, fill almost all this small cluster, but from just one company
Cluster 6cluster6 Fisheries, corn, sago and rice and livestock 0% OCCUPIED BY ACTIVE PLANTATIONS(80% ALL PLANTATION PERMITS)Still empty (although there are non-active permits for sugar cane)
Cluster 7cluster7 Rice, sago and livestock 55% OCCUPIED BY ACTIVE PLANTATIONS(95% ALL PLANTATION PERMITS)Around half the area covered by companies trying to establish sugar-cane plantations
Cluster 8cluster8 Livestock, rice and sago 0% OCCUPIED BY ACTIVE PLANTATIONS(70% ALL PLANTATION PERMITS)Still empty (although this area is now likely to become a conservation area)
Cluster 9cluster9 Corn, ground nut, soybean, rice and livestock 30% OCCUPIED BY ACTIVE PLANTATIONS(95% ALL PLANTATION PERMITS)A big chunk is already being developed for oil palm.

The conclusion is that the scope for food agriculture inside the designated clusters has been severely reduced. Most of these plantation permits were given or renewed within a month of MIFEE’s inauguration ceremony, meaning that almost from day one it was impossible to imagine the scheme proceeding as planned.

It should have been clear three years ago that MIFEE would not be the food estate that would “feed Indonesia, then feed the world”. However since that time the image of a modern and integrated development project has consistently been used to justify new policies that impose a development model on West Papua that offers little that’s positive for the Papuan people, especially rural communities.

“MIFEE isn’t working”

As the promised plan for an integrated food and energy estate floundered, information emerging about MIFEE became increasingly confused and misleading. During 2011 and 2012 articles appeared in the mainstream media on a fairly regular basis, but they were rarely optimistic about the grand plans for Merauke. Some media outlets – notably Tempo magazine4 – did file reports on what was actually going on in Merauke – news of indigenous people being cheated out of their ancestral land. Most articles however, were based on gossip overheard in government and business circles in Jakarta, questions asked at press conferences and so on. These frustrated comments gave an impression that all was not well with the Jakarta version of MIFEE, but they gave a disjointed picture. Here’s a selection, in chronological order:

15/08/2011 “It has been two years since we floated the plan, but there has been no progress at all.” Suswono, the agriculture minister, proposing a new 200,000 hectare food estate in East Kalimantan as a substitute for MIFEE5

26/08/2011 “The news is that the food estate has been postponed. The land that was available before will even be turned into protected forest ” Wilmar Commissioner MP Tumanggor – at that time Wilmar had been hoping for a 200,000 hectare plantation on Dolok Island.6

11/07/2012 “We were planning to have at least 1 million hectares of land, but then the land problems, such as trying to acquire customary land, occurred” Agriculture Ministry’s research and development agency chief, Haryono, saying that the land for MIFEE had been reduced to 200,000 hectares.7

The most frequently mentioned obstacles were the difficulties to obtain indigenous land, environmental impact assessments and permits at the provincial level. Almost invariably these news reports would be based on only one or two sources, were frequently contradictory and certainly were never backed up with maps or data which would give a more complete picture.

These articles created an impression that MIFEE was no longer a big deal, diverting attention away from what was actually happening in Merauke. Accounts of the size of MIFEE are a clear example. While land available for MIFEE was frequently reported as being reduced to 200,000 hectares or 228,000 hectares, this is misleading, as plantation companies have consistently been actively working on developing land several times that area.8

How the food estate myth continues to open the door for plantation development.

All the evidence seems to suggest that MIFEE (the Jakarta Version) has never really got off the ground while MIFEE is alive and kicking. It may seem slightly irrelevant to dwell too much on how and why this occurred. After all, to the dispossessed Malind people, does it really matter if their land was grabbed to make a rice farm or to make a plantation of acacia trees.? Maybe, maybe not. However, the story does not stop there.

The problem is, although MIFEE (Jakarta Version) is currently not much in evidence in Merauke, Jakarta has been reluctant to give up on the idea. Indeed it has become one of the cornerstones of a new national economic strategy and a repositioning of Indonesia’s approach to a troublesome Papua, both driven by the imperative to identify and remove barriers to growth and investment.

This is why Indonesia has been determined to maintain the myth of a modern, integrated project which is vital to national development. However as the government rolls out legislation, infrastructure and incentives to support that slightly fictional project, it is actually the plantation companies awarded permits by John Gluba Gebze that stand to benefit. The myth needs to be maintained – an integrated food project is much easier to justify than the more truthful version, where yet more forest is destroyed for oil palm and industrial forestry. The two versions of MIFEE are locked in an embrace which keeps opening doors to the destruction of Papuan forests.

Masterplan for the Acceleration and Expansion of Indonesia’s Economic Development (MP3EI)

In May 2011 Indonesia launched a two hundred page document outlining its national economic strategy up to 2025. It is an ambitious plan, aiming to place Indonesia within the world’s ten largest economies by 2025. However in many ways it is far from revolutionary, mostly concentrating on consolidating Indonesia’s existing economic strengths. That means the island of Java is to be further industrialised, while the focus for the rest of the archipelago is to a large extent only extractive and resource industries – mining, plantations and fisheries, albeit with some additional downstream processing to add value. Papua is grouped with Maluku into one of six ‘economic corrridors’ and the key economic activities are copper mining (centred on the Freeport mine in Timika), oil and gas (around Bintuni bay, with a research and development centre in Sorong), nickel mining (in Halmahera, North Maluku) and industrial fisheries (based out of Ambon and Sofifi in Maluku) as well as MIFEE (the Jakarta Version) (obviously).

The information about MIFEE in the document was lifted straight out of the grand design published almost a year previously, seemingly with little update. The map with the ten clusters was reproduced, disregarding the fact that Merauke was already crawling with companies planning their plantations across the boundaries of those carefully-designed clusters.

The importance of MIFEE to this national vision document is highlighted in the introduction which proclaims “With the implementation of MP3EI platform, Indonesia aims to position itself as one of the world’s main food suppliers ” Yet in the MP3EI document, aside from Merauke, the only other area designated for basic food production is in Sulawesi, and details are extremely scant about proposed developments there.

Discussion of MIFEE consumes several pages, but in common with the rest of the MP3EI document, there is no mention of how to tackle any social or environmental problems which might emerge. It is a typical top-down approach which assumes that these questions are not going to be ignored, but they are treated as details that can be worked out later – there is no need to address them in the big masterplan, and certainly no need to build an economic plan which takes people and the environment as its starting point.9

With the inclusion of MIFEE in MP3EI, the food estate was placed firmly back on the political agenda. However, the remote forests of Merauke remain very distant from the land of the glossy reports, which continue to depict a vision of MIFEE that is divergent from the local reality.

MP3EI rescues the rice plan – somewhat.

The Indonesian government is making considerable efforts to ensure the success of MP3EI, and has formed a committee to make sure all the MP3EI’s recommendations are implemented. One of its key mandates is to ensure that the various projects continue to move forward. That means analysing where the barriers to each of the MP3EI projects are and removing them – the word they use is “debottlenecking”. The barriers could be regulations, bureaucracy, lack of infrastructure etc. The intention is that nothing can stand in the way of this particular kind of progress, to prove that MP3EI is “not just business as usual”.

What that means is that MIFEE, as one of the flagship projects in the national plan, and one of the only food agriculture projects, cannot be allowed to fail completely. The team which is assigned to seek out the ‘bottlenecks’ will have to continue to keep one eye focussed on Merauke. If it is the local indigenous landowners which prove to be a bottleneck, then it is within their mandate to find a solution that favours the investment plans.

The MP3EI implementation committee (KP3EI) has taken each of the planned industries and broken them down into individual projects. The aim is to achieve “groundbreaking” (to get started) on each of these projects and then monitor their progress.10

In Merauke, three infrastructure projects are named, Merauke port, the trans-Papua road running along the PNG border, and another road from Merauke to the north-west of the MIFEE area. As well as this there are also two agricultural projects listed. One is to build up agricultural capacity by optimising existing farmland and creating new paddy fields. The other: to develop MIFEE Cluster 1.

This is interesting because it reveals that non-plantation-based agricultural development is still being planned in Merauke. More data was provided by a representative of the agriculture ministry in a presentation on MIFEE to a workshop on MP3EI and low carbon growth organised by Indonesia’s REDD task force. Whilst also noting the progress of the plantation companies, the unnamed presenter gave data on how much land had been optimised and converted to paddy-fields since 2006. A significant increase was seen in 2011 and 2012 according to that data, (3100 hectares optimised and 3400 hectares converted in the two-year period). The list also includes irrigation work, farm roads built and machines bought.11 Of course, this falls far short of MIFEE’s original target of optimising 123,540 ha and converting 299,711 hectares by 2014, but nevertheless it is not a negligible area.

An MP3EI progress report12 was published in March 2013. It listed the four working areas which are the current focus in the Merauke area. They are:

  • Speed up the establishment of a provincial land-use planning regulation in Papua.
  • Speed up up the permissions process of environmental impact assessments
  • Mapping indigenously owned ancestral land in connection with the MIFEE clusters
  • Suggest infrastructure developments to support MIFEE

Once again, the language used clearly indicates that MIFEE must go ahead, and focusses on removing barriers to progress. The first point refers to the lack of a provincial level land-use law which has long been cited as a key reason why MIFEE doesn’t move forward, ever since the previous provincial governor decided in October 2010 that the province would not sanction any new large-scale permits before a comprehensive provincial land-use plan was approved. Environmental impact assessments also need approval at the provincial level. The third point seems particularly callous – inviting indigenous people to map their ancestral land just so that it can be taken away again straight away.

Importantly, if these obstacles can be removed, it will support the development of all forms of agribusiness, whether food estates, oil palm plantations or timber farms, and could potentially also facilitate agribusiness development elsewhere in West Papua.

MP3EI Demands New Laws

The final chapter of the MP3EI document deals with how the plan is to be implemented and includes a list of several new pieces of legislation which would need to be created to facilitate the national economic plan. A few were of relevance to MIFEE:

“Review Law and Government Regulations related to the application of communal land (tanah ulayat) as an investment component which will enable the land owners to gain higher economic benefits. (this review is needed to support the MIFEE program). ” (target December 2011)

“Issue regulations to encourage infrastructure development in the eastern part of Indonesia.” (target December 2011)

“Issue regulations regarding Forestry Moratorium. ” (target July 2011)

“Issue regulations regarding incentive/facilitation to accelerate investment in centres of agricultural production, animal husbandry, and fishery industries.” (target August 2011)

As with the infrastructure and project development, these targets for legislation are also monitored. An update on progress13 was published on a government website in March 2012, checking off new laws and regulations against the targets in the MP3EI document. The first three of the points were marked as ‘resolved’. So let’s have a closer look at the laws they created:

Law on land in the public interest

Carefully worded to sound benign, the first point, supposedly to allow indigenous landowners to get greater benefit, has actually become a powerful piece of legislation that will allow the state to appropriate land all over the archipelago, regardless of whether people hold indigenous rights or not. The 2012 Law on the Supply of Land in the Public Interest, (UU 2 Tahun 2012) is actually a law to regulate the compulsory purchase of land for development projects. Those development projects include infrastructure (road, rail, ports, airports, electricity distribution), oil and gas, dams, nature reserves and national security and defence, amongst others. In other words, a law which could encourage rampant land-grabbing nationwide.

MIFEE was the justification for this law when it was mentioned in the MP3EI document. In Merauke however, it’s effects will be limited, because in the end, neither agriculture nor plantations make it on to the list of land uses which require compulsory purchase. It will only affect indigenous landowners whose land is wanted for infrastructure projects connected to MIFEE, especially ports and roads, whether they are state projects, or funded by private investors.

It is worth pointing out that this law was already being planned before the MP3EI report was published. Linking this controversial law which has little relevance to Merauke explicitly to the MIFEE project, and describing it in a way which makes it sound beneficial to indigenous people, is an interesting way to conceal its real purpose. It seems that this has been an example of using the pretext of supporting a supposedly vital food security project in order to push through an unpopular piece of legislation.

The Acceleration of Development in Papua and West Papua: UP4B

The second point on the list above, infrastructure development in the East of Indonesia, was dealt with in two Presidential Regulations issued in September 2011, which clearly also had the dual aim of weakening support for Papuan independence. Presidential Regulation 65 was a kind of action plan to ‘speed up development’ in the two Papuan provinces, and Presidential Regulation 66 set up the Unit for the Acceleration of Development in Papua and West Papua (UP4B), the institution that would oversee the implementation of that program.

The impetus for this new development program can clearly be seen as being linked to MIFEE and MP3EI. One of the nine development strategies outlined in Presidential Regulation 65 is to develop a “competitive economy by developing economic clusters in strategic zones with a focus on MP3EI’s Papua-Maluku corridor”. Merauke is one of six of these strategic zones, alongside Jayapura, Mimika, Biak, Manokwari and Sorong. Other relevant strategic aims include improving transportation and other infrastructure, improving functional links between the different levels of government and promoting development in accordance with local, regional and national land-use plans. All of these aims can be interpreted as gearing Papua up for more top-down development.

However, the UP4B’s mandate goes far beyond preparing Papua for MP3EI projects. Amongst its other aims are fixing the woeful neglect of Papua’s rural health and education services, affirmative action for ethnic Papuans through quotas for study outside Papua and in the military/police, mapping the sources of political and human rights problems and so on.

These two regulations cannot be seen only as an attempt to build up the West Papuan economy but also need to be understood in the context of West Papua’s political situation at the time. There had been a special autonomy law for ten years, but it was widely regarded as a failure. The Indonesian government and security forces had refused to respect or implement many important provisions of that law, and special autonomy funds had merely fertilized corruption amongst the Papuan political elite, hurting the general population in many ways.

Urban social movements were mobilising more and more effectively. While on one hand the West Papua National Committee was calling huge demonstrations in support of an independence referendum, the Papua Peace Network was promoting the idea of dialogue to address West Papua’s problems at a fundamental level. Even the Papuan People’s Council (MRP), a governmental body created by the special autonomy law, had voted to symbolically ‘return’ that law to the government as an utter failure. The West Papuan conflict was receiving more and more attention internationally, with growing public sympathy for the independence cause as news of human rights abuses circulated more widely.

Some kind of action was needed, and so the President, unwilling to bow to any demands for meaningful change which involved the Papuan people’s participation, unilaterally created the UP4B. This new unit seeks to rebuild trust in the Indonesian state by focusing on economic welfare – the idea being that economic development will make people forget about all historical and structural injustices they have experienced. Evidently this approach ignores all the many complex reasons for the problems in West Papua connected to politics, history, militarism, demographics, racism and so on.

UP4B aims to win Papuans over by promoting local development such as schools, clinics, food security programs and village enterprise, much of which is indeed sorely needed. But behind that mask of supposed social responsibility it is also promoting MP3EI’s top-down development agenda. All of this is delivered as decreed by Jakarta, and Papuan people at no time are given the opportunity to decide how they want to be ‘developed’.

In fact despite the image it projects as purely development-orientated, UP4B is an overtly political project. Its vision statement, just one sentence long, clearly states that it wants to make Papuans proud to be an integral part of the Indonesian nation. Unsurprisingly, there are few signs that the UP4B has been greeted with much enthusiasm by Papuan people.

When President SBY set up the UP4B, he also chose the man he wanted to do the job. Retired General Bambang Darmono headed Indonesia’s forces in Aceh from 2002-2005, in a conflict that the Indonesian Human Rights Commission has recently described as a gross human rights violation.14 The choice of a non-Papuan military man with experience of combating independence movements sends a strong message that this unit is only concerned with furthering Jakarta’s will in West Papua


The UP4B’s website has not had much to say about MIFEE, preferring to concentrate on the higher-propaganda-value stories of affirmative action and education programs. The unit has only posted one article describing a visit to an unnamed MIFEE oil palm plantation by a UP4B reporter.15

Being image conscious is one reason why UP4B chooses to say little about controversial projects such as MIFEE. The unit is also not involved at the village level, it’s role is to create a favorable investment climate, so much of its work is unseen by the public. However, the unit was given a definite mandate to facilitate MIFEE when it was created. Details are given in two appendices to Presidential Regulation 65/2011 which make up the Action Plan. The first is a list of ‘quick wins’ to be implemented in 2011-2014 and includes 52 points connected to the MP3EI plan. In Merauke this includes:

  • The trans-Papua road.
  • Road from Kumb-Okaba-Nakias
  • Road from Merauke – Muting
  • Continue building ocean fishing port in Merauke
  • Road from Okaba – Wambi
  • Build a port at Bade (on Digul River)
  • Build a port administration building in Merauke
  • Optimise and extend agricultural land in Merauke regency
  • Supply agricultural machinery (tractors, planters, reapers, threshers, mini-combines, water pumps
  • Build 100m cargo wharf at Merauke port
  • Develop fertilizer processing and biogas industries
  • Develop educational support sector
  • Provide capital for capacity building in the community and to develop investment
  • Build a village breeding centre for beef cattle
  • Build agribusiness terminals, warehousing and export ports at Serapuh and Wogikel
  • Bridges over the Koloy and Hewa rivers, and the Inggun swamp
  • Extend Merauke’s Mopah airport

The central government would foot the bill for all those developments.

The second appendix to Presidential Regulation 66 of 2012 is the Comprehensive Action Plan which is more general, mostly expanding on the UP4B’s strategic aims. MIFEE is in there of course, and the plan also includes providing incentives for investment in the strategic zones it identified, which include Merauke. There is also a plan to make Merauke a ‘minapolitan’ – a concept which Indonesia has developed which means applying the principles of integrated agribusiness to fisheries. This is an idea which has been on the table since before MIFEE was launched.16

It is not the UP4B itself that will carry out the points on this action plan. It’s mandate is as an overseer: to make sure Papua stays on track with the top-down development model that MP3EI has decreed. This nevertheless makes it a very powerful organisation designed to impose Jakarta’s vision for development on Papua, in Jakarta’s interest, and with virtually no participation from the people of Papua.

Presidential Regulation 40/2013: Military to build new roads.

Another piece of legislation, which the President decreed in May 2013, is also intended to support infrastructure development guided by MP3EI. Presidential Regulation 40/2013 allocates central funding for the construction of a network of roads across Papua. Most controversially, many of these roads are to be built by the military.

The road network (called Roads to Accelerate Development in Papua and West Papua or P4B) is clearly a product of the same thinking that produced MIFEE, MP3EI and the UP4B. The road network is clearly seen to follow the MP3EI corridor, building a frontier road from Merauke to Jayapura and then through the central highlands to access Nabire and Timika, passing near both the Freeport mine and the gold-rich areas of Paniai in the Western Highlands. Another road along the north coast passes Sarmi which is currently the site of oil and gas exploration, and on to the Bird’s Head peninsula where it meets the other oil and gas nodes in Bintuni Bay and Sorong.17

peta-pembangunan-jalan perpres 40

Around Merauke, the roads include the border road and roads connecting the coast to the north-west (Wanam) and northern (Nakias areas).

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. The Indonesian military in Papua is also often accused of discriminatory and prejudiced behaviour toward local people, raping women (even when the soldiers believe the relationship is consensual, often indigenous women are just too scared of repercussion towards them or their community to refuse), running prostitution, gambling and alcohol businesses, illegal businesses selling wood, forest animals or forest products, and so on.

Announcing the new regulation, the deputy head of the UP4B Eduard Fontanaba said that the UP4B was involved in its design – indeed it had been struggling for around six months to bring it to fruition.18 In other words, an institution led by a retired general has proposed bringing the army in to build roads to promote industrial development. The military stands to earn 425 billion Rupiah from the project. Whether this implies that the army is acting out of economic motives (to expand its business activities), or whether the plan is part of a political strategy to ensure the continuing militarisation of Papua, it is a clear sign that military might will play an important role in pushing forward development.19

MIFEE Ploughs through the Forestry Moratorium.

In 2011 Indonesia made a deal with Norway where in exchange for US$ 1 billion, Indonesia would impose a moratorium on new permits to clear primary forest and peatland for two years. The reasoning was that Indonesia was effectively one of the highest contributors to climate change worldwide due to rampant deforestation, and a two year moratorium could break the pattern and allow a new paradigm of resource use to be developed.

After months of delay and uncertainty the moratorium was finally signed on 20th May 2011. By that time Indonesia had managed to negotiate several exceptions, for nationally important projects, in line with the MP3EI target industries. Land intended for rice and sugar cane cultivation was included as one of the exceptions, surely with a nod to MIFEE, and with the reasoning that Indonesia needed to ensure self-sufficiency in those two crops. In reality, MIFEE has effectively managed to squeeze more land out of the moratorium’s protection.

Every six months, the moratorium map has been updated. Around Merauke this means that huge swathes of land have been cut from the map and no longer enjoy this protection. The biggest cut was in the first revision. Most of the eastern part of the MIFEE area (clusters 5,6,7 and 9) are covered with peatland. The peat is not especially deep, data collected in 2001 estimated it as between 50-100 cm, but it is the second largest area of peatland in Papua, after the Asmat swamps. It is also mostly primary forest.

The area was marked as peatland on the original moratorium map, but by the time the first revision was published, the area was blank again. Greenomics highlighted the differences on a map.20

difference between moratorium map and first revision

The whole pink peat area has been cut from the moratorium! A lot of it was inside MIFEE clusters, or the other areas which have also got permits that border them to the east. It looks very much as if the map was altered to accommodate MIFEE, although the forestry service never gives explanations for why particular changes are made.

Given that Indonesia has insisted on exemptions for rice and sugar-cane, does this mean it is legitimate to cut the area from the map? According to the MIFEE (Jakarta Version) plan, the land was designated for mixed farming, including some rice, but also other crops which are not exempt from the moratorium. On the other hand, all the plantation permits which have been given in the area are for sugar cane, which does qualify for an exemption. Surely the proper procedure in such cases would be to allow permits to grow these exempted crops (rice or sugar cane), and withhold them for other crops, not just wipe it off the map entirely. If an area is excluded from the map completely then the government is free to give out permits for whichever use it pleases.

Oil palm is most certainly not eligible for an exception to the moratorium. But in a later revision of the moratorium map (the moratorium was renewed in 2013) several areas of primary forest have been excluded from the MIFEE clusters that are intended for oil palm. In the map below the black areas indicate land that has been excised from the moratorium map around MIFEE cluster 4. The map is overlaid with the oil palm permits that have already been issued. The map clearly shows that a considerable area of primary forest has been removed from the moratorium map. This includes about half of PT Central Cipta Murdaya’s concession, and smaller areas included in PT Agriprima Cipta Persada, PT Agrinusa Persada Mulia, PT Hardaya Sugar Papua and PT Hardaya Sawit Papua.

moratorium map changes

Opening new frontiers.

Could it ever have been possible in a few short years to convert a vast forested wilderness with virtually no infrastructure into a vibrant centre for high-tech agro-industry? A disciplined centrally-planned authoritarian state such as China might have managed it but in Indonesia it always seemed a bit implausible. But the act of presenting that dream has opened this frontier to the same crowd of logging and plantation companies that has already devastated Sumatra and Kalimantan. The food estate is still hanging on, but considerably less ambitious than originally planned

Maybe that is the nature of a frontier – first come the pioneers, whose crude methods carry risks but can bring high returns, and then more infrastructure-dependent enterprises move in when conditions are right. So maybe high-tech rice cultivation will make it to Merauke some day. Or maybe just more oil palm. One way or another, the Malind people are facing a severe upheaval to their traditional way of life, which as they well know, is unlikely to do them any good.

  1. http://www.suarapembaruan.com/pages/e-paper/2013/07/27/files/assets/basic-html/page19.html 
  2. Gluba Gebze has been accused of corruption, although unrelated to the MIFEE project. He was arrested on 16th September 2013 under suspicion of Rp 18.5 billion (US$1.6 million) worth of corruption involving crocodile skin souvenirs. 
  3. These figures are mostly based on the size of the initial location permits issued by the Merauke local government. Plantation permits (izin usaha perkebunan) are usually slightly smaller, but many companies have not obtained this permit yet and in other cases it’s size is unknown. Where IUP figures are available, they have been used in this calculation. 
  4. http://tapol.gn.apc.org/reports/120415_Tempo_report.pdf 
  5. http://www.thejakartaglobe.com/archive/indonesia-turns-back-on-papua-food-bowl-plan/459493/ 
  6. http://www.suarakarya-online.com/news.html?id=285764 
  7. http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2012/07/12/merauke-food-estate-land-likely-shrink-80.html 
  8. The figure of 228,000 hectares appears to have arisen for the first time in March 2011, as the amount of land that was apparently already free of any restrictions to do with indigenous ownership or forest status. The location of this 228,000 hectares has not been published. http://nasional.kompas.com/read/2011/03/30/03520963  
  9. Indeed the only mention of local people is the need for “Socialization to the local community about the implementation and benefits of the MIFEE program for the welfare of the community”. The word ‘socialisation’ is commonly used in Indonesian but less so in English – it basically means presenting plans to the community. Clearly the philosophy is a long way distant from the principle of Free Prior and Informed Consent which should be a minimum benchmark for any proposal of development on indigenous land. Papua’s low population density is mentioned as an obstacle for development, but the impact potentially millions of new migrants would have on the local population and culture also goes unmentioned. 
  10. A fairly uninformative overview of the status of each project can be viewed on their website, www.kp3ei.go.id 
  11. http://www.redd-indonesia.org/pdf/seminar/Merauke/04_Kementan_MIFEE.pdf 
  12. http://www.kp3ei.go.id/uploads_file/20130617095359.Bab%206%20Perkembangan%20Pelaksanaan%20MP3EI%20KE%20Papua-Maluku_16%20MEI.pdf 
  13. http://www.setkab.go.id/mp3ei-3938-27-regulasi-telah-diterbitkan-untuk-sukseskan-mp3ei.html 
  14. http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2013/08/02/military-operation-aceh-was-gross-human-rights-violation.html 
  15. He observed local people working for the company, and shows a worryingly superficial understanding of indigenous people’s complex relationship with progress when he states that ‘of course’ they welcome the development as it has brought roads, meaning they don’t have to spend days walking to leave the area. However this information is from the company, he has not noted whether he actually spoke with any villagers. http://www.up4b.go.id/index.php/prioritas-p4b/8-ekonomi/item/227-puluhan-ribu-polybag-disulap-menjadi-kebun-kelapa-sawit 
  16. http://www.kkp.go.id/index.php/arsip/c/2577/Minapolitan-di-Food-Estate-Merauke/?category_id=62 
  17. map sourced from http://zonadamai.wordpress.com/2013/06/03/inilah-ruas-jalan-strategis-nasional-papua-papua-barat-yang-akan-dibangun-tni-2/  
  18. http://www.up4b.go.id/index.php/prioritas-p4b/4-hukum-dan-ham/item/424-perpres-nomor-40-tahun-2013-solusi-membuka-isolasi-papua 
  19. http://www.up4b.go.id/index.php/berita/media-massa/item/570-tni-siap-bangun-14-ruas-jalan-di-papua-ksad-minta-tambahan-waktu  
  20. http://www.greenomics.org/docs/Report_201202_Merauke_Food_and_Energy_Estate.pdf 

Three Years of MIFEE (part 2): First Villages Feel the Impact as the Plantation Menace Spreads.

First Published October 23, 2013 by our friends at awasMIFEE

looking over BIA concessionThe forest villages of Merauke are as remote as it is possible to imagine in the twenty-first century. Nowhere in Indonesia is further from Jakarta – 3700 kilometres as the crow flies. 662 km of forest and a high mountain range separate Merauke from the Papuan capital, Jayapura, which is also the focus of most of West Papua’s social movements. Many of the villages are not accessible by road, and have no electricity or telecommunications links either. Local indigenous people, who mostly identify as belonging to sub-ethnic groups of the Malind people, get most of what they need from the forests, grasslands and swamps that cover the area.

When a convergence of national and local political interests decided that this area was to be intensively developed as a new centre of industrial food and biofuel production, the Malind people faced an immediate threat to their cultural survival. Since the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE) was officially inaugurated three years ago dozens of companies have applied for plantation permits, and proceeded to try and get control over the Malind People’s ancestral lands.

As the area is so remote, and as so many different villages and companies are involved, the impact on the Malind people can easily go unnoticed by those outside the area. Therefore the most basic act of solidarity with the Malind people as they face this huge upheaval in their livelihoods, is to make sure their isolation does not allow the companies to force their way in with impunity, and where possible, allow their voices to reach the wider world.

That is exactly what awasMIFEE has been trying to do since the website was launched in early 2012. However, we realise that not all readers follow the blog posts as obsessively as they are written, and for that reason, felt it might be helpful to provide a summary of the different ways MIFEE has been affecting communities.


Under Papuan law, indigenous people have rights over their ancestral land, known as ulayat rights. If a company wants to use that land they have to negotiate access with the ulayat rights holders first. According to Malind tradition, different clans hold the rights to different areas of land, which also become their hunting grounds and place where they look for other foods. Each clan has a chief and companies will try to get the signature of the clan chiefs, by fair means or foul.

The first companies to make deals often did so through simple deception. For example, in Zanegi village in 2009, Medco gave the villagers 300 million rupiah and a ‘Certificate of Appreciation’. The people interpreted this as a friendly gesture. They did not realise that they were signing away rights to their land, and also agreeing to be compensated for the wood on the land at 2500 Rupiah per cubic meter, a fraction of the price they would get selling individual logs to wood traders.

In other places companies have continued to try to deceive communities by referring to money as ‘appreciation money’ (uang penghargaan) ‘money to open the door’ (uang kelok pintu), ‘ex-gratia payments’ (uang tali asih) and so on. The people are led to believe that the money is a token of encouragement, rather than a legally binding land deal. This has been recorded in villages such as Kaliki and Domande by Rajawali Group companies, and in Bupul and Muting by AMS Ganda group companies.


A slightly different form of coercion has been seen in Kampung Selor and Kampung Onggari, where local people have reported that companies brought clan leaders to Merauke city where they were put up in hotels and provided with money to buy alcohol and the services of prostitutes. Later, when they were drunk, they were asked to sign a land release agreement.

Although the whole village will lose out if the forest is gone, normally companies only focus their efforts on trying to convince community leaders (administrative and traditional village leaders and clan chiefs) to sign away the land. These community leaders have been flown by the company to visit other plantations, in one case (Wilmar) as far away as Sumatra.

Companies have also made promises to build village facilities and these have rarely been honoured. A typical list might include schools, clinics, churches, new houses, roads, electricity supply and sports facilities. However once the deal is signed the new facilities fail to materialise. Or only a church is built.

By the time other companies were ready to make deals, other communities had heard of what happened in Zanegi and were more wary. Some villages decided that they would demand what they considered fair compensation for their land, based on the community’s real needs over the nominal 35-year lifetime of a plantation. For example, in May 2012 four villages said they would only permit Korindo subsidiary PT Dongin Prabhawa to operate if the company gave them 100 billion Rupiah. Sums a plantation company is never going to pay. Making these high demands can be understood as a strategy to resist the plantation plan, but from a community which doesn’t believe that it still has a chance of refusing to sell its land and preventing the company from moving in. Some of those villages have reportedly since settled for a lower sum, others continue to resist.

This feeling of coercion is underlined by the fact that each company is accompanied by military or military police (Brimob) who are present each time the company describes its plans to the community or negotiates a land release agreement. Even if the military are ostensibly present as security guards or witnesses and do not directly threaten the people, their presence alone can be sufficiently intimidating to create the impression that refusing the company’s plans is not a realistic option.

In other cases the military threat has been more direct. Using a technique reminiscent of how plantation companies obtained land in Sumatra during the Suharto era, threatening people as communists, MIFEE companies have been accused of trying to politicise the struggle, by threatening communities that they will be treated as OPM separatists. The military’s violent and indiscriminate repression against alleged OPM members in West Papua is well-known, and is enough to cause widespread panic. These allegations have been reported from the concessions of one of the main oil palm companies, where the guards are all Kopassus members. Most recently, PT Mayora caused panic in Yowid village by making similar allegations. As women and children were preparing to take refuge in the forest, some village elders felt they had no option but to sign the document PT Mayora presented them with.

The amount of compensation that companies have paid has varied, but recently has tended to settle on a standard of 300,000 Rupiah per hectare (about $30). Once shared out between all the families in the clan this is really not very money to compensate the loss of their land which had sustained people all their lives. Even worse, the money is delivered in a lump sum so it is usually finished very fast.

Here is a comparison which shows the low regard in which indigenous communities are held. Siti Hartari Murdaya, one of the owners of a MIFEE company, was recently convicted in a graft case for bribing the district leader for a permit for a 4500 hectare oil palm plantation in Buol, Sulawesi. She paid 1 billion Rupiah  for the permit, which works out as 222,000 Rupiah per hectare. Her company, Hardaya Inti Plantations has yet to reach a settlement with the villagers in the area, but other companies have paid a maximum of 300,000 Rp, not much more than she paid this one official.


As the companies move in, local people learn about poverty. Throughout their history, the forest has always been there, with abundant sago groves to provide sustenance and forest animals easy to hunt. Selling forest products such as gambier resin provides some money to buy other essentials. With the forest gone, food is hard to find, ironically for a project that was supposed to ensure a nation’s food security, and people become dependent on the cash economy.

The descent into poverty has been seen most clearly in Zanegi village. With the forest gone, food is hard to find. Interviewed for the video Mama Malind Su Hilang (Our mother is gone), Moses Kaize said that before Medco moved in, a hunter could find meat within about an hour. To hunt a deer now, it would take a full day or even two. Even to find sago the villagers have to travel to temporary camps far from the villages, their sago groves destroyed by the company that promised to preserve them. The village is often empty as everyone is away. Those that find work with the company have no security, they are without contracts and paid enough to feed a family, no more.

Children are reported as suffering from malnutrition, and this has sharply increased since the company moved in. In the first six months of 2013, five young children died of malnutrition or respiratory diseases in Zanegi village.

There are reports that in recent months Medco has started to take responsibility for the disasters it has created in Zanegi and Boepe villages. The company has apparently started supporting teachers and ensuring healthcare and supporting the village economy by preparing land and providing seeds and fertilisers for people to grow vegetables which they can sell through the company.

The process of impoverishment can start before the forest is felled however. As infrastructure is built to support MIFEE and company personnel, their military guards and more transmigrants move onto the Malind people’s land, they also consume forest resources such as meat and fish. This makes it harder for the indigenous people to obtain their subsistence needs from the forest, and face increasing pressure to engage more with the money economy, including selling their land to the companies.

An example is the Inggun Swamp, which was recently split in two by a new road. Original plans were for a bridge to cross the swamp, paid for from the national budget, but in the end earth and concrete were piled up to split the swamp in two. There was no environmental assessment to examine the road’s effect on the local hydrology, ecology, or the subsistence needs of people in nearby Kampung Wayau. Visitors to the area have reported meeting local policemen riding out on their motorbikes to go fishing in the swamp, using the new roads. As such areas become more and more accessible it is likely that people from the urban areas come to hunt and fish. The people from Wayau have not yet agreed to surrender their land to the Wilmar or Hardaya group companies, but if the integrity of the local forest is diminished, their choice is also reduced.

When through choice or coercion communities do eventually sell, the money they receive is a pittance if it is seen as a replacement for all the forest could provide for decades to come, but at the moment it is handed over it is a considerable amount, paid in cash. People know they should use the money wisely, but what options do they really have for investment? More often than not the money is finished almost immediately as traders come up from the city and persuade people to buy goods for vastly inflated prices, leaving the community with nothing once more, except the small compensation for wood as the trees are cut.


Plantation development brings widespread environmental destruction which also directly affects communities. In Zanegi pesticides from Medco’s tree nurseries have entered the swamps, causing the respiratory diseases that contribute to infant mortality and also skin problems.  Villagers further upstream along the Bian and Kumb Rivers also have experienced similar symptoms, possibly caused by the oil palm plantations and transmigration areas in those rivers’ headwaters. Big fish and even crocodiles have been reported as dying in the Bian River, near to Korindo and Daewoo’s oil palm plantations, and also in the Kumb and Digul Rivers. Villagers in the upper Bian River area report that they can no longer use the water for drinking, cooking and bathing, and now have to walk for miles to find clean water.

Forests in the Bian valley around PT Bio Inti Agrindo’s concession have also been cleared for oil palm by burning. This illegal practice is widespread all over Indonesia, and is most famous for causing the annual smogs over Sumatra which reach as far as Malaysia and Singapore. Local impacts include air and water pollution, and wildlife killed in the fire.


Nearer the coast, not far from Rajawali’s sugar plantations, streams near Onggari and Kaiburze have been drying up because of new irrigation canals to service the plantations and agricultural development in the transmigration zone. Birds are reported as disappearing from villages around the MIFEE area, their voices are no longer heard as before.


A major impact of MIFEE has also been the conflicts it has provoked between villages, clans and individuals. In Malind society, people know which land each clan has rights to. While they have no maps an unwritten geography has been developed through their history, belief system and collective memory. When the developers move in they bring with them maps drawn up in a Merauke Government office, GPS and other machines to check their position and large amounts of money which they will give to the head of whichever clan can claim each piece of land. Conflict emerges when the precision equipment unearths old disputes. A common example is when one village or clan is recognised as the land owner according to customary law, but another clan or village has been allowed to use the land, even though they have no ownership rights.

When Medco built its wood-chip mill in Kampung Boepe, villagers from Kampung Sanggase accused the company of compensating the wrong people, that the land actually was part of their village’s area, and the people of Boepe were only using it. A long conflict ensued between Medco and the people of the two villages, with Medco eventually settling paying the people of Sanggase as well. Another conflict occurred around Rajawali’s area, where the villagers of Domande who had released their land to the company became engaged in conflict with those from Kampung Onggari, who had resisted signing over their land. In Selil, two clans from different tribes have contested the land which PT Bio Inti Agrindo plans to use for an oil palm plantation. After tribal wars long ago the resolution had been to describe this land as ‘borrowed land’, which the borrower has no right to sell. Normally this would not be a problem, but when the company moves in to develop the land, both groups want compensating. The potential that this conflict could erupt in violence remains high.

Such a conflict starts with suspicion and distrust, adding to the stress of the pressure for change coming from the company, and potentially dividing and weakening the opposition to resist. Violence is also not uncommon. What makes it worse, local people have a strong belief in suanggi or black magic, which is thought to be the cause of all deaths. If someone should die in a village, people will wonder who might have ordered the death.

Once again, the most tragic story comes from Zanegi village. A villager, who also worked on the Medco plantation, had been accused of using suanggi to kill people. Village leaders assembled for an adat meeting, and decided that he would have to be killed to prevent more deaths. Police found out and arrested fifteen people, and seven were eventually sentenced to prison. Whatever the rights or wrongs of their decision, the arrests have only exacerbated the problems for the community as a whole. Many of those arrested were outspoken critics of Medco and other companies, but also having to support prisoners financially has made the village considerably more dependent on Medco and its compensation money than before. A long-running blockade of Medco’s logging operations lost all its momentum around the time of this case, and the company keeps clearing forest as before.

On top of this, three of the seven people sentenced have died while being detained in Merauke prison. Local people put it down to suanggi of course, and indeed it has been reported that the last two deaths were sudden, without a sickness. The relationship between this conflict and the company are complex, but undeniable.

Conflicts can emerge at an even earlier stage, before compensation is paid, even at the moment a company first arrives on the scene. When a company first sends representatives into an area, they often to persuade or employ certain individuals to become pro-plantation and promote their interests, deliberately causing conflict within a village. Villagers in several villages in Tubang, Ilwayab and Okaba have accused two companies PT Astra and PT Mayora of deliberately pursuing this strategy, moving in to the area at an early stage in the investment process in order to create divisions and manipulate suspicions. In some villages they recruited middlemen to act on their behalf, who collaborated with security guards to accuse others of being OPM rebels, as described above. In the same area, villagers from Woboyu village were concerned when they heard news that Welbuti villagers had agreed to work together with PT Astra to map customary land boundaries. There had been an agreement between all the villages in the area not to work together with the companies at all. Any village perceived to break that village could be the trigger for a conflict to erupt, and, because of the belief in suanggi, this could quickly become deadly.

In fear that such conflicts could quickly spiral out of control, people from the area took action in the city, occupying PT Mayora’s office. They argued that the way the two companies had come into the area and started surveying and approaching local people without prior information, was a strategy to cause fear and conflict between local people. If a company wanted to move in, it should sit down first with all involved to discuss their plans. In this particular case, the regency leader said he would command PT Mayora and PT Astra to stop work until further discussions could take place.

Working for the company.

In order to be able to make a living once their land is gone, villagers are lured with promises of work once the plantations are operational, but in reality many of the jobs have gone to migrants who already have training or experience to work on plantations. Local people do not always receive work, and when they do, many times it is without a contract, just hired daily when there is work to be done. Examples of jobs which local people have been hired to do include work connected to corporate social responsibility programmes, supporting survey teams, drivers, security, porters, plantation workers putting seedlings in polythene bags or preparing demonstration plots, stripping bark and operating chainsaws.

When wages are paid they conform to the regional minimum wage for unskilled labour, 1,710,000 Rupiah per month or 70,000 Rupiah per working day. However, in rural Papua prices are much higher than elsewhere in Indonesia, which means that this money is only enough for the most basic day to day expenses such as food.

However, villages where companies have not yet moved in see the change in economy from forest-based to wage labour as a threat to their identity. Malind people see themselves as Anim-ha – ‘the real people’. Now people have coined a phrase when they think about a time that they will be dependent on shops for their food and everything they need for their traditional customs – no longer ‘Anim-ha’, they will be ‘Plastic Malind‘.

In a submission to the UN Commission on Racial Discrimination, twenty-seven organisations made the case that working for MIFEE companies amounts to forced labour, which can legitimately be regarded as a contemporary form of slavery. The basic argument is that when indigenous people’s land is taken from them without their free, prior, informed consent, their traditional livelihood becomes untenable and so they have no option other than to accept whatever work the company, the sole employer in the area, chooses to offer them – in the case of MIFEE, menial and low-paid. If they were offered land as smallholders, as Merauke local government claims to want, the situation is little better, there the same dependency on the company, but it becomes a kind of feudal serfdom.

Women in a Changing Village Economy

A study by the Sajogjo Institute has focussed on the particular issues facing Malind women when the companies move in. It examined the typical household economy before companies move in, where the tasks are divided by gender, the role of both women and men are important. Men hunt, but women have the main responsibility for fishing, and for processing sago starch, although they may be helped by the younger men. While men have the primary responsibility for forest gardens, women also help out. Women also are responsible for main household tasks such as collecting firewood, cooking and cleaning.

malind women

When the forest is gone, the people are dependent on the company to give them work, and in the case of Medco in Zanegi, most of the jobs have been for men. Indeed the company has made it policy not to employ village women after a non-Malind women working as kitchen staff got pregnant by another worker. Women could still get informal work from subcontractors looking after newly planted trees, but when the study was conducted, all the workers were from the outside settler community. Local Malind women claimed they were scared of wild pigs.

Women are also largely excluded from participation in decisions of whether or not to sell the land to companies. Although the Malind usually refer to the land as representing a mother, land ownership under the clan system is patrilineal with a very limited role for women, who have land use rights in certain circumstances, but no land ownership rights. An often-repeated phrase is “to speak of land is to speak of customary law”. Customary law, however, is the terrain of men. Using business logic, when it wants to negotiate a land deal, the company will approach the land owners, ie the male clan chiefs, without considering women’s use rights.

Although they do not have a say in land deals, women are likely to suffer most from the effects of poverty when the companies move in. This has also been seen in Zanegi, where in times of food shortages, women let their husbands and children eat first, and maybe only eat once a day. For the rest of the day, they chew tobacco and betel nut, building up debts with the village store until the next payment for wood compensation arrives, and they are clearly becoming thinner because of this.

Meanwhile, the young men who find work sometimes spend their wages on alcohol and prostitutes. As a result of this five women in Zanegi have tested positive for HIV, probably infected by their husbands. School-age girls have also become targeted for sex by young people working for the company.

Becoming Plastic Malind

Some of the most significant impacts of MIFEE are those that it is most difficult for those of us who are not Malind to grasp, such as changes in social relationships, in identity, in the paradigm in which they are forced to see the world, and eventually in cosmology. To even conceive of the loss of the forest is hard for Malind people to comprehend, because they are the forest, they describe it as their mother. Each clan has totem animals which they are responsible for, for example the Samkakai clan is connected to tree kangaroos. If the forest is gone the kangaroos are gone, if the kangaroos are gone then what becomes of the Samkakai clan?

Here are some words from the Malind Woyu Maklew Anim intellectual forum (SSUMAWOMA) which express the importance of the Malind culture to their sense of identity:

“The Malind Anim culture is not just a dance, a ritual or a carving. It is not a mere representation of a culture, decorated in mud, leaves and vines or other forest fibres. If the Malind Anim culture is not protected and nurtured it will disappear, and with it the Malind Amin people’s sense of self. The Malind Anim culture is indistinguishable from the ways of thinking, feeling and acting that encompass the Malind People’s existence as a whole.”

As companies and more outside migrants move in, this culture is places under stress. Sometimes in subtle but important ways. For example, as transmigrants have set up new villages, they have been given names in the Indonesian language. However these places already had names connected to Malind geography, history and spirituality. When those names are changed, that history gradually becomes forgotten.

Another example: in many parts of Indonesia people like to relax by drinking the sap of the coconut and certain other palm trees, which naturally ferments within a few hours to produce an alcoholic drink, but this has never been part of Malind culture. However, as a short film from Papuan Voices has documented, now a strange new fruit appears to be growing on many coconut trees as people place jerry cans amongst the branches to collect the sap. Elsewhere, police officers bring stronger alcohol to villages which they share with village leaders. Today it is free, maybe tomorrow it will be for sale.

With such an onslaught of plantation companies moving in across the whole Malind land, the survival of the Malind-Anim as a people is under grave threat. In some cases the threat is to people’s direct physical well-being, as has been seen so tragically in Zanegi, in others it is through a process of cultural attrition which severs people from their heritage and leaves them marginalised as underpaid labourers on the very edge of the economy. In almost all cases it is against their will, yet the companies are still there, still looking for a way in.


Three years of MIFEE (part 1): A Growing Movement Against Plantations in West Papua

Part 1: A Growing Movement Against Plantations in West Papua

First Published: October 23, 2013 by our friends at awasMIFEE


We, the indigenous people of Yowied Village reject corporations coming on to our land in Tubang District for the following reasons:

there is not so much land around Yowied Village.

Our lives are dependent on what our environment can provide.

Where will the future generations go?”

The sign is tied with coconut leaves, a signal that it is a ‘sasih’ marker, a traditional means to forbid passage. Similar signs can be seen in almost all villages in the area. They are backed up by an agreement between all villages in the area that no-one should give up their land, under pain of death. It’s a desperate first act of defiance to a modern world they know has no place for them. A plantations mega-project has been imposed on Merauke, West Papua, and 2.5 million hectares of forest, grassland and swamps – the ancestral lands of the Malind people – are being targeted for oil palm, industrial timber and sugar cane.

For now, the natural ecosystem in remote Tubang District is still in good condition, and the Malind Woyu Maklew people who live in the area can easily find all they need from the forest by hunting, gathering and fishing. The former chief of Yowied village has claimed that he could easily live on only $2 a month, which he would use to buy tobacco and betel nut – everything else could be got from the forest.

Throughout Merauke Regency in the southern part of West Papua, a land controversially annexed by Indonesia 50 years ago, indigenous communities are having to learn fast how to resist corporate manipulations. In 2009 ambitious local politicians proposed Merauke as Indonesia’s new centre for industrialised agricultural growth. This was in the aftermath of the 2008 global food crisis, when governments worldwide got preoccupied about national food security, prompting a wave of land-grabbing globally. The Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE), as it became known, was officially launched three years ago in August 2010. Around 50 provisional permits have been issued to around 20 corporate groups, mostly from Indonesia or South Korea.

Starvation and rebellion as the companies move in.

They claimed that MIFEE would ‘Feed Indonesia, then feed the world’. But in the end, it brought hunger. In Zanegi, one of the first villages to be caught up in MIFEE-related development, five children have died in the first half of 2013 from malnutrition and preventable diseases thought to be linked to pollution. Medco, the company involved, is not even producing food. Its industrial forestry plantation is currently turning the Zanegi people’s ancestral forest into wood chips. These are then loaded onto ships and exported to Korea by Medco’s joint venture partner LG International, to be burnt in power stations or turned into fibreboard.

Zanegi too has had to learn to resist. Villagers were tricked out of their land by Medco, who gave them a ‘Certificate of Appreciation’ and US$33,400. The people had no idea that they were signing away their forest, their means of subsistence, their identity. Then the company started taking away the timber, giving people a fraction of the price the logs were worth and breaking their promise to leave intact forest around sago groves and sacred sites. Eventually the people decided to block the company’s access. If they heard chainsaws then they would come running, and in this way they successfully managed to keep the company from operating on their land for over a year.

Despite their resistance, Zanegi has suffered. The forest is gone and the village is empty nowadays as people regularly abandon the village, staying in temporary camps to try to hunt the few remaining forest animals. Others work for the company, but their daily pay is only enough to buy a day’s food for a family. Swamps are poisoned with pesticide residues from the tree nurseries, fish swim erratically as if drunk and then die. People do not have enough to eat, especially the women who always feed their husbands and children before themselves. Traditional beliefs in this area mean that deaths are thought to be linked to black magic. This has led to a conflict which has left several community leaders imprisoned, accused of killing someone who was believed to be a sorcerer. Three of the men have died in prison in the last year, deaths which are also put down to black magic.

The story of Zanegi village has become well known around the Merauke area: it is a warning of what happens when villagers sell their land, and that prompts people in other villages to hold out against the companies. Another company, Rajawali, is trying to set up a sugar cane plantation near the coast. The company successfully bought up land belonging to Domande village, but other villages, Onggari and Kaiburze, have been resolute in their refusal to sell. This is despite intense pressure from the Rajawali corporation, which has also been accused of illegally felling trees on Onggari village’s territory.

In Domande Village, in June 2013, local people angry about unpaid timber compensation set up a blockade, and some days later ordered Rajawali’s loggers to leave the area. As in Zanegi, they had already been tricked out of their land, but were still fighting to get fair compensation for the trees at least. Previously the villagers had taken action after Rajawali cleared a burial ground. Living in the plantation zone means you must be on constant alert to companies overstepping the line.

Fear and conflict is only ever one step behind the company. Back in Yowied, company guards working for PT Mayora, the company which is trying to gain access to plant sugar-cane, accused people of being separatist rebels, fighting for West Papuan independence. Seeing that villagers were preparing to run to the forest in fear, some community leaders felt forced to sign a document PT Mayora were presenting them. In nearby Woboyu, villagers were scared a deadly conflict would break out after rumours spread that people from another village were collaborating with PT Astra to survey customary land boundaries. Both companies are planning sugar-cane plantations.

Local community activists involved in the SSUMAWOMA forum recorded video interviews in these two villages which they then took to Merauke city. After discussing the issue one Sunday afternoon, about 100 people decided to take action, and the next day occupied PT Mayora’s office in the city, demanding that if companies want to propose new plantations, they approach people in a reasonable way, and not just show up causing chaos, divisions, intimidation and confusion. The local regency leader agreed to meet with representatives after the action and agreed to order PT Mayora to temporarily leave the land, but it is known that the company is still looking for a new strategy to convince villagers.

The SSUMAWOMA Forum is a group that has emerged in recent months, made up mostly of university graduates who have roots in the western part of Merauke Regency. With the backing of the communities, they are articulating their opposition to all plantation plans, at least as long as the people lack the skills or experience to get meaningful employment with companies, meaning they end up marginalised on their own land. They bring the voice of the villagers to the public and government, showing how the people have nothing to gain from plantations and, at the same time, have so much to lose: their forest, their livelihood, their culture and their identity.

The Malind people are not just dependent on the forest for their daily needs. The forest defines every aspect of who they are. In Malind cosmology mortal humans are the third generation; the first two generations of their ancestors remain immortal in the environment around them, and the Earth is seen as mother. Each clan is intimately connected to their dema or totem – a part of the ecosystem: Gebze with coconut, Mahuze with sago, Basik-Basik with wild pigs, Samkakai with tree kangaroos. It is incomprehensible for Malind people that the forest might be gone, if it is their culture becomes no more than a sad symbol, their sense of being torn apart.

“The Malind Anim culture is not just a dance, a ritual or a carving. It is not a mere representation of a culture, decorated in mud, leaves and vines” (SSUMAWOMA forum)

When Oil Palm wears a Uniform

In the eastern part of Merauke is the border with Papua New Guinea. The area is militarised, under the pretext of protecting the border zone. For decades local people have had to live with constant intimidation from the troops at dozens of outposts strung along the border. Here traditional society has faced even more challenges; many women have been raped, and subsistence becomes more difficult when military personnel have hunted many of the forest animals.

The military is a source of terror and trauma in West Papua, having waged a war on its people over the last 50 years, protecting its own interests and Indonesia’s economic agenda. Shooting incidents are common, independence movements are brutally crushed, torture, imprisonment and random beatings are everyday hazards. Racist attitudes towards black-skinned Papuans prevail. The climate of fear and resentment has long been established throughout Papua. Even though Merauke has not been a zone of intense pro-independence activity recently, this is why living alongside the military still means constant tension.

All MIFEE companies use the military (or police mobile brigade) as security, adding to the pressure on people to hand over their land, but in this eastern strip, near the border, the military presence is felt more strongly. This area has been allocated for oil palm, with at least four corporate groups wanting to develop big plantations. Unsurprisingly, the companies have found it easier to gain access in this area, and several are now clearing the forest. Nevertheless, a few clans are still resisting, refusing to sell their land, and there have been blockades here too.

The going rate for compensating indigenous people for the annihilation of their world works out at about US$30 per hectare. This amount is pitiful if it is seen as a replacement for the many lifetimes which a forest could sustain, especially once that amount is shared out between different families. But at the moment when the cash is handed over for a few thousands of hectares, for the communities, as people who are desperately poor in terms of the money economy, it seems a huge amount In several cases, this cash handover has been the cause of conflict between villages, clans or individuals, wrenching the community apart.

Far away in Jakarta, Indonesia’s national development master plan still tells the official story: MIFEE is a well-planned and structured development which will provide food crops such as rice, corn, soybeans and beef for the nation. It totally ignores reality, which is that the land is being gobbled up by the same oil palm, sugar and forestry multinationals that have devastated many of Indonesia’s other islands. And as investment fever spreads, oil palm companies are also lining up to establish or expand their plantations elsewhere in West Papua.

Indigenous resistance sometimes seems desperate – what chance do forest people stand against multinationals and the military? But companies remain cautious about entering West Papua, fearing local anger, and many ambitious investment plans have failed here. Standing up to these companies costs the Malind so much, but really it is their only chance to survive as a people, and protect their land.


This is the first of three essays written to give an overview of the MIFEE project, three years after it was officially launched on August 11 2010. The second article is a more in-depth analysis of how plantation companies have affected indigenous communities over the last three years.

The third article is a much longer analysis of the mismatch between the original plan of a food estate to “feed Indonesia, then feed the world” and the reality: vast oil palm, sugar cane and industrial forestry plantations. It also examines how this food estate myth has persisted,providing legitimacy to a national development plan which ignores communities, and to a policy for West Papua which is promoting development while doing nothing to address the underlying causes of West Papua’s problems.

List of key companies involved in MIFEE:

  • Medco (Indonesian oil and gas company)
  • LG International (Korean TNC, best known for its electronic products)
  • Rajawali (Indonesian business conglomerate)
  • Daewoo International (Part of South Korean Posco TNC)
  • Korindo (Korean business conglomerate with diverse businesses in Indonesia)
  • Wilmar International (Asian plantation and grain trading giant, and biodiesel producer, also owns the company which markets CSR Sugar in Australia)
  • AMS Plantations (The plantation company belonging to the younger brother of Wilmar’s co-founder)
  • Astra Agro Lestari (Indonesian plantations company, ultimately owned by British-registered corporation Jardine Matheson)
  • Mayora (Indonesian food company)
  • China Gate Agriculture Development (little known company, also South Korean)
  • Moorim Paper (Korean paper company)
  • Central Cipta Murdaya (Indonesian conglomerate – boss is in prison for paying bribes for plantation permits elsewhere but business goes on regardless)
  • Texmaco (Indonesian conglomerate focusing on forestry)