Asian Human Rights Commission
July 19, 2012MIFEE: The Stealthy Face of Conflict in West Papua
Contributors: Selwyn Moran
West Papua, the easternmost island under Indonesia’s control, is a
land beset by troubles. Rarely a week goes by without news of some new
tragedy in a relentless conflict that has endured and evolved over
Last June has been a particularly bloody one: troops have gone on the
rampage in Wamena, burning houses and shooting indiscriminately. On
the island of Yapen, security forces have been carrying out raids on
villages, arresting several people and forcing thousands to flee in
fear. Around the West Papuan capital, Jayapura, several supporters of
the West Papua National Committee (KNPB) have been killed by police in
separate incidents: three men were killed on a demonstration, Teyu
Tabuni was shot in the head by a uniformed policeman and finally Mako
Tabuni, a KNPB leader, was also shot, unarmed, running from
Adding to the climate of tension and fear has been a spate of
seemingly random fatal shootings, presumably carried out by someone
with a vested interest in promoting conflict. The police say the
shootings are the work of persons unknown, who they never seem able to
track down. Intelligence agents blame ‘separatists’. Papuan groups
suspect the state somehow plays a hand.
It is this unstemmed tide of bloodshed and terror that earns remote
West Papua any little attention it might attract. And so it must be; a
conflict that causes such deep suffering across West Papua must be
responded to, whether in Papua, in Indonesia and overseas.
However in Papua there are many other aspects of conflict, more
complex and subtle than the headline-grabbing news of shootings and
One factor driving continuing conflict is the lucrative appeal of the
natural riches that are to be found in and around West Papua: wood,
minerals, fish and land. The military, for example, have a financial
stake through their private business such as illegal logging,
protection rackets around mining areas, or prostitution or gambling
outfits, while using the violent conflict to justify their presence.
Meanwhile the lure of possibly finding well-paid work continues to
draw many migrants from other parts of Indonesia. This creates tension
as native Papuans find themselves stigmatised and marginalised, with
no place in the booming economy.
This is the story of how resource conflicts are building in the
southernmost part of West Papua, as agribusiness companies stealthily
invade the forests, leaving its people dispossessed.
The Claim that West Papua can feed Indonesia and the World.
West Papua’s deep south, the hinterland of the city of Merauke, is
less often a flashpoint in the violent conflict than some areas, such
as the Central Highlands, the area around the Freeport gold and copper
mine in Timika, or the Papuan capital Jayapura. However, a different
kind of conflict is occurring in this mostly flat land. Companies are
moving in to colonize the land for their plantations, cheating and
coercing local people to give up their land.
This conflict goes by the name of MIFEE – the Merauke Integrated Food
and Energy Estate. It is an ambitious program designed by the former
leader of Merauke Regency Johannes Gluba Gebze together with the
national government and certain companies. Together they conceived the
idea that the flat and fertile land around Merauke would be the ideal
location for a major agricultural expansion, guaranteeing Indonesia’s
national food security into the future, and establish Indonesia as a
The plan was given extra impetus by a Saudi investor, the Bin Laden
Group, which promised to invest four million dollars to cultivate rice
on 500,000 hectares of land. In the words of the Indonesian President,
Merauke would “Feed Indonesia, then feed the world”.
Eventually the Saudis pulled out, and the scheme was redesigned, now
allowing for the cultivation of agro-fuel crops as well as food. 50%
of the land was designated for rice and other basic food crops, while
20% would be oil palm and 30% sugar cane plantations. A ‘grand design’
was elaborated for efficient, modern agribusiness, which divided the
project area into clusters and provided for associated processing
MIFEE was officially launched in August 2010. Then as 2011 progressed
there was some speculation of whether the program would go ahead or
not. For the moment, the ambitious dream it promotes of highly
mechanised intensive agricultural production still persists, even if
only in glossy reports of Indonesia’s national development strategy,
the ‘Master Plan for the Acceleration and Expansion of Indonesia’s
Economic Development (MP3EI)’, where Merauke is earmarked as a hub of
Seen from the Forest, MIFEE looks a little different
Looking beyond the grand plans, what is actually happening on the
ground? Well agricultural development is certainly going ahead, but
it’s not exactly as had been promoted. There has been limited interest
from companies wanting to plant rice or other basic food crops, and
those companies that did make such plans complain that there is no-one
to foot the bill for the infrastructure development needed.
Instead, companies attracted to the area in 2008, 2009 and 2010 are
now starting to develop vast oil palm, sugar cane and wood chip
plantations. By May 2010 local government data revealed that there
were 36 large plantation plans on the table.
Those plans are indeed vast. If every company in possession of
provisional location permits were to exploit their allocations, the
new estates would cover more than two million hectares.
Some companies are moving forward faster with their plans, others more
cautiously, whilst there has been no news of recent activity from
several of the potential investors. However the pioneers are ploughing
ahead, and have already started clearing land. Medco, a company whose
principal interests lie in oil and gas exploration, has been clearing
forest to export wood chips. Another Indonesian company, the Rajawali
group, has been planting sugar cane. Korindo, an Indonesian-based
Korean company with a history of operating in the area, has been
clearing land for oil palm.
Other companies are a few steps behind; applying for the extra permits
they need, evaluating the terrain, trying to win the support of local
communities and waiting to see how the political and economic climate
develops. They include companies owned by some of Indonesia’s richest
people, including husband and wife team Murdaya Poo and Siti Hartati
Murdaya and Martua Sitorus, chief operating officer of Singapore-based
While many of the companies interested in MIFEE are owned by the
Indonesian elite, there are also foreign companies planning investment
in Merauke, mainly coming from South Korea. Apart from Korindo
mentioned above, and the LG International Corporation, which holds a
25% stake in Medco’s wood-chip operation, two other Korean companies
are involved. One is Daewoo International Corporation (owned by
Posco), which is trying to establish itself in West Papua planting oil
palm after meeting heavy resistance to its planned land grab in
Madagascar, and Moorim Paper, who bought a controlling stake in local
company Plasma Nutfah Marind Papua in order to develop an industrial
When Agribusiness Arrives at Your Village…
The Malind, the indigenous people of Merauke, live in close connection
with the forest. Their staple food is the starch of the sago palm
which grows in groves in the forest, which they supplement by hunting
wild animals. Each person belongs to a clan, which represents an
important plant or animal and so connects them to some part of the
forest ecosystem. The forest is divided between the different clans
for hunting, using a geography based on remembered stories of the
Indonesian law also recognises that local people have collective
ownership rights over the forest, which are known as ulayat rights. A
company wanting to take control of the land must ensure that it
secures the consent of the ulayat holder to be able to use the land.
This becomes the first point of conflict. Big companies, experienced
in the art of manipulation and deception, and easily able to buy
influence and military protection, flex their muscles against
villagers who have always allocated land on a collective basis through
age old customary practices.
Armed with GPS machines to delineate exactly the boundaries of their
allocation, the companies offer the villagers compensation based on
what they regard as the value of the land: the marketable timber
contained in the trees that grow on it. By doing this, they claim that
they are buying the right to use the land for industrial plantations.
Yet to the Malind, this forest defies valuation: it is not only where
they find their sago and hunt animals to nourish themselves, but also
their culture, their history and their very identity.
Villagers, local NGOs and local media have reported how companies
involved in MIFEE have been cheating local people even out or this
limited compensation. In Nakias village, for example, which lies in
Korindo’s operational area, the company gave villagers the equivalent
of $6000 US dollars for the wood they had already taken from their
land. This was far below the levels stipulated by the provincial
governor, which should include a premium for valuable timber species.
But since it was the company who did the accounting of the volumes of
wood they had taken, the people had no way to check their
Villagers from Muting village have also reported that PT Bio Inti
Agrindo, a company linked to Daewoo International Corporation, has
bought up land for the pitiful price of six dollars per hectare.
Meanwhile in Zanegi village, villagers told researchers from the NGO
Pusaka how they were cheated by Medco. In a ceremony in 2009, Medco
staff and villagers signed what the company called a “Certificate of
Appreciation”, which was accompanied by a gift of $33,400. They took
it as a goodwill gesture. Only later, when Medco had felled the forest
and wanted to take away the wood did the company’s real intentions
become clear. They produced a document which they claimed was an
appendix to the “Certificate of Appreciation” which stated that wood
was to be compensated at 2000 Rupiah per cubic meter, about
one-hundredth of what the community would have received if they had
sold the wood directly to a local wood-trader.
Other villages in Medco’s concession area tell similar stories of
deception. They also report broken promises – the schools, clinics,
churches and roads which the company was supposed to build and never
From around the affected area, the Malind people have regularly voiced
opposition to MIFEE and their shock at the people who have already
suffered at the hands of Medco, Rajawali and Korindo. Few villagers
may want this form of progress, but it is hard to know how to prevent
these developments. In May 2012 news came through of communities
trying to make it as difficult as possible for the companies. Four
villages were refusing to release the land that Korindo wants for less
than 100 billion Rupiah, or over $10 million.
It is a large amount of money, but far from unreasonable, as it is the
price for the whole population of four villages to accept a permanent
dislocation from their current ways of subsistence and somehow join
the money economy. Korindo was refusing to offer more than 4 billion
Rupiah. But even if they managed to get the full amount that they have
demanded, would such a financial prize really reflect the heartfelt
aspirations of those villagers?
Sums of money which may be insignificant as a replacement for the
forest can nevertheless be large amounts in day-to-day life. This then
becomes the cause of further conflict, not directly with the company
this time, but between the people themselves. Disputes over land and
money have caused envy and conflict between the people of Sanggase and
Boepe villages, as it has between Domande and Onggari villages. The
arrival of development brings social breakdown in many subtle ways.
Adding to the pressure will be the military and police presence, and
the effects of large numbers of migrants from outside Papua who arrive
to work on the plantations. The Marind people will be forced to find
ways to adapt quickly to new ways of living, or if not, face a life of
poverty squeezed between the plantations, the latest victims of the
enclosure of land for private economic interests.
This is a slow and stealthy conflict, the transformation of such a
great expanse of forest into farmland cannot be done overnight, nor
can forest people casually leave behind their identity and livelihood
to enter this brave new world. The Malind have a long struggle ahead
of them, whether they aim to reject the developments entirely or find
some way to adjust to life in very different surroundings.
On the most basic level many Malind people can expect to face hunger,
with their sago forests gone and too poor to buy rice. This is the
grand irony of MIFEE, a project that was supposed to ensure the food
security of the whole of Indonesia cannot even provide a secure future
for the people in its immediate area.
The views shared in this article do not necessarily reflect those of
the AHRC, and the AHRC takes no responsibility for them.
About the Author:
Selwyn Moran is an independent translator and researcher based in the
UK. Having lived in Indonesia previously, he now tries to disseminate
information about environmental and social struggles in Indonesia in
the English language. He has prepared a comprehensive briefing on
MIFEE available at https://awasmifee.potager.org. Visit the blog to
learn more about MIFEE and be a fan of ‘no to MIFEE’ Facebook page.
People who read Indonesian are recommended to consult Pusaka’s
thorough study of MIFEE –