A small paradise that will be annihilated

30 Aug 2010
Rosa Biwangko Gebze Moiwend
Suara Perempuan Papua, 30 August 2010
Rosa Biwangko Gebze Moiwend
Original in Bahasa Indonesia

The Land of Papua, a land of great riches, a small paradise that fell to earth. This is how Frangky Sahilatua, the Malukan musician, sings the praises of the land of Papua in his song Aku Papua which is has become very popular thanks to the singer Edo Kondologit.

These riches have turned this small paradise into an attraction for investors from Indonesia and from around the world. Forests, land, water, minerals – everything is there, waiting to be plundered by these people. The lyrics are all too true: ‘All that land, all those rocks, the riches that are full of hope.’ Everything in that land is of priceless value. Not only the land itself but the savannahs that stretch for miles, the kayu putih - Melalaleuca sp , the peat and the tall, elegant trees in Merauke that cover 1.6 million hectares, in the hope that they will save Indonesia and the whole world from a looming food crisis. But then, what hope is there that anything will be left for the children and grandchildren of the owners of this land? Will all this be consumed by the people who come here to take those rocks that are full of hope?

In 2000, district chief Johanes Gluba Gebze offered Merauke as a granary when he launched his massive project, the Merauke Integrated Rice Estate – MIRE. This was to be a fantastic programme, fully supported by the agriculture department of the central government. Then in 2008, when a food crisis struck the world pushing up the price of food everywhere, many agrarian countries, including Indonesia, got busy, thinking up new sources of food round the world. This crisis became the launching pad for increased investment in food production. The Indonesian government and its department of agriculture began looking everywhere for strategic locations, land that no-one is using, land with the potential to attract these investors.

In a presentation at the editorial office of Kompas in June this year, the IPB (Institut Pertanian Bogor- Bogor Agricultural Institute) which conducted research regarding the MIFEE project, said that Indonesia would face a crisis in 2010 – 2025. The insufficiency of land in Java due to the rapid increase in population and the emergence of nine megalopolises on the island has led to a decline in the production of food while it is estimated that the population of Indonesia will increase to 300 million. This could result in famine by 2025, highlighting the need to find a solution in the form of vast tracts of land. Merauke was regarded as being the best way to solve the problem. Agus Sumule, an expert on the staff of the governor of Papua, said it would be an act of grave injustice because it means that Papua and especially Merauke would be expected to bear all the consequences of the food crisis in the world and in Indonesia. This burden, he said, should be borne by districts throughout Indonesia, from east to west and from north to south. According to Sumule: ‘It is grossly unfair for a single province, a single district and still worse, a single ethnic group, to have to bear the burden of the national food crisis.’

Arguing in favour of the need to improve the local economy and in favour of food self-sufficiency, the Merauke project was enthusiastically welcomed by John Gluba Gebze. The local government and the central government then conducted their own studies and produced a draft for this project. The central government came up with the idea of a mega project called Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE), along with Government Regulation 20/2008 on National Land Allocation which identified Merauke as the main area for the national agricultural sector. These plans were drawn up unilaterally; there was no co-ordination between the central government and the provincial government. The district chief and his staff in Merauke did not discuss the project with the provincial government. The result was that the Indonesian president issued a presidential decision, Inpres 5/2008 providing for the inclusion of the MIFEE project as part of the provincial land allocation.

After taking several things into consideration, the provincial government recommended the allocation of 5,552 hectares for MIFEE, but the department of agriculture decided that 1.6 million hectares should be allocated to the project. An area of such huge dimensions, imposed on the map of Papua, includes not only agricultural land and transmigration sites which are suitable for food production but also virgin forests and protected areas including peat, water catchment areas and even residential areas including the kampungs where the indigenous people, the Malind people live.

So, what about the people who live on this land? In all the discourse about the mega MIFEE project that has taken place between the Merauke district government and the central government, there has been virtually no mention of the indigenous people who live in the area. Yet, long before the Europeans ‘discovered’ New Guinea and the southern regions, the Malind-Anim (Malind people) had been living there for generations. Anthropologists and missionaries such as Rev. E.B Savage from the London Missionary Society wrote about the Malind people in a publication of 1891. A.C. Haddon published the first portrait of the Marind/Malind people and Van Baal and several other Dutch anthropologists began to document the lives of the Malind/Marind people in the southern regions of Papua.

This project has been designed without any regard for the human development of the Malind people as one of its defining impacts. Indeed, the central and local governments have given the impression that this land is uninhabited, that it doesn’t belong to anyone. The people who live in unity with nature and in their native dwellings have simply been ignored. During the planning stage, the indigenous people were never involved in any negotiations, they were not even told about the MIFEE project. They were kept in the dark about the fact that their kampungs and villages would be included within the strategic mapping of MIFEE. As a result, their customary land has been valued at a very low price. Moreover, they face the threat of being relocated to land that belongs to other clans when this project goes ahead.

The strategic plan of MIFEE says that the project will raise per capita income of the local people and that peasants will be supplied with modern equipment and technology. But it also states that, in the initial stages, skilled transmigrants from outside Merauke will be brought in to work on the project and to handle the transfer of technology. In the longer term, training centres will be opened to educate local people in the techniques of agricultural production. This raises the question: how will local peasants be involved in the project? It is highly regrettable that these plans will result in the further disempowerment of the Papuan people in Merauke.

This can only intensify the marginalisation of the Malind people in Merauke. Ever since the introduction of the large-scale transmigration programme and as a consequence of the lack of adequate education, health and economic facilities in Merauke, the Malind people have been elbowed out and have become nothing more than spectators. They have become mere spectators in the transmigration kampungs. And what is even more regrettable, they will lose their customary lands as a result of the seizure of their land in the name of development, they will lose their customary systems and regulations. Their regulation of kampung boundaries, of village boundaries, their seasonal management as well as a range of customary laws will be rendered ineffective and will eventually disappear altogether.

As regards the transfer of values and culture, our native language is being spoken more and more infrequently because it is a language that is inseparable from the land, the water, the forests, the livestock, all the things that are an inseparable part of this unity. When any of these elements are lost, the language is also lost. Stories that have passed down through the generations from our ancestors (Dema) become more and more difficult to understand because the sacred borders are replaced by rice-fields, fields of maize and palm oil plantations. The identity of the Malind people is gradually getting lost, along with the destruction of the natural features that are the symbol of each clan. The Gebze with their coconut symbol, the Mahuze with their sago symbol, the Basiks with their pig symbol, the Samkki with their kangaroo symbol, the Kaize with their Kasuari and Balagaise (falcon birds) symbol; everything will get lost. In other words, the MIFEE food project will lead to the annihilation of the Malind people.

It is more than likely that in five or ten years time, the next generation of Malind people will no longer sing: ‘I grew up together with the wind, together with the leaves, together with the sago, together with the coconut trees.’ Instead, they will sing: ‘I grew up without the wind, without the leaves, without my sago village. I know nothing about my Dema, the symbol of my tradition, my language, my homeland. I will no longer be able to talk about my origins. All I will be able to say is that Papua is the land of my ancestors , the land where I was born.’

No-one should be surprised when people start describing MIFEE as an act of genocide by the Indonesian government, because it has been well-planned and well-organised. All the legal elements are there: government regulations, presidential instructions, strategic planning and the maps that are the necessary conditions for genocide.

When all these cries are heard, the Indonesian government will need to be ready to face the consequences. It will have to accept responsibility before the ancestors of the Malind people, the Papuan people and the international community.

The writer is an indigenous Malind person from the Merauke area of Southeastern Papua.

kayu putih is an oil that is extracted from the leaves of the kayu putih tree which is used to enhance the flavour of food as well as for medicinal purposes such as soothing aches and pains.