Jokowi Is ‘Killing’ Papua with Rice

Andre Barahamin


After two years occupying the Presidential Palace, Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) has not been able to meet his promises to engage meaningfully with the people of Papua. Early on in his presidency he made a trip to Papua and released political prisoners but since then he has prioritised infrastructure development. He failed so far to understand the Papuan indigenous needs and demands. This is no more evident than in his foundering plans for a rice estate in Merauke.

In May 2015, Jokowi announced an ambitious plan to convert 1.2 million hectares of the land of the Marind indigenous people into rice plantations – within just three years. Merauke district was to be transformed into Indonesia’s food basket, and named an Agricultural Production Centre (KSPP).

The project first targeted an area of 274,403 hectares spread over Jagebob, Tanah Miring, Kurik, Sota, Malind, and Semangga districts. This was to be followed by 285,249.10 hectares in Animha, Muting, and Jagebob districts, 171,701.84 hectares in Okaba and Animha, 278,390 hectares in Tubang and Ngguti districts and finally 200,042 hectares in Okaba district.

Jokowi instructed the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) to play an active role in accelerating the program. Jokowi targeted 3,200 hectares of indigenous rainforest to be converted and ready for planting by the end of 2015. The program has been a spectacular failure. As of June 2016, soldiers had only managed to plant 1,800 hectares.

According to it spatial pattern, Merauke’s land area is 4,670,163 ha. About 2.455,694 ha has been allocated for protected areas and 1,598,822 ha for investment purposes as the center MIFEE program. The fundamental question is whether a policy of 1.2 million ha for the national food, will directly replaced MIFEE and using the land that had previously been allocated? It is not yet clear.

The Merauke Agricultural Production Centre (KSPP) is essentially a replica of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s failed Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE). Launched in 2010, the MIFEE planned to convert 2.5 million hectares of Marind indigenous forest. It was considered as the exit way for Indonesia crisis on food and energy. MIFEE was designed to spare 1.2 million Ha to be converted into paddy plantation, 500 thousands hectares transformed as palm oil, and the rest will be planted with sugarcane.

By 2014, the government had managed to secure nearly two million hectares. But rather than prioritising rice or food production, the pattern of land allocation appeared to follow the general preference for large-scale industrial plantations seen across Indonesia. About 973.057 hectares (50,48%) were earmarked for timber plantations, 2.800 hectares (12.14%) for wood processing, 433.187 hectares (22,47%) for palm oil plantations, 415.094 hectares (21,53%) for sugarcane plantations, and just 103.219 hectares (5,38%) for rice.

The MIFEE project violated the rights of the Marind indigenous community. UK-based nongovernmental organisation Forest Peoples Programme documented severe food insecurity, malnutrition, and the deaths of at least five children following deforestation and pollution near Zanegi village as a result of the MIFEE project. The project also affected Marind culture. The Marind people have a strong connection to the forest. Deforestation does not only entail loss of livelihood, but also can result in disconnection from their ancestors, history and culture.

Taking indigenous land for mega projects has always led to agrarian conflict. Tempo has reported about how the MIFEE led to conflict in Merauke – one of the few areas in Papua that historically been considered free of conflict.

Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food warned that the MIFEE had the potential to affect the food security of 50,000 people. In their submission to the UN Human Rights Council in 2011, Franciscans International, the Faith Based Network on West Papua, and the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) also cautioned the Indonesian government over the potential ramifications of the MIFEE.

But these facts were ignored by Jokowi.

Plans for the food estate have continued to move forward. On 18 September, Jokowi announced that the rice project will be supported by a new body called as Papua International Rice Research Center (PIRRC). Indonesian experts and academics who live in the United States were to be invited to take part.

Jokowi has stood by the project and said that he believes Merauke will be able to meet 30 per cent of the national demand for rice. Jokowi has said that the Merauke estate will be managed in a similar manner to modern rice plantations in Europe or United States, and has confidently predicted that each hectare will be able to deliver about 6 tonnes of rice annually.

But the vast majority of Indonesian rice is produced by smallholders operating plots of less than 1 hectare. The average rice yield across the country has increased over recent years, but is still only 5 tonnes per hectare. Indonesia has very little experience with large-scale agricultural production outside of palm oil and timber plantations and the experience it has had has not been positive.

The Dutch spent 50 years on the so-called Kombe Project in Kurik subdistrict, Merauke, which was designed to meet the rice needs of the South Pacific. After 50 years, only 46,000 hectares had been developed. One of major obstacles was that there was no farming culture in Merauke – the Marind preferred to gather food from the forest – and locals ate sago rather than rice. With no other options, the Dutch brought in Javanese migrants to farm the land.

The most notorious of all Indonesian government failures, however, was the Mega Rice project in Central Kalimantan, launched by former President Soeharto in 1996. One million hectares of forest in Kapuas district was cleared, and Dayak Ngaju indigenous communities were evicted. The project failed, and Indonesians are continuing to pay the price through annual forest fires and haze. It’s started now in Merauke. PUSAKA Foundation and Mighty International found that over the past 10 years, Merauke has begun to contribute to forest burning due to the rise of oil palm plantations.

Jokowi also ignored the fact that there is only 500,000 hectares left in Merauke which can be used. This is the remaining forest, where a number of Marind-Anim indigenous communities are still hanging on. Within it are sago forests where the communities main sources of food.

Indonesian have options. It culinary tradition shows that sago, cassava, sweet potatoes, bananas, taro and sago are healthy options for rice. In Merauke -Papua in general-, sago is the main source food and playing important role within indigenous cosmology. Destroying sago forests -as it happening- will lead to malnutrition and cultural degradation.

Jokowi have choices. He can promote food diversification and protecting forest, or to follow his predecessor who destroyed forests and violated indigenous rights.

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This article was published by The Jakarta Globe