People, Palm and Forest Protection in Papua

TFT's John Nelson reports back from a trip to Papua to assess the risks agricultural development poses to people and the environment

Earlier this year we met a guy on the Indonesia-Papua New Guinea (PNG) border, in a place called Sota. His light frame was set out by a heavy cloth bag over his shoulder as he pushed a bike laden with a stuffed cardboard box, weighted down with a heavy sack of rice leaning far over onto the seat. It was all held down with rubber straps also supporting several spare bike tires and some packets of tea, soap and biscuits in a plastic bag. He told us he was heading for his village, a two day cycle ride east through the swamp forest complex that dominates the southern lowlands on both sides of the border.

John Nelson (second from left) in Papua

The next PNG town beyond his village required another three days of cycling, so for this relaxed, sinewed guy, Sota is his local shopping portal – blessed by its proximity to the coastal town Merauke, and the newly paved road north towards Tanah Merah, where we had come from. After we shared a photo and a laugh about our random meeting, and bade friendly goodbyes, I watched him cycle away off of the Indonesian pavement and onto the muddy one lane track heading east into PNG. We were at the end of a long journey in this part of Indonesia, which had included rapid surveys of company license areas between Merauke and Tanah Merah, and interviews with company staff as well as local people. Our work was punctuated by a 7.6 magnitude earthquake the day we arrived in Asiki, and rumbling aftershocks every day we were on the road.

Main purpose

Our main purpose going round 1000 kilometres of Papua was to assess potential risks to people and the environment from the boom of agricultural development underway across the region. So we looked at old and new planted areas as well as zones further north slated for future developments. We also spent time discussing with local company staff about how to minimise and eliminate negative impacts of their operations while they develop their license areas.

Papua, Indonesia is an awesome place, with diverse natural ecosystems filled with amazing biodiversity, ranging from coastal mangrove swamps up into forest highlands, and a dynamic population comprising local and indigenous peoples working hard alongside each other to survive and thrive. As a key long-term migrant destination, and one focus of Indonesia’s trans migrant programme starting there in the 1970s, Merauke and Boven Diogel Districts exhibit the full economic and cultural range one can see in many of Papua’s coastal-linked districts, where incomers settled generations ago, and where local Papuans continue to live. This is a spatial pattern mirrored along the Indonesian coastline from Merauke in the South, all the way west around to Jayapura in the north.

“Our main purpose going round 1000 kilometres of Papua was to assess potential risks to people and the environment from the boom of agricultural development underway across the region.”

There is a tangible energy in this part of Papua, derived in part from the Indonesian government’s push to develop Papua’s infrastructure and economy, coupled with large, long-term investments by companies in mining and logging, and agribusiness, especially rice and palm oil – in a region classed by some studies as more than 85% forested. Those land-based economic activities have in turn catalysed local markets dealing in everything from garden grown papaya to imported Indian DVDs, mangrove crabs to Chinese plastic ware, local handicrafts to motorbike parts, and endlessly delicious food choices from dozens of local restaurants, including traditional Papuan sago flour dishes alongside a bewildering array of food styles from across the Indonesian archipelago, brought by the millions of immigrants who have made Papua their home.

Merauke has the look and feel of a classic frontier town living off a people boom tied into natural resource exploitation of a rich hinterland – the hinterland we toured during our journey. Merauke is clearly the regional economic motor. It is certainly an essential supply shed for the rural areas, including for people from PNG, who flock towards the Indonesian pavement to buy essentials that are not available where they live – like the guy we met in Sota.

As we moved around Papua we observed some of the problems wrought by past logging and palm oil plantation developments, impacting traditional livelihoods and the extensive lowland forests. So far this development has not alleviated the extreme poverty of most of its rural and urban populations, and most yearn to improve their welfare. The most recent data I looked at suggested that Papua has the highest mortality rate and lowest life expectancy in Indonesia, and even with its special autonomy funds, local government revenues remain challenged in bridging funding gaps.

Moving forward

It is not all bad news though, we also saw some encouraging signs that Papua is moving forward. For example, we attended a public consultation involving a community whose customary lands fall within a new company license area, where we watched community leaders talking directly to company staff about how to deliver a development plan that would accommodate the widespread desire of local and indigenous people to develop their economy and improve their welfare. They also freely raised their legitimate concerns about how they could preserve key traditional production areas (forest and field) alongside company developments, while also developing their own plantations.

We also talked to open and motivated company staff trying to develop new, Papua-appropriate approaches to enable them to comply fully with the NDPE standards of their global buyers. These include setting aside key conservation and community areas, and implementing modern working practices that protect peoples’ rights. This work across the palm oil sector is continuing in Papua with the support of experienced managers ready to innovate.

“We saw some encouraging signs that Papua is moving forward….we watched community leaders talking directly to company staff about how to deliver a development plan that would accommodate the widespread desire of local and indigenous people to develop their economy and improve their welfare.”

Finally, during the public consultation we heard local government leaders publicly expressing strong support for new approaches to enhance the environmental and social performance of the private sectors operating in their region. This is incredibly encouraging for companies working to meet international supply chain standards. These political leaders are also clear about their mandate from the core of their enthusiastic electors, who mostly want improved infrastructure, education, and health services, more economic development, and a richer life for their children, familiar themes in Europe and Britain – and, I expect, across the border in PNG.

As I sat in the cool Merauke airport after a seamless passage through the formalities, and facing a 24 hour journey back home to England, I thought back to that guy cycling off the pavement and into the forest for his two day journey through the mud to deliver into his village the purchases from Merauke. I wondered what we would have learned if we had spent more time finding out about his village economy, his family, and their hopes and dreams for their future? After 30 years talking to rural communities about their lives, I have learned that the answers to those questions should be balanced with the campaigns trying to stop development in places like Papua. Communities everywhere want to be heard so that they can improve their situation while protecting their interests. It was good to see that companies are now listening to them in Papua.

This blog was first posted on LinkedIn on 21 March, © 2018 John Nelson