UNESCO has urged the Indonesian government to close a stretch of road that runs through the largest protected area in Southeast Asia, citing its negative environmental impact.
In its latest report on the state of conservation of World Heritage Sites, UNESCO highlighted several concerns related to the 190-kilometre (118-mile) road that dissects Lorentz National Park in Indonesia’s easternmost region of Papua.
Spanning 2.35 million hectares (5.81 million acres), an area a third the size of Ireland, the park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s known for being the only protected area in the world to range continuously from snowcapped mountain peaks down to tropical marine environment, with extensive lowland wetlands in between.
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The road, known as the Habema-Kenyam road, is a part of the Trans-Papua project, a web of asphalt cutting thousands of kilometres across the Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea.
UNESCO has previously raised concerns over potential threats that the road poses to the outstanding universal value of the national park, which contains fossil sites that provide evidence of the evolution of life in New Guinea; a high level of endemism; and the highest level of biodiversity in the region. In 2017, UNESCO noted that the project’s environmental impact assessment warned of potential impacts on the protected area.
The construction of the road represented “a significant additional risk for the fragile alpine environments of the property, which may exacerbate the impacts of climate change,” UNESCO said.
Despite these warnings, the Indonesian government pushed ahead with the road construction, saying it would make sure not to damage the ecosystems and biodiversity of the national park. In a report to UNESCO in 2020, the Indonesian government said it had prepared a mitigation action plan for the Habema-Kenyam road and had started to implement it in 2017 but had to wind down the mitigation in 2018 due to security concerns the area.
UNESCO called this “deeply concerning,” noting that the road was constructed and opened for public use despite the UNESCO World Heritage Committee’s earlier misgivings.
“The implementation of appropriate mitigation measures is crucial to protect the property’s fragile alpine ecosystem,” UNESCO said. It added it was also in the dark about what mitigation measures had been or were planned to be implemented, despite having previously requested that information from the Indonesian government.
Besides the lack of transparency on the road project and the implementation of the mitigation measures, UNESCO also raised concerns over the government’s decision to allow a wide range of activities, mainly infrastructure development.
Among the infrastructure projects permitted by the government are roads, airport, seaport jetty, radio communication tower, lighthouse, and helipad. These are limited to a “special use zone” spanning 43,714 hectares (108,000 acres) of the park.
But UNESCO said the zoning still raises concern as it still falls within the national park’s boundaries and thus might negatively impact the outstanding universal value of the region. It said such a wide range of activities should be completely banned within the national park and directed outside of the boundaries.
In a bid to preserve the ecosystems in the national park, the government has established a core zone and a wilderness zone, which account for 35% and 36% of the park’s area, respectively. The core zone is described as carrying the property’s outstanding universal value and is home to a number of endangered species, such as long-beaked echidnas (Zaglossus spp.) and dingiso tree-kangaroos (Dendrolagus mbaiso). This core zone is surrounded by the wilderness zone, which protects it from external threats.
UNESCO calls the government’s zoning misguided, saying it should work to ensure the protection of the outstanding universal value across the entire Lorentz National Park, rather than confining it within the core zone.
“A buffer zone should surround the whole property to ensure that the entire property is protected from threats that originate from outside the property boundaries,” UNESCO said.
Citing these myriad concerns, UNESCO urged the Indonesian government to temporarily close the road for public use and only reopen it after mitigation measures are fully implemented. UNESCO also asked the government to submit details of the mitigation measures taken and those planned to the World Heritage Centre.
UNESCO also asked for clarification on the Trans-Papuan Highway and its potential impacts on the property’s outstanding universal value.
To do so, the government should submit a detailed map, a copy of the environmental impact assessment, and the foreseen mitigation measures before any further work is undertaken, according to UNESCO.
Since the completion of the road in Lorentz National Park, observers have identified several negative impacts.
A 2018 study by The Asia Foundation and the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) found that the road had led to the clearing of trees that serve as a habitat for wildlife and a source of water for the ecosystems in the park. The study also noted the dieback of Nothofagus beech rainforests in the national park as one of the consequences of the road being built there.
In 2019, the Indonesian government and the Wildlife Conservation Society conducted a study on this phenomenon, with preliminary results concluding that fungi infected the beech rainforests.
But the study found no correlation between fungal disease prevalence and distance to the road and found that forest fires wiped some Nothofagus stands out during the dry season.
The government said further analyses are being carried out on additional parameters to determine the relationship between the dieback and road development.
UNESCO called on the government to submit its full findings of the Nothofagus survey to the World Heritage Centre for review by the IUCN when they become available.
“Noting that forest fires are also a cause of Nothofagus loss, it is important that fire management, including climate change-related aspects, be captured in the management plan for the property,” UNESCO said.
In its defense of the road project, the government said communities living in the area and the Lorentz National Park Authority had benefited greatly from the presence of the road.
“Previously, to go to other areas they had to walk for days,” the government report said. “But now it can be more effective, because it can use the services of a 4-wheeled or 2-wheeled vehicle. In addition, the road can be used to conduct potential survey activities, patrol the area’s security, and support activities in the natural tourism sector.”
Environmentalists, however, have noted that the road has also facilitated logging activities inside the national park.
Penias Liay, who works for the NGO Nayak Oase, said he has seen trucks carrying merbau logs, a prized tropical hardwood, coming out of Lorentz. He said the logs were transported to sawmills in nearby Wamena district, using the Trans-Papua Highway.
“Now trucks can pass along the Trans-Papua Highway to extract timber from inside Lorentz National Park,” Penias said as quoted by Tempo newspaper.
This has raised deforestation concerns. According to a spatial analysis by the NGO Auriga Nusantara, Lorentz lost 7,644 hectares (18,888 acres) of forests in the past two decades, with an increasing deforestation rate in the past decade.
“Before [the completion of] the Trans-Papua Highway, there were already roads and they’re used to give access to encroachment,” Veronika Kusumaryati, an anthropologist from Georgetown University who is working in Papua, said as quoted by Tempo. “The Trans-Papua Highway exacerbates forest clearing.”
Auriga also uncovered permits issued by the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources to nine mining companies to prospect across 156,189 hectares (385,951 acres) inside the park.
“The Trans-Papua Highway also exacerbates [deforestation] because it accommodates mining interests,” Veronika said.