Indonesian Government plans to establish new plantations in Papua Province

According to the news outlet Mongabay, the Indonesian government is planning to establish new large-scale agricultural plantations across the country. The plans are threatening Indonesia’s last untouched tropical rain forests. Observers fear that the project will also result in the disenfranchisement of indigenous peoples and small farmers.

President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) announced on 23 September 2020 that the government’s "food estate program" would be expanded to the provinces of North and South Sumatra in the west of the country as well as East Nusa Tenggara and Papua in the east. However, Jokowi underlined that the government would focus on the plantations in Central Kalimantan and North Sumatra first, before expanding the program to the other regions. The food estate program follows the objective to secure national food supplies and end Indonesia's dependence on imported food crops.

The province of Papua is the country's least developed area. It is home to the world's largest contiguous tropical rain forest outside the Amazon and Congo Basins. On 28 September 2020, a coalition of ten Papuan-based NGOs published a media release in which they reject President Widodo's plan to include the Papua province in the program. The NGOs are concerned that the implementation of the program will cause the deprivation of indigenous Papuans’ rights over their land and resources.

The NGO coalition compared Jokowi’s program with the Merauke Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE) launched under former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The MIFEE project was also designed to sustain Indonesia’s national food security. In reality, the program has drifted far from its initial objective. In the end, only 70,000 hectares (173,000 acres) of the all the concessions in the estate were used for food crops, compared to 594,000 hectares (1.4 million acres) for pulpwood and 266,000 hectares (657,300 acres) for oil-palm. Moreover, numerous indigenous communities living in the MIFEE project area have become victims of land grabbing, fraud and impoverishment.

In line with the president’s decision to expand the food estate program to the province of Papua, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry has been running surveys to identify potential areas for the implementation of the program in Papua. The agency is focusing on the regencies Merauke, Mappi and Boven Digoel. Environment and Forestry Minister Siti explained during a parliamentary hearing that the survey is still ongoing, hence the ministry has not yet decided which areas will be designated for the program.

Mongabay obtained a document according to which the government has identified nearly 1.7 million hectares (4.2 million acres) of potential plantation area in the three regencies. The document indicates that 1.04 million hectares (2.57 million acres) – currently designated as forest areas — could be converted into agricultural utilization areas for plantations by 2021. The Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry did not comment on the validity of the document, as Mongabay journalist attempted to verify the information.