Indonesia offers Elon Musk Papuan Island Biak for SpaceX launchpad causing rage among its residents

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In December 2020, the Indonesian government offered SpaceX CEO Elon Musk a rocket launch site on Biak in Papua Province. But Papuans on Biak are fiercely opposed, arguing a space launchpad will drive deforestation, increase Indonesian military presence, and threaten their future on the island, The Guardian reported.

Residents of Biak Island in Papua are worried that a new SpaceX launchpad on their land will cost them their traditional hunting grounds, damaging the nature their way of life depends on. A tribal chief on the island, Manfun Sroyer, said he feared Papuans would be forced from their homes. But, if they protest, they will be arrested immediately.

This isn't the only rocket launch site that may be built on Biak. Meanwhile, media sources reported that the Indonesian Aerospace Agency LAPAN will start building a launchpad near the Saukobye Village in the Biak Utara District this year. According to local informants, LAPAN and the local Government had repeatedly organized meetings with local communities throughout the past years but never reached an agreement regarding the release and compensation of customary land for the space project. The space port shall be operational by 2024. Russia's aerospace agency, Roscosmos, also wants to develop a launchpad on the island by 2024. "In 2002, Russians wanted our land for satellite launches. We protested, and many were arrested and interrogated ... now they've brought it back, and this harassment and intimidation is still going on," Sroyer told The Guardian.

West Papua has some of the world's largest deposits of copper and nickel, which are two critical materials for making rockets and batteries for Tesla's electric vehicles. According to a government's statement from December 2020, Tesla, of which Musk is also CEO, is already in talks with the Indonesian government about possible investments opportunities. If successful, Tesla and SpaceX operations could further accelerate resource extraction in West Papua.

A spokesperson from the government told The Guardian that the planned launchpad was being developed in consultation with the Papuan government and local communities on Tuesday. They also said that Biak would become a "space island" that would "bring positive economic impacts" for those living there. The residents of Biak do not seem to support this statement. On the contrary, they fear that a SpaceX launchpad would devastate the island's ecology and displace people from their homes.

Background information regarding spaceport plans for Biak Island

For many years, there have been plans to set up a spaceport in Biak. Biak is very conveniently located near the equator with thousands of kilometres of ocean to its eastern border. The project sponsor is LAPAN (Lembaga Penerbangan dan Antariksa), the Indonesian space agency.

The customary (adat) community in Biak has a document according to which 15 hectares were ceded to the government in 1980. Since at least 2002, LAPAN, with the support of the military, is demanding as many as 100 hectares. Around 1980, there were negotiations over 100 hectares and the owners were allegedly asking for a billion rupiah. Because of this demand, the village was designated as an OPM (Organisasi Papua Merdeka) village. At the time, the demand seemed to be way too high and an attempt to thwart the government's plans. In July 1980, 15 million rupiah were finally paid for the land. It's unclear how many hectares were ceded. It is also unclear whether a spaceport was even in view at that time.

Around 2002, there was allegedly an attempt by the military to acquire 100 hectares. Under pressure from the military, the customary community Warbon reportedly agreed to surrender 100 hectares but later withdrew its willingness because the government did not respect the Adat procedure and did not explain the positive or negative effects of the project. There was no free, prior and informed consent (FPIC). During a visit by LAPAN officials in March 2014, the population cordoned off the premises. It was insisted that there had not yet been a valid transfer of land.

In 2007, a German / Russian joint venture planned to use Biak as a spaceport. According to their statements, this company was concerned with using Biak Airport to take off and land a large-capacity aircraft that would eject a launch vehicle with a satellite at an altitude of 10 km. The rocket would then carry the satellite into orbit. The process is much cheaper and cleaner than surface-to-air launches of missiles. They weren't interested in the land in Nordbiak. At that time, a contract between the Indonesian and Russian governments is said to have been signed. However, the joint venture lacked the money.

According to Law No. 21/2013 on aerospace, LAPAN is responsible for aerospace equipment launches, constructing and operating a spaceport. The law requires LAPAN to develop rockets for satellite launching, starting from developing sounding rockets; and to build an aerospace port in Eastern Indonesia. Lapan already has a spaceport in West Java. But there can only take off small missiles. A team preparing the Spaceport project in Biak had already determined in 2016 that 100 hectares was far too little for the project. The minimum requirement is 700 ha. The distance to residential areas must be at least 5 km, but villages are already one km away. China Wall Industry Corporation was involved in this team.

In May 2018 the Human Rights Office of the Christian Protestant Church in Papua (GKI-TP) reported on a conflict between the population in North Biak and a team of four Indonesian army officers and police. The officers had prepared papers for signature. The population should have signed an agreement to cede 100 hectares of land for the spaceport project. One of the officers allegedly attacked the Ketua Klasis Pdt. G. Ambrauw. Abrauw is one of the owners of the land.

In August 2018, the chairman of LAPAN, Thomas Jamaluddin, stated that no decision on the location had been made yet. An alternative for the Biak site would be Morotai in northern Maluku. However, Biak is preferable because it is sparsely populated and geographically more convenient. In the event of an explosion or missile crash, the risk to people is low. So far there are only two spaceports near the equator, namely Kouruo in French Guyana and Alkantara in Brazil. With Biak, Indonesia would be the third country to have one.