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LAND GRABS AND ENVIRONMENTAL DESTRUCTION linked to an agricultural megaproject in Indonesia’s Papua province are devastating indigenous communities and causing severe food shortages in some areas, alleges a coalition of NGOs.

Agro-industrial development in Papua has left indigenous communities cut off from their traditional livelihoods and living in abject poverty, the coalition said in a report released last week calling for the suspension of the project.

In a submission to the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, a group of 27 Indonesian and international organizations documented numerous abuses against indigenous Malind communities linked to the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate project, an agro-industrial project covering an estimated 2.5 million hectares of customary land and forests in Indonesian New Guinea.

The submission calls on the UN committee to urge Indonesia to immediately suspend any part of the project that may put the Malind or other indigenous groups at risk and to provide support for affected communities.

“Disease and undernourishment are rampant,” said Sophie Chao, a project officer with the UK-based coalition member Forest Peoples Program, who visiting Zanegi in May. “[In] 2013 alone, five infants have died from malnutrition.”

“Generalised emaciation, water-related skin infections, infant and child lethargy and bloated stomachs are all flagrant evidence of the severe food insecurity faced by the community as a result of the loss of their customary lands and livelihoods to incoming investors,” Chao said.

Yosefa, a 31-year-old Malind woman from Zanegi village, said the malnutrition problems began after the company arrived, causing pollution and ecological changes that destroyed food supplies in the village.

“Before the company, there was little illness,” Yosefa said. “We would eat sago and walk the forest all day without being weary. Now, the sago dies and the earth is dry. The rivers are dark and oily, and the fish drunk on pollution. Our children are dying because our sacred mother land has been ripped away from us.

“Soon, the Malind people themselves will cease to exist. When the forest disappears, the Malind will disappear.”

Large-scale plantation expansion in Indonesia is part of a broader plan for economic development in the country, which Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has said is designed to be both “pro-poor” and “pro-environment.”

Without their land, indigenous communities are left with no choice but to relocate – usually without receiving any relocation assistance – or accept low-paying jobs on the plantations, a situation the coalition said may constitute forced labour.


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Tim Ashton

Recently at a school reunion I caught up with Michael Manning's younger brother who is an academic at ANU (with Tony Regan) specialising in Indonesia and West Papua.

There is obviously something odd about ANU because as Regan testified to the Senate that in reality Bougainville benefited from the crisis, Chris informed in all seriousness that the people of West Papua had it really good compared to their bretheren in PNG and he was surprised that there was not a refugees flow from PNG into West Papua.

I have no personal experience, but based upon heresay from West Papuans I have met I was more than a little gobsmacked!

Maybe there is a problem with the top echelons of academia at ANU.

Steve W Labuan

2.5 million customary land is a lot life taken away in a society where land is hardly given away customarily.

More socio-economic and demographic information is needed to be exposed from the UN submission for public viewing. It would be interesting to especially view the process followed in securing the 'project' land in the first place for instance, the number of people displaced, relocation plans etc. Surely, official activities don't just happen for the fun of having projects at the expense of citizen's livelihood.

Nevertheless, it is important that the UN should independently verify this for the presence of rights abuses.

Tony Flynn

What would you expect from rulers who are, I believe, racist and preside over a colonial empire of many islands and ethnicities.

The public face of Indonesia is almost white, all the announcers on TV and the major actors are as white as I am; as are the people who figure in commercials.

Minor players, figures of amusement and ridicule can be brown.

The Melanesians in West Papua are so completely different that they really do not deserve much consideration. Any friendship that that Indonesia may show to Papua New Guinea is commercial and diplomatic.

It is alleged that Javanese leaders are greatly over-represented in the power structure and Javanese ways are imposed on the entire archipelago; Similar in many ways to the British Empire.

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