Markus Makur, Timika – The Timika church in Mimika, Papua, has voiced its opposition of the province's planned oil palm plantation project, arguing that it would damage the environment and lead to a shortage of sago, the staple food of the Papuan Kamoro indigenous people.
Timika bishop Mgr. John Philiph Saklil said the establishment of an oil palm plantation was feared to make the area prone to flooding as the project would begin with clear-felling the forest, including sago plants.
"It's better for the provincial administration to develop local plants like sago," Saklil told The Jakarta Post on Monday.
He added that developing sago would pose no threat to the environment. Instead, he said, it is good for the forest and swamps and has more economic potential than oil palm.
"I'm questioning whose needs are being answered by the oil palm project? If the answer is the locals' need to earn money, they can manage the forest to earn money," he said.
Saklil assured that the church had analyzed and learned from cases of oil palm projects in Indonesia.
"If the provincial administration insists on going forward with the project, what will happen in Mimika is damage to the environment and a food crisis as fish and sago disappear. This will not happen if they develop sago plantations instead," he said.
The church, according to Saklil, also calculated that if a hectare of Mimika tropical rain forest produced 50 cubic meters of hardwood timber with a sale price of around Rp 150 million, the 3,000 hectares of Mimika forest could provide a yield in the billions of rupiah if it was planted with the trees.
"The church has sent a letter asking the governor to stop the project and so has the Papua Peace and Justice secretariat, but the project has not been stopped," Saklil said.
Papua State University rector Yan Pieter Karafir, said he also disagreed with the government project, saying there was sufficient evidence linking oil palm plantations with widespread environmental destruction.
"Research shows that oil palms do not suit Papua. The plantation will damage the structure of the soil, turning it into dry, infertile land," Yan said.
Yan added that sago would better suit Papua. Quoting research conducted by a Japanese company, he said sago could produce ethanol and that a company had already expressed interest in investing in Papua to develop sago crops for ethanol.
"In Sorong, sago forests have been become sago plantations. Sago is a superior commodity for Papuans," he said.
Sago plants, according to Yan, covers some 90 percent of the province's area. Sago has been promoted to become an international trade commodity. "Oil palm is not traditional Papuan food, sago is," Yan said.