A. Muh. Ibnu Aqil, Jakarta – While international researchers have backed a government decision made in February to halt the development of new oil palm plantations in Papua in favor of "greener" cash crops, activists fear that the shift in policy will have no effect on the lives of poor, indigenous Papuans and may also have little effect on deforestation.
In a study titled Understanding the expansion of oil palm cultivation: A case study in Papua published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, researchers from the Madrid Polytechnic University argued that preventing forest cover from being turned into more plantations might indeed be more beneficial than cashing in on Indonesia's most lucrative export commodity.
The investigation, based on a study of a PT Rimba Matoa Lestari oil palm plantation in Jayapura regency, found that the economic benefits of keeping forest cover outweighed those of cutting down the forests and turning the land into plantations.
The research also conducted a survey of people who worked on the plantation and residents from nearby villages in December 2016.
While plantations may improve the local standard of living, increase life expectancy and provide access to education, the government stands to gain greater economic benefits in the form of food, water, wood and materials for medicines, the study found. These benefits are in addition to those of maintaining biodiversity and slowing the pace of climate change – both results of keeping forests intact.
According to the study, while the Indonesian government could expect to gain US$2,153 per hectare per year from turning Papuan forests into oil palm plantations, it would actually gain approximately $3,795.44 per hectare per year if the forest cover was maintained.
In late February, Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investments Luhut Panjaitan, along with the governors of Papua and West Papua, announced that the government was looking for "green investments" of up to Rp 2.8 trillion (US$169.7 million) to help develop the region.
Luhut called on small and medium enterprises to develop the island, while rejecting the idea of having big companies carve up Papua for palm oil plantations. The investments, Luhut said, were reserved for other crops such as cacao, coffee, nutmeg, sago and kelp.
West Papua Governor Dominggus Mandacan said that his administration was committed to maintaining at least 70 percent of the island's forest cover.
Pablo Acosta, one of the researchers who conducted the study, said that while he was glad there was a sense of urgency about preventing deforestation in Papua, he thought switching to other cash crops was the wrong solution.
"Planting any other type of crops in forested land should be avoided altogether; actually, the level of emissions for low carbon storage crops such as coffee, nutmeg, rice, etc. would raise the emissions due to land use change even more than palm oil plantations, as their carbon storage is lower than palm oil," Acosta told The Jakarta Post in an email last week.
Instead, he said that the sustainable use of forest cover should be considered, as it would benefit communities, and if managed properly, could provide even more value from agroforestry products and ecotourism.
Official figures on the total area of oil palm concessions in Papua remain unclear, as the Agrarian and Spatial Planning Ministry has yet to disclose any maps despite an order in February by the Jakarta State Administrative Court (PTUN) to release the data.
A report from Forest Watch Indonesia (FWI), based on bits of data available from the ministry website that were quickly taken down, places the total area of concessions in Papua at 2.9 million hectares, with only 323,000 ha, about 11 percent, certified with the right to cultivate (HGU).
In West Papua, some 139,000 ha (29 percent) of the total 485,000 ha of concessions are HGU-certified. According to 2019 Agriculture Ministry data, there are about 14.6 million hectares of oil palm plantations in the country.
In response to the international study, FWI researcher Mufti Ode noted the continued prevalence of deforestation in investors' plans for Papua, even as the civil society group supported plans to improve the economy on the island without reducing critical forest cover.
"Up until today we haven't seen any clear plan on what a green investment in Papua constitutes. Based on existing policies, natural forests can still be converted, albeit using different methods," Mufti said.
He said that developing human resources capacity among native Papuans should instead be the sector's main priority, as the current development model rarely took into account the specific local contexts and heritages of indigenous peoples, risking a possible clash of cultures.
Unlike FWI, Aiesh Rumbekwan of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) said his group was unconvinced that the green investments scheme would respect any commitment to protect Papuan forest cover. Aiesh said it was just another ploy to continue with extractive business practices.
"Walhi still sees no change in the paradigm; it is still capitalism. The nature [of the investment] has also not changed because vast stretches of land will continue to be used up, whereas local communities have yet to benefit from the long history of investment," Aiesh said, noting that investments have only managed to create conflict and inhibit local ways of life.
The government, too, has yet to find an effective way to make the most of existing legal frameworks to guarantee the province's special autonomy status, the Walhi executive director told the Post last week.
Law No. 21/2001 grants Papua special autonomy, which at the time of its passing covered the entirety of the island as well as its surrounding islets. The law stipulates that native Papuans must be taken into account and prioritized in economic activities in the region.
He said the government should translate local community values into development instead of relying on extractive sectors, so that indigenous land would be respected and the ecosystem preserved at the same time.
"Even today there is no way for locals to properly manage the products of their own forests, whether timber or otherwise, and yet [the government] promotes monoculture crops to reduce palm oil use," Aiesh said. "They are better off giving the indigenous people better access instead."