Bangkok – A highway under construction in Indonesia's Papua province is hurting the environment and stoking conflict by threatening indigenous land rights, analysts and activists said.
The Trans Papua highway is part of Indonesian President Joko Widodo's plan to develop the impoverished eastern province, and open up access to its abundant natural resources.
But the 4,000-km of highway that will link hubs of agriculture, mining, and oil and gas, will encroach indigenous land and destroy tropical rainforests including Lorentz National Park, a World Heritage site, activists said.
"The highway passes through many customary lands, and much of this land is not titled," said Kartini Samon, a campaigner with advocacy group GRAIN.
"It raises concerns about indigenous peoples whose livelihoods depend on the land and the forests which are being cleared," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Monday.
Across developing nations, analysts say large road projects are destroying forests and hurting local communities who are often not consulted or compensated for their loss.
Papua has suffered a simmering separatist conflict since it was incorporated into Indonesia after a widely criticised UN-backed referendum in 1969.
Since coming to power in 2014, Widodo has tried to ease tensions by addressing some rights concerns, while also stepping up investment with projects such as the Trans Papua highway.
But concerns persist. Security forces in Papua have unlawfully killed at least 95 people in the eight years to 2018 with almost no accountability, rights group Amnesty International said in a report last year.
A long-standing grievance is the settlement of land claims.
Widodo has vowed to return 12.7 million hectares (ha) of land to indigenous and rural communities nationwide, following a 2013 ruling that removed such land from state control and formalised local peoples' rights over them.
But of the millions of hectares of customary claims under review, "virtually none" are in Papua, said William Laurance, a professor at James Cook University in Australia, and a Papua expert. "It's hardly surprising some indigenous groups are up in arms," he said.
"This road network limits the potential to resolve competing claims, locking in grievances and unrest. It is like pouring gasoline on a campfire," he said.
In December, a separatist group was accused of killing at least 19 workers building a bridge to connect the Trans Papua road, in one of the worst outbreaks of violence. As work was suspended, Widodo said construction of the road "will never be stopped".
Last week, government officials said the Indonesian military will take over construction of the road, with hundreds of extra security personnel to be deployed in the area. But with the project far from complete, the rebels have vowed more attacks.
The best approach for the government would be to "greatly condense" the road network, and focus on existing roads, said Laurance. "Socially, environmentally and even economically, it's one of the most ill-advised road-building schemes I've ever seen."