Febriana Firdaus, Bali, Indonesia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Housewife Kristina 'Katy' Wambon rarely serves rice for breakfast. Her people, the Mandobo of Indonesia's Papua province, still follow an ancient tradition of eating sago, harvested from local palm trees, once or twice a day.
"Eating sago helps us survive hunger," said Wambon, in her early 30s, from Muting village in Merauke district.
At six AM, Wambon grabs a machete and cuts down a couple of bamboo stalks a short walk from her house. She uses the bamboo to wrap sago flour, which is layered with fish or pork, and then placed directly in the fireplace.
Sago is easier to get hold of in the village than rice, as every family in the tribe owns sago palm trees, Wambon said.
But in Papua and West Papua provinces, indigenous people told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that deforestation to clear the way for commercial plantations to produce palm oil posed a threat to their diets and culture.
When a sago tree is mature, starch is extracted from the stem's spongy centre and processed into an edible coarse flour. "One harvest is enough for a family to survive for three months," Wambon said.
Meanwhile, a kilo of rice costs about 13,000 rupiah ($0.88) and is unaffordable for many in the area.
Sago palms feature in the relief of the famous Borobudur Temple in Central Java, showing their historical importance as a staple food, according to Indonesian scientist Nadirman Haska.
But in the 1960s, the Suharto regime made a push to replace indigenous foods like sago by distributing rice across the archipelago as a way of imposing Javanese culture. Rice has continued to be supplied under a state food security programme.
A decade ago in Papua, the Indonesian government launched a project to turn 1.2 million hectares (nearly 3 million acres), a quarter of Merauke district, into agricultural land including rice fields.
According to Bambang Hariyanto, an agro-industry researcher at the government's Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT), Indonesia has more than 90% of the world's sago forests, mostly in the provinces of Papua and West Papua.
Papua's environmental resource management agency says sago forests cover nearly 3 million hectares on the Indonesian half of the island, from its north to south coasts.
But data from international environmental group Greenpeace shows Papua province lost about 420,600 hectares of forest between 2001 and 2019.
Just over a quarter of the lost forest was in Merauke, with 83,400 hectares of that turned into oil palm plantations as of 2018, the green group said in a report.
A Greenpeace investigation that year pointed the finger at Singapore-based palm oil giant Wilmar International as the company behind deforestation in those areas.
Greenpeace said Wilmar, through Gama Plantation – a company that was run by Wilmar executives and their family members, and is now called KPN Plantation – operated two local firms that took over about 21,500 hectares of customary forest belonging to the Marind tribe.
In response to Greenpeace's report, Wilmar said it had stopped sourcing palm oil from the local suppliers associated with Gama but was still helping Gama's sustainability efforts.
The two Papuan firms began to clear parts of the customary forest for oil palm plantations in 2013 after gaining a permit from the regent of Merauke, endorsed by the Indonesia Investment Coordinating Board (BKPM), according to a report from local environmental NGO Yayasan Pusaka.
At a meeting with the companies in 2014, the Mahuze, a clan of the Marind tribe, said their forests were being cut down to make way for oil palm, and accused the companies of not being transparent about their plans.
"All this time, they have done it secretly," clan head Agustinus Dayo Mahuze told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
On top of the shrinking sago forest, the Bian River became polluted with fertiliser from the plantation and was no longer safe for drinking, locals said.
Wambon's husband, Agustinus Omben Mahuze, along with some of the villagers, refused to release his tribe's customary land to the companies and tried to block their access to it.
But others agreed to allow the land to be used to produce palm oil, arguing they could no longer sustain their traditional way of life.
Damage to food
Franky Yafet Leonard Samperante, executive director of Yayasan Pusaka, said the communities were forced to sign agreements and approve licenses handed to the two companies.
Local tribes received compensation for the use of the land, but at a price below its market value which did not make up for the economic and ecological damage caused by the plantations, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"People not only lost their livelihoods (hunting, fishing and gardening) but also their source of food," he said.
Sophie Chao, a research associate at the University of Sydney, who worked for a year in Muting, found vast areas of forest in Merauke had been destroyed, resulting in a scarcity of forest foods, including sago, cassowary, wild pigs and fruit.
A year after first clearing the forests, both companies tried to expand their plantations in 2014, but the Marind forced them to drop the plan by holding a peaceful protest.
Samperante said the Mahuze clan was still fighting to obtain a letter of recognition from the government to guarantee that the companies would exclude tribal land from their activities.
Jamal, who goes by one name and is head of the state's one-stop integrated service (PTSP) for Papua province, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the request would be reviewed.
The government never had a problem with the company permits, as they first obtained backing from the communities, he added.
"We would never issue any permit if the communities didn't give approval," he said.
NGO Yayasan Pusaka, however, said villagers had accused the companies of copying their names without their consent and faking their signatures.
"We didn't feel satisfied because all the signing was falsified," said clan head Agustinus Dayo.
Palm oil jobs
Bia Ganefia, head of compliance and sustainable certification at KPN Plantation, refuted this claim, saying the company had obtained approval from customary leader Barnabas Mahuze.
KPN has now stopped the expansion of its plantations in the area and has been working with the community to map and determine the conservation value of the land although the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed that effort, she added.
In general, Indonesia has made progress in slowing its rate of deforestation, but forest loss and land disputes linked to the palm oil industry continue, while the cheap, edible oil is one of Indonesia's main export commodities.
Minister of Research and Technology Bambang Brodjonegoro, while head of the National Development Planning Agency, said oil palm plantations helped improve the welfare of local farmers. The industry provides jobs for more than 16 million people, a quarter of those in direct employment, he noted.
To control the expansion of plantations, Indonesia's president signed a moratorium on new permits in 2018 and urged existing oil palm plantations to boost productivity.
Meanwhile, in Papua, a campaign to protect sago forests has sprung up, backed by Papua Jungle Chef Community, a network that promotes environmental protection through local cuisine.
Its founder, Charles Toto, launched a petition in March 2019, which has been signed by about 298,300 people, urging the governors of West Papua and Papua to issue regulations to keep the sago forests intact.
Samperante, of NGO Yayasan Pusaka, said the Papua government had not addressed public complaints about the impacts of the loss of sago forests, traditional sites and livelihoods.
"Sago forests are a food source, which also have ecological benefits," he said. "Corporations must obey the rules and respect the rights of local indigenous peoples, including the right to food."
[Reporting by Febriana Firdaus, editing by Megan Rowling and Laurie Goering.]