Hans Nicholas Jong, Jakarta – UNESCO has renewed its call for the closure of a road running through Indonesia's Lorentz National Park after the nation's environment minister said shutting it down would be impossible.
The park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, encompasses a variety of biodiversity-rich ecosystems on the western coast of the island of New Guinea. BirdLife International has called the park "probably the single most important reserve" on the giant island.
The 190-kilometer (118-mile) road, known as the Habema-Kenyam road, is part of the Trans-Papua Highway, a series of road segments, some still under construction, spanning thousands of kilometers on the Indonesian half of New Guinea.
After UNESCO urged Indonesia to temporarily close the road for public use because of the risks it poses to the park, Indonesian environment minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said doing so would be unrealistic.
"Based on reality on the ground, it's not possible to close the road because it's an interdistrict road," she told Indonesian lawmakers during a parliamentary hearing on Aug. 26. "Everyone who wants to go to whichever district has to go through [that road]."
Separately, the ministry's director-general for conservation, Wiratno, said infrastructure development in conservation areas was only a problem if it resulted in encroachment, which he said wouldn't happen in Lorentz.
"There's a lot of development around conservation areas or roads in conservation areas" in Indonesia, he said.
Responding to the ministry's statements, UNESCO Jakarta director Mohamed Djelid reiterated the significance of the park and the threats posed by the road.
"While road construction in itself would not necessarily lead to encroachment, it nonetheless represents a threat to the park because roads bring with them other associated developments, including settlements," he said in an email.
"These may lead to the eventual loss of rainforest and negatively impact the integrity and connectivity of the property and its wider ecosystem."
Veronika Kusumaryati, a Georgetown University anthropologist who works in Papua province, said the road's importance as a transportation artery has been overhyped.
"Nearly all districts in Papua's central ranges are connected by a network of airports built by Christian missionaries," she told Mongabay. "The Hameba-Kenyam road only connects the districts of Jayawijaya and Nduga, out of 14 districts in the central ranges."
Some local Indigenous communities are adamantly opposed to the road project, she added.
The ministry has reiterated that the construction of the road violates no rules.
But according to Djelid, UNESCO's concern is not about whether the project breaks any national regulations.
"As a State Party to the 1972 World Heritage Convention, the Government of Indonesia has made a commitment to take appropriate measures to protect its cultural and natural heritage," Djelid said, while acknowledging that any decision over the road was solely up to the Indonesian government.
As a World Heritage Site, the park can obtain funds from UNESCO's World Heritage Fund to facilitate its conservation.
Siti said the government could minimize the road's environment impact while keeping it open.
"What's most important is the environmental planning and that's already prepared by the Ministry of Public Works and Housing, and which received assistance from experts at UNESCO Jakarta," she said. "So actually our environmental commitment remains strong. So nothing is violated."
Djelid said UNESCO Jakarta had not been involved in the environmental impact assessment process for the road.
"Indeed, an Environmental Impact Assessment for the Habema-Kenyam road was considered by World Heritage Committee during its 2017 session," he said. "However, UNESCO Jakarta has so far not had the opportunity to provide assistance towards such a document. If requested by the Ministry, UNESCO will be pleased to assist."
UNESCO previously said it was in the dark about what mitigation measures were planned to be implemented, despite having requested that information from the Indonesian government.
Veronika said there were indications the government was building the road to facilitate the extraction of natural resources from within the park.
"The government, especially the environment ministry, should be honest by saying that besides road development, there's also a project to exploit natural resources massively, which is facilitated by the Trans-Papua road in Lorentz National Park," she said.
According to environmental NGO Auriga, the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources has issued permits to nine mining companies to prospect across 156,189 hectares (385,951 acres) inside the park.
There are also indications that the road has facilitated logging activity, with trucks carrying merbau logs, a prized tropical hardwood, seen to be coming out of Lorentz.
"So the ecological problems raised by UNESCO aren't only related to the road as infrastructure, but also deeply connected to land acquisition projects and the exploitation of natural resources that's done by the administration of President Joko Widodo in the land of Papua," Veronika said.
Therefore, it's important to comprehensively see UNESCO's warning not only as concerns over infrastructure development, but also the subsequent development and natural resource exploitation that the road will usher in, she said.
"In other words, the Indonesian government has to be honest by admitting who the road project is for and why all environmental standards, including the one related to World Heritage Site, are ignored," Veronika said.