Zely Ariane – As many as 2.7 million hectares of forest and peat areas in three regencies: Merauke, Mappi, and Boven Digoel will be converted for the Food Estate project. Around 200 villages and the livelihoods of the community will be affected by the Papua Food Estate plan, which lacks information and seems shady.
Merauke, Mappi, and Boven Digoel are border areas in the southern part of Papua Province that deserve more attention because the potential for protected forest areas and their peatlands continues to be undermined by various forest conversions projects, including the most recent: the Food Estate plan.
The land of Papua is often been boasted as the last fortress of protected areas in the archipelago. However, the State's policy now known as the National Strategic Project (PSN) will have the potential to protect the planned development of a new Food Estate area in Papua, which has the potential to degrade the protected forest and peat areas covering the three regencies.
In fact, recently, Papua's forest areas have been eroded by projects that convert forest areas and peatlands on a large scale for agro-industry and other economic interests. The National Strategic Project's Food Estate will be a new driving factor for changes in the ecological landscape and social life of Indigenous Papuans. This concern was shared in a webinar held by the Bentala Heritage Foundation, titled "The Value of Environmental and Socio-Cultural Services: Implications of the Papua Food Estate Project" on Tuesday, February 15, 2022.
Pusaka has conducted a preliminary study on the potential for environmental services to be degraded from the Food Estate's target area. Hundreds of millions of tons of carbon are in danger of being released.
During the webinar, Popi Puspitasari, researcher and author of the initial study report titled "The Implications of the Papua Food Estate Project", presented the estimated carbon stock in 2.7 million hectares of forest and peat areas in Merauke, Mappi, and Boven Digoel that would be converted for the Food Estate. Protected forest areas and peat forests are mentioned as areas that absorb the largest carbon compared to other types of land cover areas. Peatlands occupy the first position (200.23 tons/ha) and protected forests in the second position (144.75 tons/ha).
"Especially for peatlands in Papua, the type of soil is very unique, a soil rarely found in other countries. Seeing the data on the potential for carbon stocks in the three candidate areas for the Food Estate, I feel very horrified, imagining the number of carbon emissions that will be released," said Popi.
In the data presented, there are about 200 thousand hectares of peatland that absorb 50 million carbons which will be threatened with destruction. This amount is only part of a total of 2.7 million hectares of land cover areas which are able to absorb around 268 million tons of carbon. That number is what Indonesia will bet in the face of international commitments under the Glasgow agreement last year to reduce carbon emissions by 26 percent by 2030.
The people unaware of what Food Estate is
Agil Prakoso of the NGO Pantau Gambut explained how the community did not know exactly what a Food Estate is. This is not only in Papua but also in areas such as Kalimantan, which has previously been the target of the Food Estate and eventually abandoned.
"There are still many people who are confused about what this Food Estate is. They heard that they would receive assistance with seeds, fertilizers, etc., but the overall concept was unknown to them. So it's kind of like carrying out the government's request with a lot of uncertainty," he said.
Agil warned that without clear information on the project, bad impacts would await, "The impact will be dire, as seen in Kalimantan in the 1996 one-million peatland project, which is now abandoned. The damaged land can no longer be cultivated, and caught fire every year," he said.
The government claimed that it would pay attention to various environmental aspects in the use of cultivated peat in the Food Estate but, Agil said, his party strongly doubted this statement due to the track record of previous policies and the complexity of managing peat use.
"The government's AOI [Area of Interest] map in this project is also difficult to access. We have asked the Environment and Forestry Ministry several times but to no avail," Agil added.
Without public consultation
Franky Samperante, the executive director of Pusaka Foundation, mentioned the importance of public consultation on projects that the government includes in the category of National Strategic Projects.
"Such a project requires a wide-scale consultation, not only with the Indigenous Peoples who own the land and the affected communities," he said. "For example, the MIFFE case in Merauke in 2010. The project launch was carried out in a village in the customary land area and claimed to be just dissemination while in fact, it concerns land ownership and use," he said.
Franky reminded that in the new Special Autonomy Law, there was a rule and condition that there must be public consultation before issuing a permit for conversion. "Even after having the permit, there is still a responsibility to protect and respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples," he said.
He further said that according to Pusaka Foundation's observation in the three targeted areas so far, the community had no knowledge of the plan. He mentioned that there had been dissemination by the Strategic Logistics Reserve Agency of the Ministry of Defense, as well as a Strategic Environmental Study last year, but only at the local government level.
"But these kinds of methods are not enough for Indigenous Peoples. It takes time for them to accept new programs, it should not be rushed. However, the new Job Creation Law has an easy and fast concept, it will create a conflict with the community," he said.
Behind the rushed and shady feel of the new Food Estate project in southern Papua, the Ministry of Defense's role is so prominent. Citing the Gecko Project investigation report with Tempo, evidence was found that the Ministry of Defense was trying to direct food estate projects, the value of which could reach tens of trillions of rupiah, to a company without a clear record in plantation development named PT Agro Industri Nasional (Agrinas). The investigation said that Minister of Defense Prabowo Subianto's close relationship with executive officials of Agrinas and its commissioner gave birth to a serious conflict of interest.