Proposal to carve up Indonesian Papua rings endangers people and forests

Activists have warned of a potential surge in deforestation under a plan to remap Indonesia’s Papua region from two provinces into five.

A royal spoonbill wades through saltwater wetlands in Indonesia's Papua province. Image: Bernard Spragg. NZ, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

The Indonesian government’s plan to administratively split the country’s easternmost region of Papua into five provinces, from the current two, has raised concerns that its forests and natural resources will be at higher risk of being plundered.

The idea has been floated for several years, and picked up steam this year, with lawmakers throwing their support behind the idea.

During a parliamentary hearing on April 6, lawmakers officially endorsed the plan by agreeing to proceed with the discussion of three bills that would serve as the legal basis for the new provinces.

Under the plan, the map of the western half of the island of New Guinea, currently comprised of the provinces of Papua and West Papua, would be redrawn to include the provinces of Central Papua, Central Mountains Papua, and South Papua.

The rationale from parliament and the government is that this administrative remapping will speed up development and reduce economic disparity. Having five smaller provinces rather than two big ones will “serve Papuans better,” Puan Maharani, the parliamentary speaker and a senior member of President Joko Widodo’s ruling party, said as reported by local media.

The safeguard is never there, and thus we see cases like North Kalimantan, which experienced massive exploitation so that the province has become a new epicentre of deforestation.

 Timer Manurung, executive director, Auriga Nusantara

Development rationale

Despite being rich in natural resources, the Papua region has the highest levels of poverty in the country and scores the lowest on human development parameters such as health and education.

This is partly due to Papua’s remoteness from Indonesia’s economic heartland in Java — its biggest city, Jayapura, is two time zones and more than five hours by plane from the capital, Jakarta — and dearth of infrastructure such as roads, electricity, telecommunications and piped water.

On the flip side, though, this has meant the rich forests of Papua, one of most biodiverse regions on the planet, have stayed largely out of reach of the agribusiness and mining outfits that have ravaged the forests of Sumatra and Borneo.

“The goal is how to get people more access to services [and] how to accelerate development in stages,” lawmaker Guspardi Gaus from the National Mandate Party (PAN), part of Widodo’s ruling coalition, said during a parliamentary hearing to discuss the bill on March 30 as reported by local media.

In Papua, one of the chief proponents of dividing the region up further is Lamberthus Jitmau, mayor of the city of Sorong in West Papua province. He noted that the region used to consist of only one province, Irian Jaya (later known as Papua), before it was split into two provinces in 2003.

Lamberthus said the sheer size of the region — as big as Sweden — required breaking it up into smaller administrative chunks to more effectively push its development.

“With terrain that is very difficult [to navigate], we weren’t able to do breakthroughs [and] build infrastructure to realise people’s welfare in Papua,” he said as reported by local media.

‘No adequate involvement’ by Indigenous Papuans

But the plan has sparked protests from many local Papuans. Since March, demonstrations have flared up in districts across the Papua region, including Jayapura, Sorong, Kaimana, Timika, Nabire, Yahukimo and Lanny Jaya. Many of these demonstrations were met with a violent crackdown by Indonesian security forces. In Yahukimo, two protesters died after reportedly being shot by police.

In April, the protests spread to big cities outside Papua.

A popular movement called Petitions by Papuans, which is involved in the protests, has denounced the split-up plan as a pretext for the government and businesses to further exploit the region. Aiding this push is the so-called special autonomy law on Papua, passed in 2021 with the supposed aim of giving Papuans a greater say in their region’s development.

But the law also completely undermines the notion of autonomy by specifically granting the central government in Jakarta the authority to carve out new provinces in Papua without having to consult with local lawmakers and constituents, said Petitions by Papuans spokesman Jefri Wenda.

“Establishment of new provinces could be decided in Jakarta without having to look at aspirations in the region [Papua],” he said as reported by local media.

Filep Wamafma, one of West Papua province’s four representatives in the upper house of parliament, called the split-up plan a ticking timebomb because it fails to take into account the views of the Papuans opposed to it.

“The government has to open room for parties who oppose [the plan],” he said as reported by local media. “The parliament and the government could invite opposing parties [for a discussion]. That’s a fair democracy.”

Parliamentary speaker Puan said deliberations of the three new bills would take into consideration the aspirations and needs of Papuans.

Human rights activists, however, have pointed out that the central government and parliament didn’t even involve the Papuan People’s Assembly (MRP), the regional legislature for Papua and West Papua, when formulating the bills. The MRP was established in part to give greater representation to marginalised groups, especially Indigenous Papuans and women.

“There’s no adequate involvement [by Indigenous Papuans in the plan],” MRP chair Timotius Murib said as reported by local media. “Suddenly, the parliament agreed for the three bills [to proceed].”

‘Sugar’ for local elites

With parliament pushing ahead with the split-up plan, concerns have arisen over what it will mean for Papua’s forests. The region is home to the largest expanse of intact forests in Southeast Asia: 33.8 million hectares (83.5 million acres) of rainforest, an area twice the size of Florida, which represents 38 per cent of all the natural forest left in Indonesia.

But thanks to a renewed government focus on boosting development in the region, infrastructure projects and palm oil companies have begun moving in, quickly mowing down vast swaths of these forests.

In a bid to prevent the kind of wholesale deforestation that has swept across Sumatra and Borneo, the governors of the two provinces in Papua signed in 2018 the Manokwari Declaration, which aims to set aside 70 per cent of the Papua region as protected or conservation areas.

In 2021, the government of West Papua revoked oil palm licenses covering concessions twice the size of Los Angeles, following findings of violations by the license holders. This move potentially saves thousands of hectares of rainforests from being cleared and opens up opportunities for Indigenous Papuans to get their land rights recognised.

These efforts could be derailed by the plan to remap the provinces, experts say, given that past cases of new administrative regions being spun off have often centred around exploiting natural resources such as forests and mineral deposits and distributing power to local elites.

I Ngurah Suryawan, a lecturer at Papua State University who has studied the past establishment of new districts in the region, said local elites were the ones who had lobbied politicians in Jakarta in those cases. Creating new districts allows them to gain political power, control the local government, get access to state funds, and issue policies that enrich themselves, he said.

“We’ve seen how the establishment of new provinces and districts led to [elites] scrambling for seats in the new administrations,” Suryawan said as reported by local media.

When West Papua was spun off as its own province from Papua in 2003, it was made up of three districts. Today, that figure has mushroomed into 12 districts and one municipality, a proliferation that locals call “sugar” because it attracts people hungry for power, Suryawan said.

“In the end, we’ll see the forming of middle-class local elites who prosper because of this proliferation,” he said. “On the other hand, the little guy will never be prosperous because the power will circulate among [the elites].”

Licenses, and forests, for sale

Ahmad Dhiaulhaq, a postdoctoral researcher on forest and land governance at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV), said the revenue generated when new districts start exploiting their natural resources often goes into the local elites’ own pockets.

“Sometimes they are just for the elites and the local governments, not for the people,” he told Mongabay in Jakarta.

By securing seats in government positions, these local elites gain the power to issue licenses for businesses such as mines or oil palm plantations. In newly created districts, there’s often a surge in new permits being issued for just such activities, said Timer Manurung, executive director of Auriga Nusantara, a conservation NGO.

Exploiting natural resources is typically one of the easiest ways to raise quick cash, with land being the most valuable commodity that local leaders can license out. In Indonesian Borneo, licenses for oil palm plantations commonly sell for between $400 and $1,200 per hectare, or about $160-$490 per acre. Local heads there often issue licenses for thousands of hectares at a time.

In many cases, the money goes to pay back the high cost of running for a political seat in Indonesia. A survey by the Ministry of Home Affairs found that a campaign for provincial governor can cost around 100 billion rupiah ($7 million), while a campaign for district head or mayor can cost up to 30 billion rupiah ($2.1 million). For winning candidates, this means using their time in office to raise the money to pay back donors and also build up a war chest for their next campaign.

With three new provinces and an unknown number of districts and municipalities up for grabs in Papua, there’s serious concern that the region’s forests will be sacrificed in the political power grab, said Franky Samperante, director of Pusaka, an NGO that works with Indigenous communities across Indonesia.

“What we’re worried about the most are efforts to fund the political process by parcelling out lands and forests in those regions [to businesses],” he told Mongabay.

The establishment of new jurisdictions also brings new infrastructure projects with it, which also drive deforestation, said Hariadi Kartodihardjo, a forestry policy lecturer at the Bogor Institute of Agriculture.

“There’s no way for new jurisdictions to be established [otherwise],” he told Mongabay in Jakarta. “With new government offices and new departments, they need new facilities.”

The threats to Papua’s forests also come from the central government, which has issued regulations and policies that make it easier for investors to obtain permits and concessions by dismantling environmental and social safeguards. Among these policies is the so-called omnibus law on job creation, passed by parliament in 2020 amid widespread criticism and protests.

“It’s been regulated in the omnibus law to make it easier to invest in Papua,” Petitions by Papuans spokesman Jefri said as reported by local media.

Politics over environment

The establishment of new provinces and districts can be done without leading to deforestation, according to Auriga Nusantara’s Timer, but there needs to be thorough planning and strong safeguards. This includes a clear zoning plan before the government proceeds with the establishment, he said.

“It shouldn’t be a simple matter,” Timer said. “But oftentimes, it’s not prepared well. It’s always abrupt and there’s no set of requirements [to be met before establishing new administrative regions].”

He said there were many examples of lack of planning and safeguards in the establishment of new jurisdictions, such as North Kalimantan province in Borneo, which was spun off from East Kalimantan province in 2012.

Since then, the new province has experienced a surge in forest loss: 140,063 hectares (346,103 acres) between 2015 and 2019, or an area bigger than Los Angeles, according to Auriga Nusantara’s data.

“The safeguard is never there, and thus we see cases like North Kalimantan, which experienced massive exploitation so that the province has become a new epicentre of deforestation,” Timer said.

The formation of new districts in Papua province in 2002 were also marked by an increase in deforestation. An analysis by Auriga found 203,006 hectares (501,639 acres) of forest loss in the four new districts — Merauke, Boven Digoel, Mappi and Asmat — from 2001 to 2019.

“That’s the spirit of all new jurisdiction establishment in Indonesia,” Timer said. “The spirit is the desire to manage their regions’ own natural resources, and this is manifested in the issuance of new permits.”

Timer said he hadn’t seen proper safeguards in the plan to establish the three new provinces in Papua.

IPB’s Hariadi said there’s never been environmental impact assessments carried out prior to creating new regions anywhere in Indonesia — something that he said should be a prerequisite.

“[Discussion surrounding] the establishment of new jurisdictions is more related to politics, he said. “And there has never been strategic environmental assessment in the establishment of new jurisdictions.”

All this puts the fate of the Manokwari Declaration to protect Papua’s forests in danger, as the governments in the three newly proposed provinces could dismiss the commitments made by the two currently existing ones, according to Timer.

“The government of Central Papua province could say ‘we didn’t sign the Manokwari Declaration,’” he said.

Dhiaulhaq of KITLV said it’s important for the central government to make sure that the new provinces, if they are established, are also committed to the Manokwari declaration.

“The central government should ensure that things like this aren’t just abandoned,” he said.

This story was published with permission from

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