I asked the woman who owned the food stall where I ate my lunch for a ferry schedule from Bintuni to Babo. She asked, "you must work at BP?" I would soon find out that this was the number one question asked of adult men with lighter skin and straight hair travelling in the area.
Babo, a small village in Bintuni Bay, West Papua, is today clearly in the hands of outsiders. Babo is the location of the Tangguh Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project run by BP, a British oil and gas company. Tangguh is the largest natural gas project in Southeast Asia.
While waiting for my ferry to arrive, I recalled what I'd read about the project. BP, once known as British Petroleum, is one of the largest oil and gas companies in the world. Their peak oil and natural gas production was in the year 2000, reaching 1,928 million bpd of oil and 7,609 million cf of gas. BP operates in more than 100 countries, with investments totalling about $200 billion. Their largest markets are in the United States and Europe. Castrol is just one of their many product lines.
Since BP registered its Tangguh LNG project in December 2002, there has been a continuous influx of people into the area to seek work with BP Indonesia. With proven gas reserves estimated at 14.4 trillion cubic feet and potential reserves of 25 trillion cubic feet, the Tangguh project is expected to operate for 30 years.
Tangguh has also secured buyers for its gas including long-term contracts with the U.S., Mexico, Korea and China. Production was due to start last year but has been delayed until this year.
I boarded the ferry for Babo. On the way, I talked to Aldo, a worker on the ship. He asked me where I was going then asked me the frequently-asked question, "how long have you worked for BP?"
During the trip, this young man from Pematang Siantar, a city in North Sumatera, who had only been working on the ferry for four months, told me stories about Tanggguh. Aldo is very familiar with the project. He is very proud of the rich gas reserves in Bintuni Bay. However, he is sympathetic to local people who cannot get work at the project.
Aldo and I exchanged stories for more than two hours before the ferry started to slow down as it entered Babo port. At the port, three more people asked me about working for BP. One of them was a youth who was interested in my shoes. He wanted to know if they were a gift from BP.
In Babo, I met Obi, an indigenous youth from Warga Nusa village in Papua. Obi was promised work with one of the operation's drilling sub-contractors. But months later, he, like other Papuans promised jobs, found out that the positions had been filled by people from Java. Infuriated by the situation, Obi spoke to the Bintuni Labour Office. "I met the Bintuni Labour officials, but while eating my lunch, the supervisor from the contractors PT Bramana Karya made himself scarce and went off to Manokwari."
This is a familiar story. Aldo, my travelling companion, told similar stories of his friends and neighbours who have tried to get work at the project to no avail.
The story from the Saengga and Tanah Merah villages are different again. These villages are the closest in proximity to the BP Tangguh processing site. Even though many people from these communities have been recruited for work, they work as low-skilled labourers. They work on a contractual basis, knowing that they are expendable and that their contracts can be terminated by the company at any time. Every three months, the fate of the labourers hangs between having their contracts extended or terminated.
The BP Tangguh project planned to recruit a work force of 5000 to 8000 people. From 1999-2002 BP Indonesia recruited a workforce of about 7500 people for the pre-production preparatory stage. Labourers were on six-month non-renewable contracts. From this workforce, only 200 to 300 were local indigenous Papuans.
By 2005 about 5000 people were working for BP, with five contractors, PT. Arco, PT. Alico, PT. Petrosea, PT. Firma and PT. Buma Kumawa.
The workforce will continue to shrink while Tangguh comes into full production. Only the skilled workforce of about 500 people is being retained. The unemployment rate in the area is growing.
For the citizens of Babo District, the Tangguh project provided hope. There were ample work opportunities during the building stage of the LNG plant but now there are mostly only two employment choices for the local people: becoming a low-skilled labourer with no protections at the operation or becoming a security guard. They do not qualify for skilled work because of the low education levels in this area.
Today, there are a thousand people being trained or working as security guards at Tangguh. Fewer guards will be needed when the project is in full production. Also, BP is setting up a police post for the sole purpose of protecting their operations. BP also has a private security unit from Australia, SHIELD, with officers trained by former officers of Kopassus (the Indonesian military special services) and the Australian army.
Newcomers to the area have brought cultural changes with them, including changes to the food culture, all of which is influencing the way of life of the local indigenous people. Rice has been introduced to a population whose staple food is sago. The newcomers eat it and it has become a popular food, though sago remains the staple. Pounding sago is no longer needed. Traders from Buton and Makassar sell it ready-prepared in sacks for 100,000 to 150,000 Rupiah. It is also available in the district market. There is also subsidised rice offered by the government, though there often problems with transporting it.
Future dependency on rice could result in a food crisis in this area. Rice is only grown in Bintuni district, by Javanese transmigrants.
Newcomers have created new settlements along the rivers. Local indigenous people are finding it difficult to get their required protein. Before, it took only 15 to 30 minutes to catch enough fish, but now they have to go further into the river or into the bay, or go tens of kilometres through the wetlands, to find shellfish.
The traditional clan-based land tenure system has come under pressure since investors - especially BP - starting coming in. Whereas before the boundaries between different clans' areas were very clear, now there are land conflicts between the clans.
The Simuri, one of the indigenous peoples of the area, call land "Wane", which means "Mother". They believe their land gives birth to them, cares, nurtures, educates them and provides them with a living. Because of this, they are not familiar with the practice of buying and selling land.
People from Tanah Merah and Saengga Village were relocated during the construction phase of the project. The new village has brand new houses which look like homes of the elite, and which all look the same. As a new housing complex, it has also been provided with a village hall, mosque, church and other buildings for the village authorities. Every house has electricity but only for five to six hours per day.
While these new homes are luxurious on the outside, the situation of their inhabitants is becoming less secure. The fishing community in this village are finding it increasingly difficult to catch fish. Since BP established a zone prohibiting fishing boats in areas where they once caught fish, they're having to go much further out to sea. More and more newcomers are also catching fish and shrimps in the same area as the indigenous people, causing a greater stress on the local fisheries. The newcomers are mostly Bugis and Javanese people, who are usually at an advantage in terms of finances and business know-how.
The local people are also already suffering the effects of pollution from project operations - from engine oil and fuel spills from the large ships servicing the needs of BP's operations and from the BP speedboat that takes workers from Babo to the rig or LNG plant. A speedboat owned and operated by the security forces also patrols the waters every day from Saengga to Babo Village.
When visiting Bintuni and Babo, you can really feel the powerful presence of BP, but also the cost to the Bintuni environment, which is becoming increasingly fragile.
* Hendrik Siregar is the Crisis Area Advocacy Manager at the Mining Advocacy Network (JATAM)
Translated by Tracy Glynn, a volunteer with JATAM.