Indonesia taken to task over MIFEE

Merauke river (Photo: Adriana Sri Adhiati)

DTE 89-90, November 2011, Special Papua edition

The United National Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has written to the Indonesian government to express concern about the impacts of the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate project (MIFEE) on the indigenous peoples affected by this agro-industrial mega-project.

It is more than a year since MIFEE was officially launched.[1] Since then, there have been several investigations into how indigenous Papuan communities in the target area are faring as companies move in to open up land for plantations. These have found evidence that local communities’ rights are being ignored in the rush to develop the land.

MIFEE, Beyond Malind Imagination, a book by the Indonesian NGO, PUSAKA (the Centre for the Study, Documentation and Advocacy for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) is the most in-depth study published to date, based on field visits and meetings with communities. (See also separate article on PUSAKA’s work.) Published earlier this year, the book exposes the way villagers are being tricked into selling their ancestral land and raises questions about the influx of migrant labourers, as well as forest and livelihood loss, on local Malind and other indigenous communities.

In July and August this year, a group of NGOs submitted a series of complaints to three UN institutions on behalf of the indigenous communities affected by MIFEE. These submissions, to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the Special Rapporteur on Food Security and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), called for MIFEE to be immediately suspended until indigenous rights have been secured and their free, prior and informed consent has been obtained for any development affecting their lands and resources. An abridged version of the letter to CERD is reproduced below.

CERD responds

In September, the Chairperson of CERD, Anwar Kemal, wrote to Indonesia’s Ambassador in Geneva to express concern about the project, about how it enjoys the support of the state and the protection of the Indonesian army and about allegations that communities have been manipulated by investors to obtain their land. The letter refers to recommendations it made in 2007, and earlier correspondence in 2009, in which CERD outlined concerns about the situation of indigenous peoples in Indonesia (to which Indonesia has not yet replied). The September 2011 letter requests information on measures taken by Indonesia to address these recommendations and concerns.[2] It requests information on measures “to effectively seek the free, prior and informed consent of Malind and other indigenous peoples in Papua before carrying out the MIFEE project” and asks whether impacts assessments have been conducted on “the traditional habits and livelihood of Malind and others,” as well as “the impact of the transmigration over their capacity to survive as a minority.” Finally, the Committee requests a meeting to discuss these issues at its next session in Geneva from 13th February to 13th March 2012.


The CERD submission

Extracts from the Request for Consideration of the Situation of Indigenous Peoples in Merauke, Papua Province, Indonesia. United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Seventy-ninth session, 08 August - 2 September 2011.The Request is signed by Abetnego Tarigan of Sawit Watch and Fergus MacKay of Forest Peoples Programme and submitted by 13 NGOs, including DTE.

“This request concerns the situation of the Malind and other indigenous peoples of the Merauke District, Papua Province, in the Republic of Indonesia. On behalf of the indigenous peoples of Merauke, it is respectfully submitted for consideration under the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination's early warning and urgent action procedures...  The Malind and others are presently experiencing and are threatened with additional and imminent irreparable harm due to the massive and non-consensual alienation and conversion of their ancestral lands and forests by the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate project ("MIFEE project")...

[P]lease note as an important foundation to this submission that while leaders and representatives of the indigenous communities in Merauke have reviewed this communication, commented on its contents, and approved its submission on their behalf, during a meeting about MIFEE and human rights held in Merauke from July 22-25, the leaders and representatives in attendance decided to not sign the document on behalf of specific-named communities for fear of reprisals by the Government of Indonesia.  This was prompted by the fact that representatives of the Papua provincial police and national military intelligence harassed and intimidated the leaders and representatives during this meeting.  On the first day, at least 12 police and military intelligence officers entered the meeting uninvited, argued without basis and unsuccessfully that particular rules were not followed to register the meeting or the presence of the indigenous peoples' foreign advisor, and demanded that the foreign legal advisor from Forest Peoples Programme be removed.  For a day and a half they refused to permit this legal advisor to conduct the planned human rights training and demanded copies of her presentations before providing the authorization. Furthermore, on the first day of the human rights training, a military intelligence officer sat at the doorway of the meeting observing all activities, and entered the room several times to take photographs of all of the participants, facilitators, the foreign advisor and even the local interpreter. This officer and others continued their presence throughout the training, returned in the evenings after the meetings concluded to ask questions, and at times even maintained a security van in front of the training centre.  Understandably, these activities - violating rights of free assembly, speech and thought, not to mention a right to be free from threats to one's physical integrity as a result of attending such a meeting - led to the decision to have just the Submitting Organizations file this early warning/urgent action communication on their behalf.

... The MIFEE project is a State-initiated, agro-industrial mega-project implemented by a variety of corporate entities that, to-date, encompasses around 2 million hectares of traditional indigenous lands.  The irreparable harm already suffered by the affected indigenous peoples is set to expand and intensify in the coming months as more companies commence operations. It should be noted the labour required will be brought in from outside. Meanwhile, indigenous Papuans will be hired as only crude labourers or not given any form of employment at all.  Additionally, it is estimated that between 2-4 million workers will be moved into Merauke - a process that has already commenced - to provide labour for the MIFEE project, further threatening the rights and well-being of the Malind who number approximately 52,000 persons.  According to the 2010 census, the total population of Merauke is approximately 173,000. The total indigenous population of Merauke is approximately 73,000.

The MIFEE project has already impacted on and will continue to impact on a range of interdependent rights to indigenous peoples' extreme detriment.  In this respect, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Dr. Olivier De Schutter, has emphasized the human rights threats posed by large-scale "land acquisitions and leases, more commonly referred to as 'land grabbing'," of the kind issued under the MIFEE project.  He observes that indigenous peoples are especially vulnerable and often suffer irreparable harm in this context, and emphasizes the need for full adherence to their rights, in particular as affirmed in the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples...

Citing the Human Rights Committee, the Special Rapporteur on the right to food explains that "no people's land, including in particular indigenous peoples, can have its use changed without prior consultation."   He thus recommends that "any shifts in land use can only take place with the free, prior and informed consent of the local communities concerned. This is particularly important for indigenous communities, in view of the discrimination and marginalization they have been historically subjected to."   The Special Rapporteur's recommendations are consistent with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and with the jurisprudence of the Committee...The Special Rapporteur's recommendations are also consistent with the Committee's 2007 and 2009 recommendations to Indonesia...

However, disregarding the Committee's clear recommendations, Indonesia continues to pursue an immense expansion of agro-industry and extractive operations in Papua and elsewhere: the MIFEE project in Merauke is emblematic of how the expanding agro-industry in Indonesia is occurring at the expense of the rights of indigenous peoples.  This expansion involves massive encroachment on and alienation of indigenous peoples' lands in favour of oil palm, logging and other companies and an enormous influx of migrant workers, whose numbers will dwarf the existing indigenous population. This leaves the affected peoples with a profoundly compromised future, severely diminished livelihood options and, given that the plantations are monocrop that require clearance of the forests and other ecosystems on which indigenous peoples depend, the destruction of their traditional economy.  It also causes severe impacts on the exercise of their cultural, spiritual and other rights, all of which are inextricably intertwined with and dependent on security of tenure over their traditional lands, territories and resources.

To date, indigenous Papuans have lost a considerable area of their traditional territories due to logging, mining, oil palm plantations and population transfers.  They have received few benefits and suffered severe negative impacts, which, in many cases, amount to irreparable harm. These operations have the full support of the State in Indonesia, at all levels, and frequently enjoy the protection of the Indonesian Army.  The use of coercive measures and the drastic impact of plantations in Indonesia on indigenous peoples have previously been verified by the World Bank.  The Bank, for instance, observes that government policies of supporting the expansion of timber and oil palm plantations have "marginalized and alienated … indigenous peoples from traditional lands and uses, through denial of rights and access" and that such denials have been "backed by force."...

...It is well documented that forestry concessions, whether for logging or oil palm or mining, have had, and continue to have, disastrous consequences for indigenous peoples in Indonesia. It is also well documented that these operations are normally accompanied by serious human rights abuses and Papua is no exception. In this regard, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people identified oil palm plantations in Indonesia as placing indigenous peoples "on the verge of completely losing their traditional territories and thus of disappearing as distinct peoples."  (Note: Large influxes of people from outside of Papua also exacerbate the threat of indigenous Papuans becoming extinct).

The same is also the case with respect to plantations and concessions of the type issued under MIFEE.  Indeed, a recent in-depth study of plantations in Merauke and the surrounding area details a series of rights violations that have long-term and severe consequences for indigenous Papuans. ..  

[This] remains the case despite the adoption of the Papua Special Autonomy Law in 2001, which is intended to decentralise decision making over prescribed issues to the provincial level.  In particular, this law remains largely unimplemented due the absence of the required subsidiary legislation. At any rate, decision making over issues pertaining to the exploitation of natural resources - the subject of this request - remains largely vested in the central government in Jakarta and is controlled by national laws that...the Committee has considered prejudicial to indigenous peoples' rights in its prior review of Indonesia.  

Lack of implementation of the Autonomy Law is especially apparent in relation to securing the territorial rights of indigenous Papuans.  Implementing regulations and agency capacity to recognize or create cadastres of customary lands are lacking.  Therefore, despite the legal recognition of vague 'customary rights', in practice the State generally treats traditionally owned indigenous lands as State lands  unencumbered with rights.   In addition, the majority of the MIFEE area is classed as 'forest' and falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Forests, which interprets the 1999 Forestry Law as further limiting indigenous peoples' customary rights. 


The Malind and other Indigenous Peoples Affected by MIFEE

The MIFEE project will affect the Malind, who number approximately 50,000 persons, and other indigenous peoples (Muyu, Mandobo, Mappi, Asmatnd Auyu) in Merauke District. They predominately reside in upstream areas of rivers and do not maintain permanent village sites or farms, but instead occupy a series of camps in the forest, which they use regularly. The Malind primarily subsist by collecting sago, hunting and fishing, and are dependent on the health of their forests ecosystems for their basic needs and traditional economy. They are divided into six clans that own land pursuant to customary law and tenure systems. Their lands are infused with sacred value due to the identification of various sites with ancestral spirits and relations.

Various Malind and other communities and leaders have expressed grave concerns about the MIFEE project in relation to severe existing and future impacts. They have also complained about the manipulation of communities by investors and State agents seeking to obtain their signatures in order to comply with legal requirements related to showing clear title to indigenous lands... These concerns have been echoed by the Indonesian Farmers Union, which condemned the MIFEE project, by AMAN, the national indigenous peoples' organisation in Indonesia, and by others, including Indonesia's former Minister of agriculture... 

AMAN's statement highlights the threat to indigenous peoples posed by the MIFEE project and observes that the current policy of land alienation in favour of corporations "will only exacerbate the human rights situation, leading to forced evictions and other human rights violations;" and that it will have major impacts on [indigenous peoples'] livelihoods by changing the ecosystem and threatening Indigenous Peoples' food sovereignty."   Citing the cultural and other effects of massive population movements of the kind that will be needed to provide a workforce for the MIFEE project, AMAN concludes that the project will "acutely threaten the existence of Indigenous Peoples within these areas, turning them into a minority in number, even leading to extinction in the future. This is, as we may say, structural and systematic genocide."


The Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate Project and the Threat of Irreparable Harm to Indigenous Peoples

On August 11, 2010 Minister of Agriculture Suswono formalized the Grand Launching of Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate through a ceremony held in Serapu village, Semangga subdistrict. Nobody in this village knew what was actually happening.  They only realized several weeks after, when bulldozers started to demolish their sago forests that it was the ceremony of their dispossession of land.

The MIFEE project is designed to produce food crops, palm oil, timber products and agro-fuels, primarily for export. The entirety of the area covered by the project is claimed by the indigenous peoples of Merauke.  Government plans explain that the total targeted area for the project at present is 1,282,833 hectares (423,251.3 hectares in 2010-2014; 632,504.8 hectares in 2015-2019; and 227,076.9 ha in 2020-2030). However, according to the Local Investment Promotion Board (Badan Promosi Investasi Daerah), 36 companies have acquired permits to more than 2 million hectares as of May 2011.   Proposed plantations include oil palm, maize, rice and timber estates. The largest holding is more than 300,000 hectares.  In one instance, an Indonesian company known as MedCo Group has received a permit of 360,000 hectares which allows it to clear up to 60% of the forests within. Virtually the entire forest of the Zanegi indigenous community - located within this concession area - has been cut down. The community members no longer have physical access to the animals they used to hunt and the food they used to collect in their traditional forests, as it no longer exists.  Currently, seven of these permits are operational, covering an area of 760,000 hectares. ...  Around 96 percent of this area is classed as 'forest' by the State despite the fact that the Malind and other indigenous peoples (Muyu, Mandobo, Mappi and Auyu) claim the entirety of this area as their traditional lands, territories from which they derive their means of subsistence as well as being the foundation for their identities, unique cultures and spirituality. 

In order to obtain concessions and permits to establish and operate an oil palm plantation and other forms of concessions, extant law requires that the applicant company demonstrate that there are no third party rights in the area in question.  The same is also the case in the MIFEE project.  For persons holding title issued by the State, the law requires resort to a standard condemnation and compensation procedure.  In the case of indigenous peoples who, by virtue of Indonesian law, live on State lands that are subject to weak and generally unenforceable customary rights,  the companies are required to obtain signed certificates demonstrating that the indigenous people have relinquished all interest in the land in question.   This is not an acknowledgement that indigenous people have protected property rights, but, rather, an administrative requirement incumbent on the companies as part of showing security of title.  When a concession or permit is issued to the company, it is always a lease vis-à-vis the State and the indigenous people are not otherwise involved.

In the MIFEE project, [..this..] has led to coercive and manipulative practices being employed to obtain signatures.  A recent study concludes that "ill-prepared indigenous Papuan communities are being enticed, tricked and sometimes coerced into releasing large swathes of forested land to powerful conglomerates, backed by overseas investors and facilitated by the central and provincial governments."  

The same study further explains that, "Evidence shows that negotiations between indigenous land owners and plantation companies are unequal and exploitative. Promised benefits, such as schooling, electricity and houses are seldom delivered. Compensation payments for land and timber are meagre. Children as young as four are required to sign contracts so that the firm can ensure it ties the land up for decades."  

In this way, the Malind and others' lands are being alienated, subjected to long-term leases between the State and private companies, and stripped of their forests for monocrop plantations and extractive industry operations on a massive scale. 

The full extent of the long-term impacts on the Malind and other indigenous peoples affected by the MIFEE project is difficult to predict with certainty.  The short-term impacts however are in many cases extant, constitute irreparable harm, and provide some basis for predicting mid- and long-term impacts.  As the MIFEE project expands in the coming months and years this irreparable harm will intensify and increase exponentially.  This will almost certainly lead to the destruction of the Malind and other peoples as distinct cultural and territorial entities and, in the process, cause extreme prejudice to the exercise and enjoyment of their individual and collective human rights. 

...Negative and severe impacts that are evident now include: coercion and manipulation; increased inter-ethnic conflict and violence; and the transformation of the forests where the Malind and others obtain almost all of their food into monocrop plantations that are devoid of traditional food sources.  Game animals that provide primary sources of protein have already begun to dwindle and will disappear from the area.  As the forest contains the vast majority of the indigenous peoples' sacred sites, some of these areas already have either been destroyed or access is greatly restricted, and this will increase as clearance continues.  The internationally guaranteed property and other rights of indigenous peoples are completely disregarded in this process and these rights are essentially nullified.  Thus, the MIFEE project has already begun to undermine the indigenous peoples' traditional economy and their identity and integrity, a process that will intensify and expand as more companies begin operations.”

The full submission to CERD (including end notes) and the other submissions can be viewed on FPP’s website at



[2]              Letter from Anwar Kemal to H.E.M. Dian Triansyah Djani, September 2nd, 2011.