Military base for Wasur National Park

Down to Earth No 65  May 2005

Wasur National Park, in southern Papua, managed by conservation organisation WWF, will host a new military battalion as part of a large build up of military forces in West Papua.

The 413,510 hectare park, in the southern district of Merauke, is close to the border with Papua New Guinea and forms part of a larger trans-boundary conservation area across the Fly River. It was established in 1990 by the Forestry Department on the customary lands of indigenous communities including the Kanum, Marind, Marori-Mangoi, Yei and Kuper.

Wildlife in the park includes deer (Cervus timorensis), seven species of kangaroo, plus 115 species of birds including cockatoos and parrots. Lake Rawa Biru, which lies inside the park, is home to around 32 species of fish and 23 species of waterbirds. The lake also provides water for the local population in and around Merauke of around 200,000 people.

The increase in troop numbers for West Papua was announced in March this year (see above) but plans to establish the headquarters of Battalion 0775 in Wasur park started months ago. According to a report in the Indonesian daily, Kompas (4/Aug/04), members of the Kanum community have already agreed to hand over 20ha of land for the base; the nature and amount of compensation agreed was not reported. However, a neighbouring community disagrees with the development, saying that the impacts will reach beyond the 20 hectares.

The base will include an office, store, accommodation for army employees, officers and soldiers, a football pitch, firing range and domestic waste disposal site. Kompas reports that NGOs have expressed concern about the development, with WWF being most consistently opposed because it is responsible for managing the area, along with the park authorities.

Indigenous communities' livelihoods are based on sustainably-managed hunting, trade in game and sago cultivation, but these resources are already under threat from outsiders who illegally shoot game and steal timber. Indigenous Papuans are in the minority in the area. In previous decades, Merauke was a major resettlement destination for Javanese migrants under the government's ill-famed transmigration programme and the resettlers have been joined by other ethnic groups from outside Papua since then. Another threat to the area comes from sand dredging, which makes it easier for saltwater to enter the lake, according to the head of Papua's Natural Resources Conservation Agency, Benny Saroy.

A military base, housing hundreds of troops can only add to these pressures. Illegal hunting in the park is already known to involve military and police personnel. Non-indigenous hunters use weapons and ammunition that are reported to be sold illegally, and are sometimes obtained from the police.

Given the military's history of business empire-building, it is not unreasonable to ask what economic incentive there could be to attract the TNI to the Merauke region.

Indonesia says it needs the new sub-regional military command (KOREM) in order to safeguard the border with PNG. But, as pointed out by journalist Greg Poulgrain, the only cross-border incursions in recent years have been by Indonesian troops into PNG territory. Writing in March, Poulgrain points to possible economic motivations, describing how, in the Oksibil region to the north of Merauke, 10,000 non-Papuans are mining alluvial gold which is flown out by helicopter to Jayapura, then sent to Jakarta. The article also mentions February reports of a major oil and gas deposit in the southern reaches of the PNG border area.

(Source: Kompas 4/Aug/04, 22/Mar/05, Jakarta Post 19/Apr/05)


Military involvement in the spread of HIV/AIDS

Religious leaders have protested against the number of sex workers with HIV/AIDS who have infected Papuans in Mappi district, adjacent to Merauke in southern Papua.

The supply of prostitutes from outside Papua, and alcohol, backed by security personnel, is part of the lucrative international trade in gaharu(eaglewood). According to a report in the Jakarta Post, the sex workers are offered to tribal chiefs in order to secure their support for the business.

Around 500 people staged a demonstration at the provincial assembly in Jayapura in November 2004, calling for a stop to the practices, which, they said, the government has ignored.

HIV/AIDS is spreading faster in West Papua than in Indonesia, with over 15,000 people reportedly affected. (Jakarta Post 18/Nov/04)