More oil palm for West Papua

Down to Earth No. 42, August 1999

Indigenous lands in West Papua have been targeted by Jakarta for further oil palm development as part of the plan to focus new projects in "underdeveloped" eastern regions. The largest development to be announced in recent months is a vast 102,000 hectares in the Arso transmigration area near the border with Papua New Guinea. The developers, state-owned PT Perkebunan Nusantara II, will also build a crude palm oil (CPO) processing factory with a production capacity initially of 30 tons per hour, rising to 60 tons. The plant will be built on transmigration site Arso VII.

In Northern West Papua a one million hectare plot has been set aside for rice, sago and oil palm in the Biak Integrated Economic Development Zone (KAPET). Chief executive of the Zone's management board, Frans de Wanna, announced in April that PT Dato, a consortium of Malaysian and German companies would start developing the project in Nabire district after the June elections. Large scale oil palm plantations are being developed by private company PT Varita Majutama in Babo sub-district, in the mangrove-fringed Bintuni Bay area. Around 6,000 hectares of a planned 100,000 ha area have already been planted, with a further 4,000 planned this year. The development uses transmigrant labour under the PIR (nucleus estate/smallholder) system. The company recently announced plans to build a processing factory at Babo to begin operations in 2002 and said it would also build a port to ship the palm oil to Indonesian and overseas markets.

PT Varita Majutama is a subsidiary of the Jayanti Group, one of Indonesia's top three timber companies with holdings covering 2.7 million hectares. The Group already has logging concessions in West Papua which supply its large plywood mill in Maluku, as well as a sago plantation project using transmigrant labour in Bintuni Bay (See DTE 29/30: pages 10 and 20; and DTE 40:11). It also owns a fish canning plant on Biak island.

One of Indonesia's biggest oil palm and pulp developers, PT Sinar Mas, announced in April that it too would build a 60 tons-per-day CPO plant along with port facilities in Jayapura district. The company is developing 22,157 hectares of oil palm in Jayapura, of which around 13,000 hectares have been planted.

The same month, two more plantation firms announced plans to develop oil palm projects: PT Tujuh Wali-Wali is awaiting approval for a 30,000 hectare project in Lereh sub-district, near Jayapura and PT Prabu Alaska has applied for 6,000 hectares in Buruway sub-district, Fakfak.

According to the head of the provincial Forestry and Plantations office, the new projects will make West Papua the largest palm oil producer in the country.

These companies, some of which are well-known violators of community land rights in Indonesia, are even less likely to respect indigenous interests in West Papua, where the remote locations and the protection of the military work in their favour. The new investments indicate that these companies are confident about the political future of West Papua as part of Indonesia, at least as far into the future as the needs of oil palm production require. In the meantime they can profit from timber cleared for plantation development. However, unless their treatment of local communities changes, the invasion of oil palm is likely to further fuel independence aspirations of the West Papuans whose lands and livelihoods are destroyed.

(Sources: Antara 20/5/99; Jakarta Post 10/6/99, 10/4/90 & 24/2/99, 28/4/99)