Tribals Oppose Plan To Clear Land For Oil Palm Plantations

INDONESIA Tribals Oppose Plan To Clear Land For Oil Palm Plantations
August 20, 2008 | IT05554.1511 | 662 words

MERAUKE, Indonesia (UCAN) — Theresia Mejei, a Yeinan tribal in Papua
province’s Merauke districtm is anxious about what life would be like
if the communal land on which she lives turns into oil palm plantations.

The fears of the 58-year-old Catholic woman are well founded, as are
those of eight tribes whose lives depend on hunting and using their
resource-rich land to cultivate sago, a starchy food extracted from
sago palm trees.

In February 2007, the district government said it has offered
investors 1.3 million hectares of land in seven of 20 sub-districts
to plant oil palms. To date, only three of the 29 registered
investors have secured permits from the governor. They plan to clear
39,000 hectares in three of the sub-districts.

Before clearing the land, however, investors must submit an
environmental impact analysis to the local government. The plan
should include physical, chemical, ecological, socio-economic,
socio-cultural and health aspects.

With this in mind, 230 people of the Yeinan tribe met on July 16 in
Erambu, one of six villages on the communal land of Sota subdistrict,
bordering Papua New Guinea. After discussing the situation, the
villagers signed a letter asserting that they reject the government

On July 21, Yeinan tribal leader David Dagujei presented the letter
to the provincial deputy governor, Alex Hesegem. Erambu is a Catholic
village, as are three other villages. The sub-district’s other two
villages are Protestant.

After attending the tribal discussion, Mejei told UCA News that if
palm oil plantations take over the communal land, tribal people’s
sacred places and artifacts will disappear without a trace. The local
government was wrong not to discuss the plan with the local people
beforehand, she insists.

Her position resonates with Yoseph Mario Rosario Mahuze, another
Yeinan tribal who joined the discussion. He told UCA News oil palm
plantations need so much water that rivers and swamps may dry up. He
warned that if communal land is cleared for plantations, tribal
people would have to go hunting across the border in Papua New
Guinea, and that might trigger political problems.

“The government says oil palm plantations are important to improve
people’s lives, but can it guarantee that?” Mahuze asked. Oil palm
plantations already developed in Boven Digul and Keerom districts, he
recalled, caused flooding due to soil erosion. “The government should
have considered cassava, soybean, corn, sugarcane and rubber, crops
tribal people usually cultivate,” he said.

Father Felix Amias of Disciples’ Patron Church in Bupul, a Catholic
village in Sota, told UCA News in July that Yeinan tribal people
oppose the government plan because they want to defend their rights.
“I think they were too good,” the priest said. “They gave some of
their communal land to the government for its transmigration program.
If they give the rest, they would have nothing.”

The national transmigration program tries to reduce the number of
people in densely populated areas by offering them land in sparsely
populated areas.

The Sacred Heart priest said he is unsure if the government can
guarantee that the plantations would hire local people, especially
since the oil palm plantations in Boven Digul failed to do so. The
local Catholic Church supports tribal people in this issue, he added,
because it deeply affects their lives.

However, Father Johanes Kandam, vicar general of Merauke archdiocese,
which covers the area, refuses to state publicly the Church’s
official stand on the issue. His Catholic archdiocese is based 3,715
kilometers east of Jakarta.

Even so, the Immaculate Heart of Mary priest told UCA News, he
personally opposes the government plan because he does not believe
the investors will empower local people. In his view, the oil palm
plantation in Boven Digul “makes profit only for its investors and
gives nothing to landowners.” He suggested that investors and local
people meet to discuss the issue together.

Waryoto, the district’s deputy head, told UCA News in late July that
oil palm plantations are good for the local economy. “We will not
forget the local people,” he promised. “We will ask the investors to
recruit local people.”



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