Indonesia attack shines a light on controversial road project

  • Construction on a section of Indonesia’s Trans-Papua highway was suspended after at least 17 people were killed; conflicting reports state the victims were either contract laborers or Indonesian soldiers.
  • In a recent paper, researchers warned the highway threatens to increase social conflict in Indonesia’s restive Papua region, while also degrading New Guinea Island’s ecosystems and the health of its residents.
  • The Indonesian government bills the project as a lifeline of economic development for an impoverished region, but many indigenous Papuans see the project as a means to facilitate troop movements and resource exploitation.

Violence in Indonesia’s easternmost region of Papua has stalled a massive infrastructure project that researchers have separately warned may threaten the island’s ecological health and the livelihood of its residents.

At least 17 construction people were killed on a stretch of the Trans-Papua highway in Nduga district on Dec. 2, with conflicting reports stating the victims were either civilian works or members of the Indonesian military. The attack, claimed by the National Liberation Army of West Papua (TPNBP), followed the anniversary of West Papua’s declaration of independence, which was submitted — and rejected — on Dec. 1, 1961.

The Trans-Papua highway is the latest major development project by the Indonesian government to come under scrutiny in the country’s half of the island of New Guinea. While the government bills the ambitious road as a lifeline of economic development for a long impoverished region, many native Papuans see it as a means to more quickly move troops around to quash uprisings while opening the island for resource exploitation.

Three major hotspots of deforestation (in circled areas)  are expected if the Trans-Papuan Highway is constructed. Image courtesy of William Laurance.

Regardless of the motivation for the highway network, its creation will almost certainly accelerate degradation of Papua’s forests and increase social conflicts, say researchers from James Cook University in Australia in a report published earlier this month.

“We’ve assessed big development projects around the world, and this is one of the most worrying in terms of its overall social, economic and environmental costs,” said William Laurance, a distinguished research professor at James Cook University and one of the paper’s authors.

“In addition to all the environmental damage, the Trans-Papuan Highway doesn’t make economic sense … The roads would be extremely expensive to build and maintain because they’d have to traverse some of the steepest and most difficult terrain imaginable.”

No passage exists through much of the corridor planned for the highway, and researchers warn that opening up access to these areas will result in increased deforestation, increased conflicts over competing land claims, and increased development of mining concessions, in particular those located inside Lorentz National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The park is the largest protected area in Southeast Asia, and the only one in the world that spans a continuous range of ecosystems between high-alpine glaciers and a tropical marine environment. One of the world’s largest gold mines, Grasberg, operated by U.S.-based Freeport McMoRan, operates just outside the park’s northwest corner in the Maoke Mountains. Much of the area surrounding the mine has been designated as mining concessions, 19 of which overlap with Lorentz National Park.

Planned roads and mining concessions in the Lorenz World Heritage Site. The roads are part of the Trans-Papuan Highway. Image courtesy of William Laurance.

While many of these mining claims are still in the exploration phase, the researchers suspect the 211 kilometers (131 miles) of new road planned within the park will all but ensure development within the protected area proceeds, following a pattern seen repeatedly throughout the country.

At the southeastern reaches of the highway, the proposed road corridors connect several areas of forest that have remained intact thanks to their inaccessibility. Where roads already exist nearby, deforestation has been accelerating, with large areas experiencing greater than 75 percent forest cover loss over the last 20 years.

Much of the land at the road’s southern terminus comprises peat forest and probable peat swamp, large swaths of which were designated in 2010 as part of the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE). That 12,000-square-kilometer (4,600-square-mile) mega project was established to increase Indonesia’s food and biofuel security, but has been criticized as an ill-considered land grab that ignores the rights of the indigenous people while running counter to Indonesia’s own commitments to not develop on peatland.

The authors of the paper cite MIFEE as another instance where the central government has failed to consider the ecological nuance of an area, or the realities of the on-the-ground local priorities.

Despite the nation’s 2013 legal recognition of the rights of indigenous people to their customary forests, competing claims to the land in Papua are far from settled. The researchers warn that rapid road development before resolving these issues will exacerbate political unrest, and possibly even undermine the economic reasons for building the highway.

Road construction in the highlands of Papua. Image courtesy of William Laurance.

“By cutting through the traditional lands of so many different indigenous groups, the roads will almost certainly provoke anger and anti-government sentiment — and that’s the last thing Indonesia needs,” said Mohammed Alamgir, a co-author of the study from the University of Bangladesh.  “These top-down initiatives by central governments tend to do poorly because they don’t take into account local cultural sensitivities and ecological dynamics.”

Failing to consider these cultural sensitivities is especially risky in a place like Papua, where anti-government and separatist sentiments have for decades routinely boiled over into public outrage and violence.

The western half of the island of New Guinea was formerly a Dutch colony. The Dutch rejected the 1961 declaration of independence by the local people, a move repeated by Indonesia when that country annexed the province in 1963. In late 2017, a petition to the United Nations demanding a vote on independence was smuggled across the province gathering 1.8 million signatures, accounting for 70 percent of Papua’s population.

Many Papuans still hold celebrations on Dec. 1, despite Indonesian laws prohibiting them. Some reports suggest the recent attacks on the road builders occurred after one of the workers photographed locals holding a flag-raising ceremony on the illicit holiday. The TPNBP is the armed wing of the Free Papua Organization (OPM), for decades the region’s main separatist group. The OPM says most of the construction workers killed were  members of the Indonesian military, while official sources describe the dead as contract workers from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

Potholes in Papuan roads caused by road construction in high-rainfall areas. Image courtesy of William Laurance.

Editor’s note: William Laurance is a member of Mongabay’s advisory board.

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