Indonesia’s mega food estate may ‘undo’ Marind tribe

INDONESIA: A massive food estate, envisioned to boost Indonesia’s food production, might be the “undoing” of a tribe in  West Papua, the easternmost island under the country’s control, an NGO warned.

In a paper, Sawit Watch,  (Oil Palm Watch) said  the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE) poses a threat to the Marind tribe.

Members of the Marind tribe obtain  almost 97% of their needs from forests, swamps, rivers and the sea, the NGO said in the paper  published in Lok Niti, the journal of the Asian NGO Coalition.

“Thus, when all customary forests of the Marind are converted for business interests, it is not so hard to imagine that this will be the undoing of the tribe,” Sawit Watch said.

“The MIFEE mega project will only worsen the situation of IPs who own the customary right, as has happened to the Marind Mbiyan and the Yeinan in District Muting, as well as the Ulilin and Elikobel tribes who faced the same dilemma,” said the NGO, which has been documenting the expansion of palm oil plantations in the country since 2000.

The MIFEE project was launched in 2010 and was envisioned to cover an area of 1 million hectares, which will be used to produce rice, palm oil, soybean, corn, timber, among others. The project, in fact, was being eyed as Indonesia’s food bowl.

The government and the companies involved are now in the process of securing rights to the lands that will become part of the estate.

In an interview with Jakarta Post posted online on July 9, Agriculture Minister Suswono acknowledged difficulty in acquiring lands for the country’s food estates, including Merauke, as the government has to deal with customary land. He said in the report that converting forest areas is also not easy.

In a separate report, the Jakarta Post said that the Merauke food estate land is likely to shrink by 80%  due to land issues.

The total land for the food estate in the area had been reduced from 1 million hectares to 200,000 hectares due to land issues, the Agriculture Ministry’s research and development agency chief, Haryono, said in the report posted on the paper’s news portal on July 12. “We were planning to have at least 1 million hectares of land [for the project], but then the land problems, such as trying to acquire customary land, occurred; hence the current figure,” the report quoted him as saying.

He said though that the government was still hoping the Merauke project  could still be implemented by 2015 as planned, the report said.

Sawit Watch and SKP  Keuskupan Agung Merauke undertook a study in July-August 2010 to assess the impact of the food estate on the customary rights of IPs, notably the Marind tribe in Merauke district.

The NGO said the problem is “IPs (indigenous peoples) are unaware of land use and the area of land to be appropriated by investors to the MIFEE project.”

This is initially expected due to the limitations of IPs in determining and documenting their customary rights, as well as the absence of political will on the part of the government to protect their rights and welfare, and improve their social conditions, Sawit Watch said.

Companies are also not doing enough to involve or inform the tribe about the project, it said. In the area of the Marind Mbyan indigenous group, two companies, PT. Papua Agro Lestari  and PT. Bio Inti Agrindo, only twice conducted socialization, while merely presenting a concession map to the tribal members, it said.

Because of poor consultation,  the project triggered fighting among the tribes over payment, Sawit Watch said.

“No formal agreement had been accomplished with the community, but the company already made payments to certain people … an act which would eventually incite a tribal war,” it said.

Sawit Watch also cited another case involving a different firm, PT. Indocin Kalimantan,  which together  with three heads of districts, set up a meeting with the community to conduct socialization and environmental impact assessment in Jayapura — a considerable distance from Merauke. However, the representatives of the community were not given the opportunity to speak during the meeting but were asked to sign a document to release their land. “Upon returning to their hometown, these community leaders were sued by their own people,” the NGO said.

Sawit Watch said the indigenous communities were kept in the dark about the project right from the start. “Many people in Merauke were surprised when Agriculture Minister Suswono came to

Merauke for the launching of MIFEE on August 10,  2010. “No prior notice about this activity was given to the local people and the indigenous communities,” it said.

At the launch, the Minister of Agriculture, Papua Province Vice Governor  Alex Hesegem SE, former Merauke District Head Dr. John Gluba Gebze, community leader Joseph Mahuze, and seven representatives of investors,  signed a document transferring land. One of the investors was PT. Medco Sustainable Industries, a company that the local community has known for a long time. “The community admitted that they never received copies of the document,” Sawit Watch said.

The customary rights dispute among tribes/clans and the mistrust of the Marind Mbiyan community of the government are worsening, the NGO said. “The community generally thinks that the presence of investors do not redound to the welfare of the community but only invites disasters,” it said.

Some communities even held demonstrations to reject the expansion of large- scale investment through the project. “These efforts were for naught as the government still launched the MIFEE mega project in Sirapu village without the consent of the community and the Marind tribe,” it said.

In the paper, Sawit Watch also recalled its experience in watching indigenous communities’ experience dealing with the palm oil industry.

While there are  benefits from palm oil production there are also risks, the group said. It said expansion of palm oil plantations to 800,000 hectares per year has given rise to the following issues: increased land conflicts between palm oil producers and IPs; environmental problems such as smog and floods have emerged and become perennial; and food insecurity has been marked due to the cultivation of non-food crops and increase in the price of food.

Sawit Watch said Indonesia overtook Malaysia as the largest producer of crude palm oil in the world in 2008, following the introduction of regulations that granted more benefits to big business. “These regulations are detrimental to the garden pattern system, which is being used by indigenous peoples and farmers in Indonesia,” it said.

Thus, in relation to the MIFEE project, Sawit Watch proposed the following:

•        The Merauke district government and the Jakarta central government must acknowledge and respect the existence of Marind tribe, including its customary laws, values, rules and norms;

• The government must strictly enforce laws against companies that grab lands without the consent of the community;

• The government should respect every decision agreed through consultation with the indigenous community (Free Prior Inform and Consent);

• The government must bring order and issue rules about ownership over customary land for the Marind tribe in its territory; and

•        Foreign and domestic investors should not take advantage of IPs lack of access to information about activities concerning their land. They should negotiate fairly with IPs who are the land’s rightful owners.

In its July 12 report, Jakarta Post said MIFEE is planned to start operations in 2014 and is part of the government’s master plan to help achieve national food sufficiency, eliminating the need to rely on imports.

But because of protracted land issues in Papua, Indonesia’s representative for the International Rice Research Institute, Zulkifli Zaini, had advised the government to start focusing on other potential areas in which to develop food estates, the report said.

“I think in the short term, the government could focus their attention on other areas, such as East Kalimantan and South Sumatra because, next to the customary-land brouhaha, there are other technical problems with Papua’s land, such as the drainage system,” he said in the report.

Jakarta Post said that the Agriculture Ministry’s latest data shows that companies involved in the MIFEE project — including PT. Rajawali Corp., PT. CGAD, PT. Central Cipta Murdaya, PT. Hardaya Sawit Papua and PT. Hardaya Sugar Papua — have made a total combined estimated investment of Rp57 billion ($6  million).

For more details, contact:

Jefri Saragih Sawit Watch Email:

Sawit Watch (Oil Palm Watch) is an Indonesian NGO concerned with adverse negative social and environmental impacts of oil palm plantation development in the country. Individual members of Sawit Watch work in 17 provinces where oil palm plantations are being developed.


Sidebar: Impact of the MIFEE project on indigenous peoples in Merauke:

1) Loss of food and forest resources that support their livelihood (bush meat, forest fruits and vegetables, medicinal plants, roofing and building materials, firewood, materials for traditional crafts, etc.);

2. The temporary and short-term nature of promised jobs and the low wages of those working in the plantations;

3. Large debts incurred by those who are ‘given’ smallholdings and end up being indentured workers to the plantation;

4.       Loss of the material basis of many indigenous cultures, even the loss of linguistic diversity and seed diversity, which many observers associate with the expansion of vast areas of monoculture. This also includes the repeated desecration and destruction of ancestral graves;

5. Water shortages which result from clearing of forests and building of canal networks for drainage, all leading to the shutdown of small rivers, increased run-off, and surface evaporation. Water pollution associated with palm oil mills and heavy pesticide and fertilizer use is also observed;

6. Permanent loss of communities’ ancestral domains to the state and the companies; and

7. Social conflict that arises within communities between those who support the plantations and those who are against; between communities and companies; and between communities and the government.

Source: Sawit Watch



A regional NGO association with members and partners from 14 Asian countries working on access to land, agrarian reforms & rural develop

Posted on July 21, 2012, in Access to Land Issues, Common Property, Governance of Land and Resources, Indigenous Peoples, Land Conflict, Land Grabbing, Land Rights and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

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