14 Oct 2013

70 percent of Aru Islands forest to be destroyed for sugar-cane plantation

7:04 pm on 14 October 2013

The local government of the Aru Islands, south-west of West Papua in Indonesia's Maluku Province, has granted permission for a Jakarta-based company to harvest 500,000 hectares of forest to set up a mega sugar cane plantation.

But locals and members of the Maluku Provincial Parliament are demanding the permits, which were granted without the indigenous Arunese peoples' permission, are revoked.

Mary Baines filed this report:

The vice-chair of the Maluku Provincial Parliament, Mercy Barends, says she can't understand how the local government could allow 70 percent of forest over six islands to be wiped out.

"MERCY BARENDS: We don't know why, what is the main reason why they do this for us as Arunese in our land. It's very, very crazy. They sold our land to the PT Menara Group and they didn't think about the people living and our future generation living. I have no words, I have no words."

Ms Barends says locals have been offered next to nothing for use of their land, and suspects the company is coming in to take their wood, oil and gas. She says members of the Maluku Provincial Parliament and the local government, which are independent of one other, are going head to head over the plan.

MERCY BARENDS: We fight until the last blood in our bodies, with standing position, for this to stop - the PT Menara Group operation in Aru Islands. All the data, and the people in the village and the community - we will stand to the KPK, our corruption commission at the national level.

The Save Aru Islands spokesperson, Reverend Jack Manuputty, says the Arunese rely on the forest for their daily needs, and the sacred land is home to birds of paradise, tree kangaroos, deer and black cockatoos. He says the deal was made behind closed doors, without the indigenous peoples' knowledge or permission.

JACK MANUPUTTY: Our local government, the governor, gave them recommendation and permission to do their thing in the Aru Islands without asking permission from the local people. It's against our national regulations. The local people have a right on their land.

An independent researcher of plantations in West Papua, Selwyn Moran, says he started investigating the company when it recently obtained permits to plant oil palmns on 400,000 hectares in Boven Digoel Regency, which borders Merauke. He says not much is known about the company, which develops software systems for banks and is venturing into plantations for the first time. He says it has set up 28 subsidiaries in Aru and 10 in West Papua, as there is a limit to the size of plantation that each individual company can have.

SELWYN MORAN: The whole system of plantations in Indonesia makes it very easy for companies to hide. The actual plantations are run by these 28 subsidaries. Sometimes its very hard to find out who is the big company behind those subsidaries. And the decisions are made at a local level and its up to local government how much information they want to give out and to who.

Attempts to get comment from PT Menara Group were unsuccessful. The former governor of Maluku, who made the agreement with PT Menara Group, Karel Ralahalu, has recently resigned instead of running in the current local elections, and could not be contacted. Attempts to contact the acting governor, Ros Far-Far, have also been unsuccessful.