PHNOM PENH (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An ambitious government food security project in Indonesia’s Papua is leading to starvation, disease and poverty, said a UK-based rights group that recently visited the area.
The Forest Peoples Programme, which advocates for forest dweller rights, also appealed for the suspension of the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE), pending redress from local communities who they say were coerced into parting with their land.
“Disease and undernourishment are rampant; in 2013 alone, five infants have died from malnutrition,” Sophie Chao, the organisation’s project officer who visited Zanegi village in Merauke regency in May 2013, said in a statement.
“Generalised emaciation, water-related skin infections, infant and child lethargy and bloated stomachs are all flagrant evidence of the severe food insecurity faced by the community as a result of the loss of their customary lands and livelihoods to incoming investors.”
Papua, two provinces on the west half of New Guinea island, has long suffered strained ties with Indonesia, which took over the area from Dutch colonial rule in 1963.
Despite being home to a mine with the world's largest gold and recoverable copper reserves, Papua is one of the least developed regions in Indonesia.
According to the United Nations, 40 percent of Papuans live on less than $1.25 a day, compared to the national average of 18 percent.
ABJECT, UNPRECEDENTED POVERTY
Both the central and regional governments hailed MIFEE as the answer to Indonesia's growing concerns about food shortages and as a source of exports.
The project is expected to produce close to 2 million tonnes of rice, almost 1 million tonnes of corn, 2.5 million tonnes of sugar and close to 1 million tonnes of crude palm oil, according to local media reports.
However, according to the Forest Peoples Programme, “Instead of the promised social development and economic aid, the people of Zanegi today live in abject and unprecedented poverty, with scarcely sufficient land to hunt and gather to meet their daily needs.”
Activists have said communities were not properly informed of the project and received inadequate compensation, while the rights of the indigenous Malind people were ignored.
“Across Merauke regency, indigenous Malind communities like that of Zanegi are being lured into ceding vast extents of their lands to palm oil, sugarcane, timber and other companies to develop large-scale plantations,” said Forest Peoples Programme.
“Consent, where sought, is obtained through coercion, deceit, misinformation and the purposeful manipulation and fragmentation of the Malind’s customary community collective decision-making processes and representative institutions.”