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Church backs tribe as Indonesian court rejects plea to save forest

Members of the Christian Awyu tribe are fighting a legal battle to save their customary forest from palm oil plantations

Indigenous Papuan women of Awyu tribe cook sago worms during a ceremony of installing a cross sign in Kowo village, Boven Digoel, South Papua.

Indigenous Papuan women of Awyu tribe cook sago worms during a ceremony of installing a cross sign in Kowo village, Boven Digoel, South Papua. (Photo: Greenpeace Indonesia)

Published: November 02, 2023 12:21 PM GMT

Updated: November 02, 2023 12:25 PM GMT

Catholic Church officials have come out in support of a Papuan indigenous tribe after an Indonesian court refused to revoke permits to start an oil palm plantation that threatens to clear the tribals' ancestral forest.

The lawsuit was filed by an Awyu tribe member along with advocacy groups, seeking to revoke the permit granted to Malaysia-based PT Indo Asiana Lestari.

But the Jayapura State Administrative Court in its ruling on Nov. 2 refused to revoke the permit. 

The plantation project threatens to clear 39,190 hectares of forest in the Boven Digoel Regency, South Papua Province.

“We stand behind the indigenous people who are fighting for their lives,” said Father Cornelius Manu from the Justice and Peace Commission of the Archdiocese of Merauke, which oversees the Boven Digoel Regency.

He said that like the Awyu “we too are disappointed with the judge's decision.”

“The verdict ignores the future of indigenous peoples in Papua who are threatened due to the invasion of palm plantations," Manu told UCA News.

The Awyu tribe has some 20,000 members, who inhabit the watershed of the Boven Digoel River in Papua province. They make a living by hunting and foraging.

Nearly 40 percent of them are Catholics, while the rest are Protestants.

Hendrikus Woro, a representative of the Woro clan from the Awyu tribe, said that dozens of clans lived on the 30,190 hectares of land, including 73 families from the Woro clan.

"Land is the source of livelihood for us indigenous people. So we don't want our environment to be damaged, we don't want our important places to be lost," he said as quoted by BBC Indonesia.

Hendrikus along with the Indonesian Forum for the Environment and the Pusaka Bentala Rakyat Foundation, an indigenous advocacy group, had filed the lawsuit in March.

They sought revocation of the plantation permit "to protect the environment, respect the rights of indigenous peoples and prevent a climate crisis.”

Hendrikus said the customary land served as the tribe’s identity, history and livelihood source to be inherited by the future generations.

The government issued the permit in 2021 but the members of the tribe learned about it last year. Authorities claimed that the process of issuing permits did not require the consent of tribal people.

The lawsuit attracted wide attention in Papua and internationally.

Greenpeace warned against permitting more plantations saying that around 168,471 hectares of primary forest in Papua were already converted for palm plantations between 2010 and 2019.

Last month, 259 advocacy groups and several individuals the Secretariat for Justice and Peace of the Agats diocese signed a petition in support of the lawsuit.

Franky Samperante of the Pusaka Bentala Rakyat Foundation told UCA News they will not give up the struggle due to the Nov. 2 ruling.

"We will continue to fight, by filing an appeal," he said.

Hendrikus' lawyer Sekar Banjaran Aji said he was disappointed with the judge's decision.

"We will fight until we win, for the sake of green Papuan forests, the lives of indigenous peoples and to halt the climate crisis," he said.

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