An aerial view of fires at a palm oil plantation concession of Dongin Prabhawa, a subsidiary of the Korindo Group in Papua. (Photo: Greenpeace Indonesia)
Merauke Archdiocese in Indonesia's Papua province is set to receive billions of rupiah through a collaboration with an environmentally controversial palm oil company, sparking strong protests from local Catholics.
Protesters said they felt marginalized by the presence of the palm oil company, PT Tunas Sawa Erma, and its deforestation, saying this cooperation showed that the archdiocese is insensitive to their struggles.
Archbishop Petrus Canisius Mandagi signed an MoU on Jan. 5 with the manager of the firm, a subsidiary of the Korindo Group, and a joint Indonesian and South Korean venture. The company handed over 800 million rupiah (US$56,600), part of a 2.4 billion rupiah commitment to be given in stages over three years. The company will also give the archdiocese 20 million rupiah a month for three years.
Jimmy Yonesendu, the company’s general manager, said the donation was part of their corporate social responsibility strategy.
Korindo Group has been accused of destroying a huge swath of rainforest in Merauke district to pave the way for a palm oil plantation.
According to a joint report released by Greenpeace Indonesia and Forensic Architecture in November, Dongin Prabhawa, one of its subsidiaries, had destroyed 57,000 hectares of rainforest, based on their findings on forest fires captured on NASA satellite imagery between 2011 and 2016.
Archbishop Mandagi said his archdiocese needed financial contributions from various parties including palm oil companies to fund services, including the construction of its minor seminary. However, he said, the Church will continue to work with palm oil companies to ensure they prioritize and maintain environmentally sustainable practices.
"[Companies] can work, but they must pay attention to the sustainability of the environment for the sake of our children and grandchildren," Archbishop Mandagi was quoted by Penakatolik.com as saying.
Meanwhile, Frederika Korain, a human rights lawyer, said the archdiocese's move shows that the Church is insensitive to Papuans who have lost land due to the expansion of palm oil plantations in recent years.
"Conflicts often occur due to the presence of palm oil companies in Papua, including in Merauke Archdiocese," she told UCA News on Jan. 12.
She said Archbishop Mandagi, who has only been in his position for a few months, "must learn to see what Catholics are experiencing."
"It's sad because while his flock is struggling against companies that are destroying Papua's nature, the Church is instead on the company's side," she said.
"More than that, the Church's move contradicts the mission echoed by Pope Francis to save the earth as conveyed in Laudato si’, including how to save indigenous peoples," said Korain, who once worked for the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) Commission of Jayapura Diocese.
Korneles Siep, a Catholic activist, said the MoU has angered locals who are campaigning against forest destruction in Papua.
"The independence of the Catholic Church will be lost. The Church is the last hope for Papuans amid worries about the future," he said.
He added the MoU provides a kind of legitimacy for the companies to continue exploiting the forest.
"At the same time, Papuans are increasingly becoming lost sheep, ignored by their shepherds," he said.
Meanwhile, Father Anselmus Amo, chairman of Merauke Archdiocese’s JPIC Commission, who was present at the MoU signing, said that "in principle, the archdiocese wants to work with anyone to help its flock.”
Dialogue with companies, he said, is the best way to engage.
"Dialogue is one of the options for advocating, in addition to other options that have been made by JPIC so far," he told UCA News..
"The archbishop's support for palm oil companies aims to advance the interests of many people, including the rights of indigenous peoples and environmental sustainability, under business and human rights provisions."