Plans to revive a massive commercial agribusiness and biofuel plant in the Indonesian province of Papua violate the land rights of the indigenous and local communities who have inhabited the region for generations, Church and land rights activists said. The Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate project would convert about 1.6 million hectares of land used by the indigenous Malind people into a plant for food, timber and biofuel production. Activists said the project will displace most indigenous groups from the area and introduce drastic changes to their way of life. "We call this robbery," said Sacred Heart Father Anselmus Amo, director of Merauke diocese's justice and peace secretariat. Father Amo said indigenous groups were almost entirely excluded from the decision-making process right from the project's outset. "We have warned [the government] of [the project's] manipulative process since the beginning," he told ucanews.com. The project was initially announced in 2009 by former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, with the goal of helping the country raise production on crops like rice, corn and soybean. The project stalled over land rights concerns, human rights abuses, the disruption to conservation areas and the displacement of indigenous communities. In May, President Joko Widodo announced plans to relaunch the project and said that the area allocated to it would be expanded to 4.6 million hectares. "The project is full of bad practices, and it is difficult to expect that [the project] will bring about any positive impact on Papuans. Instead, what happens is marginalization," Father Amo said. According to Pusaka, a nongovernmental organization focusing on indigenous rights, the government so far has granted permits to 41 plantation companies to operate on 1.5 million hectares of land. Pusaka spokesman Yosafat Leonard Franky said the plantation companies have destroyed the main livelihood of the indigenous people, clearing away thousands of hectares of palm trees. Sago, a starch extracted from the spongy center of tropical palm stems — and a major food staple for the lowland people of New Guinea and the Moluccas — disappeared because of the project. "Sago serves as the tribal people's cultural and religious identity. It is used in the traditional ceremonies, such as birth and death. Its value is very vital," he said. Many plantation companies failed to pay attention to the tribal people's customs, he said. "[This project] will [cause] a humanitarian and ecological disaster victimizing the Papuans," he said, noting the project has affected up to 100,000 people. Wahyu Wagiman of the Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy said the indigenous communities have already lost too much.
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"All buildings related to their culture, including their customary law and way of processing food that was developed on the basis of nature have now gone away," he said.