Updated: June 12, 2017 10:44 AM GMT
This picture taken on May 19 shows an Indonesian forest that was recently cleared to plant oil palm trees. Church and local people in Papua have welcomed a recent decision by local officials to revoke the licenses of 11 plantation firms. (Photo by Goh Chai Hin/AFP)
A local government's decision in Papua to pull licenses for a number plantation companies has won overwhelming backing from the Catholic Church and local people, calling the move a victory for the environment.
The Merauke regency government revoked the permits of 11 palm oil and sugarcane plantations last week, saying their presence were of little benefit to local people.
The deputy regent of Merauke, Sularso — who like many Indonesians goes by only one name — said land that had been leased to the companies would be returned to their owners.
The decision to revoke existing licenses goes a step further than following a moratorium imposed by Indonesian President Joko Widodo in April last year halting the issuing of new permits for plantation firms for at least three years.
Father Anselmus Amo, chairman of Merauke Diocese's secretariat of Justice and Peace, said the move was welcome news and long overdue.
"The presence of palm oil companies harms indigenous peoples, their land rights and the environment," Father Amo said.
These plantations have "caused the loss of tens of thousands of hectares of forest in Merauke, damaging the environment and creating land conflicts," he said.
He called on local government to do more and monitor the activities of plantation companies still operating in Merauke more closely.
The church, wants local government to conduct a detailed assessment of the environmental and socio-cultural impacts palm oil companies have by involving academics, practitioners and indigenous peoples.
Elisabeth Ndiwaen, a leader of the local Marind tribal community, said her people looked forward to taking back their land but expressed bitterness that much of it had been ruined by deforestation.
Forests are like the womb of a mother who gives life. From the forest they can get food by hunting and harvesting other crops, she said.
"Nature provides for free, but the value of the land is now reduced because forests have been cleared by palm oil companies," she added.
Some 42,000 hectares of lush tribal forest land had been destroyed by palm oil firms in Ngguti district alone, Ndiwaen said.
Merauke Regency covers about 4.6 million hectares, 95.3 percent was forest.
As of today, more than 1.6 million hectares has been given to companies, of which 316,347 hectares were for palm oil plantations.
Papua province is predominantly Christian. Some 65 percent of the province's 3.2 million people are Protestant, 18 percent are Catholic, while 15 percent are Muslim.