Plans for a US$6 billion food estate in the Merauke region of West Papua has been attacked by farmer and environmental organisations as a land grab that would destroy 2 million hectares of virgin forest.
The new Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate program was launched on January 17 by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. It is expected to begin harvesting rice, wheat and palm oil by 2012.
The slogan for the project is "Feed Indonesia and then the world", but local farmers are concerned that the project will undermine traditional agriculture and food sovereignty in the region.
The project would involve the leasing of the land for up to 90 years.
West Papua has been claimed as an Indonesian province, based on a farcical 1969 "act of free choice" in which just over 1000 handpicked Papuan representatives voted to integrate into Indonesia.
An ongoing campaign for self-determination by Papuans has faced ongoing violent repression, and it is illegal to even raise the Papuan Morning Star national flag. The rights of Papua's indigenous majority will be further undermined by this new development.
Elisha Kartini, an activist from the Indonesian Farmer Union (SPI), told the United Nations humanitarian news agency IRIN on March 26: "Food is not just a commercial commodity but is also a basic human right, and leaving food provision to the private sector can hinder people's access to food because corporations are driven by profit."
Indonesian environmental organisation Walhi has called the estate a land grab. Walhi spokesperson Muhammad Islah told IRIN the project was a land grab and would cause local farmers to suffer because they would be unable to compete with major corporations.
The huge scale of the project will destroy up to 2 million hectares of forest, which would further endanger Papua's farmland to sea-level rises. Walhi said: "Large-scale land conversions in Merauke, which consists of predominantly low-lying land and marshes, could cause it to lose its land areas.
"The decrease in forest and water catchment areas could result in a faster intrusion of sea water to the land."
A huge workforce would be needed for the food estate project. The Merauke population is expected to grow from 175,000 to 800,000.
The total number of workers for the project would be around 6.4 million people — three times the current Papuan population of 2.1 million.
The vast number of migrant workers needed for the project raises the prospect of cultural dispossession and conflicts between different ethic groups over land.
It amounts to a continuation of the "transmigrasi" project carried out by the dictatorship of former Indonesian president Suharto in the 1970s. A government project subsidised the transfer of hundreds of thousands of workers from the central parts of Indonesia — such as Bali and Java — to the outer islands — such as Papua.
This was partly a plan to undermine West Papua's struggle for self-determination by altering the population make-up in favour of new residents who identify with Indonesia.
The project was an economic and social disaster that failed to produce much in the way of food but a great deal in the way of inter-ethnic conflict over land rights in the areas it was applied.
The West Papua Advocacy Team said in a March report: "Conflict has arisen as local populations are marginalised in their own homelands as government supports programmes that favour the internal migrants to the disadvantage of locals.
"There is growing opposition to the scheme from small-scale Papuan farmers who say they fear their traditional livelihoods will be threatened by the large-scale, state-subsidized commercialization of agriculture."
The development is being driven by a rise in global demand for agricultural land. Large countries with limited farmland are now part of a global land rush, buying up good agricultural land in Africa, Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region.
In March 2009, South Korean company Daewoo was narrowly prevented from acquiring more than 50% of Madagascar's agricultural land. Japan leases more than 100,000 hectares of Brazilian land for soya production.
A number of African leaders have raised concerns at the rapid pace at which foreign companies are buying up farmland in the region.