Jakarta - Indonesia's ambitious plan to turn large swathes of fertile land in the easternmost region of Papua into a food estate has sparked concerns about potential forest destruction and the marginalisation of small farmers.
Under the project expected to start this year, 1.6 million hectares of land in Merauke district will be converted to grow crops such as rice, corn, soybean, sugar and palm oil as part of the government's efforts to reduce dependence on imports and turn Indonesia into a global food producer.
Coordinating Minister for the Economy Hatta Radjasa insisted the project would not damage the environment, and said that only unforested land would be converted.
"We will only use scrubland, so forests must remain intact and deforested areas will be replanted," he said, adding that details were still being worked out.
But Greenomics Indonesia, an environmental group, warned that the plan would entail large-scale deforestation because the estate was expected to cut through deep into forest.
"The government needs millions of hectares for the project," said Greenomics executive director Elfian Effendy. "There will never be land of that size unless it includes forest areas."
Greenomics said 95 per cent of Merauke was forested, with production forest covering only a little more than 360,000 hectares scattered in different locations.
Forest preservation is seen as key to averting a climate change catastrophe and scientists say deforestation leads to about 15 percent of the world's heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions. Indonesia has promised to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 per cent from current levels by 2020.
Between 50 and 60 trillion rupiah (between 5.5 billion and 6.6 billion dollars) in investment is needed for the project, and 36 local and foreign companies have expressed interest to put money in, Deputy Agriculture Minister Bayu Krisnamurthi said.
Krisnamurthi said the food estate was expected to produce 1 million tons of rice annually and 800,000 to 1.2 million tons of sugar. Indonesia produces around 60 million tons of rice per year.
The Indonesian Farmer Union said the traditional livelihoods of small-scale Papuan farmers would be threatened in the face of the large-scale, state-subsidized commercialisation of agriculture.
"Indonesia needs food security but the way to achieve it should be by empowering farmers, not by using corporate ways," said Ahmad Ya'kub, the union's head of strategic studies.
"It is dangerous for a country as large as Indonesia to leave food provision to private corporations," he said.
Indonesia is the world's fourth most populous country with 230 million people and jungle-clad Papua is its poorest region.
About 36 per cent of Papua's 2.6 million population live below the poverty line, against a national poverty rate of 14 per cent, according to government statistics.
Indonesia's leading environmental group, Walhi, said the estate would also threaten the ecosystem.
"Large-scale forest conversions in Merauke, dominated by lowlands and swamps, could cause Merauke to lose its land areas," it said.
"The decrease in forest and water catchment areas could result in abrasion and faster intrusion of seawater to the land."
Walhi said a similar project in Brazil has caused environmental damage and poisoning among the population caused by the use of herbicides sprayed from aircraft.
Papua is also home to a low-level separatist insurgency and has seen sporadic outbreaks of political and ethnic violence.
The West Papua Advocacy Team, a pressure group, said the project was expected to boost Merauke's population from 175,000 to up to 800,000. It warned that an influx of non-Papuans from other Indonesian regions could spark ethnic conflict.
Such "conflict has arisen as local populations are marginalized in their own homelands as government support programs favor the internal migrants to the disadvantage of locals," the group said.