Indigenous communities oppose Merauke Sugarcane Project over socio-environmental concerns

The Indonesian government’s plan to transform Merauke town, South Papua (Papua Selatan) Province, into a major centre for sugarcane plantations and bioethanol production has sparked significant controversy and legal disputes. This large-scale agricultural endeavour, part of the National Strategic Project (PSN), aims to achieve sugar self-sufficiency by 2027. However, the project faces strong opposition from indigenous communities, environmental activists, and local leaders who fear ecological degradation and social exploitation. It also poses significant challenges, particularly concerning environmental sustainability and the rights of indigenous communities.

Government initiatives

Vice President Ma’ruf Amin, along with other high-ranking officials, has been actively promoting the sugarcane project. During his visit to Merauke from 3-4 June 2024, he emphasised the government’s vision of making Merauke a key hub for agricultural and plantation activities to meet national and global food demands. The project is expected to cover two million hectares, with an investment of 130 trillion IDR, aiming to produce 2,6 million tons of sugar and 244 million litres of bioethanol annually.

Ma’ruf Amin highlighted Merauke’s favourable conditions for sugarcane cultivation, including large tracts of available land and suitable weather. He expressed confidence that the project would boost local and national economies, citing the potential for high sugar yields comparable to those in Australia. The government’s strategy involves modern agricultural techniques and mechanisation, which, according to Amin, would eventually reduce the need for a large workforce.

Local opposition and environmental concerns

Despite the government’s positive outlook, the project has faced strong resistance from local communities. On 13 June 2024, indigenous people from the Kimahima and Maklew sub-tribes staged a demonstration at the Merauke Regional People’s Representative Council (DPRD) office, protesting against the planned sugarcane plantations on Kimaam Island. They argued that the forest, which they have preserved for generations, is crucial for their livelihoods and the survival of local wildlife.

Franky Samperante, Managing Director of the Pusaka Bentala Rakyat Foundation, warned of the potential ecological and social fallout, drawing parallels with the negative impacts of the earlier MIFEE project. He criticised the lack of comprehensive socio-ecological studies and the tendency of such projects to benefit investors at the expense of indigenous communities.

Legal disputes over land ownership

The sugarcane project is not the only large-scale agricultural venture in Merauke facing challenges. On 20 June 2024, the Mahuze Kewam clan from Muting District filed a lawsuit against PT Bio Inti Agrindo (BIA), an oil palm plantation company, accusing it of annexing 1,800 hectares of their land without consent. The clan claims that the land, used for oil palm cultivation since 2007, was sold to PT BIA by the Mahuze Milafo clan without involving the rightful owners, leading to a demand for 150 billion IDR in compensation and the implementation of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs.

Corporate and political issues

PT Perkebunan Nusantara III (Persero), a state-owned plantation company, has also been vocal about the sugarcane food estate in Merauke. President Director Mohammad Abdul Ghani acknowledged the challenges but remained optimistic about the project’s feasibility, given adequate infrastructure development by the government. He emphasised the need for full mechanisation and corporate involvement to ensure the project’s success.

The project has received political backing, with members of the House of Representatives urging PTPN and its sub-holdings to support the government’s vision of sugar self-sufficiency and the broader campaign promises of political leaders like Prabowo Subianto and Gibran Rakabuming Raka.

Detailed Case Data
name of the location: Merauke (-8.47408079328263, 140.40577990434252)
administrative region: Indonesia, Papua Selatan Province, Merauke Regency, Merauke Town
total number of victims: dozens
period of incident: 13.06.2024
perpetrator: government
perpetrator details:
Issues: indigenous peoples, cultural rights, FPIC
Sources:
Further HRM News:

NumberName, DetailsGenderAgeGroup AffiliationViolations
dozensunknownunknownunknownindigenouscultural rights