Jun 24, 2024 Last Updated 5:50 AM, Jun 24, 2024

Mamberamo madness

Published: Sep 29, 2007

Millions of hectares of pristine tropical forest and thousands of indigenous people are at risk. FRANCES CARR outlines Habibie's 'techno dream' for Irian Jaya.

If you wanted to create a vast agro-industrial complex for Indonesia would you chose an area of pristine tropical forest just about as far from Jakarta as you can get? B J Habibie did when he was Minister of Research and Technology. The Mamberamo basin covers a staggering 7,711,602 hectares in West Papua/ Irian Jaya - almost as much as the whole island of Java. This is being carved up for heavy industry, smelting, plantations, rice cultivation and forestry in a mega-project expected to take twenty years to complete. While Indonesia's economic problems may well stand in the way for now, Habibie's influence has soared since he unexpectedly became president on 21 May.


The Mamberamo basin is a huge river system encompassing part of the central mountains of New Guinea, lowlands and marshes. Almost the whole area is still covered with tropical rainforest, although two- thirds has been allocated to timber or plantation concessions. Its unique wildlife includes crocodiles, tree kangaroos, cassowary birds, parrots and birds of paradise. A large part of the upper reaches - the Mamberamo Fojo þ form a proposed conservation area which some experts would like to see become a world heritage site.

According to Indonesian government figures, some 7,000 inhabitants live in the area. The Central Mamberamo sub-district at the heart of the mega-project include the Namunaweja, Bauzi, Dani, Manau, Kawera and Anggreso peoples. These indigenous communities live a semi-nomadic life - hunting, fishing, horticulture and harvesting sago palms. Until recently their main contact with outsiders has been the Indonesian military searching for Free Papua Movement guerrillas (OPM), crocodile skin traders (often the same as the former), and Indonesian Protestant church missionaries (GKI).

The mega-project plans are already well underway. Terms of reference for the project published in 1996 show the scheme promises to be a logistic nightmare with ten government departments and bodies named as executing agencies, and with twelve sub- projects. The government has held two workshops for potential Indonesian and foreign investors. There were contributions from anthropologists, scientists, foreign consultants, government ministers and businessmen. Preliminary studies are now in progress. As so often before, some construction has begun even before environmental impact assessments are complete.

The financial crisis in Indonesia appears to have left the huge project unscathed. Cancellation of the Mamberamo development was not among IMF conditions for its massive loan to prop up Suharto's regime. Hydro

The mega-project centres on harnessing the power of one of Irian Jaya's major rivers - the 650 km Mamberamo River, which runs into the Pacific Ocean to the west of Jayapura. Studies estimate that a series of dams could generate a whopping 10 to 20,000 megawatts (MW). Just where these will be is not yet certain.

Two of 34 potential sites on the Mamberamo and its tributaries are the subject of further studies with a view to building hydroelectric power stations having a minimum capacity of 6,000 MW. Apart from providing electricity for the new industries of Mamberamo, the hydroelectric scheme could supply power to other areas, particularly Biak which has been selected as the centre for development in the region.

The general pattern is that the upstream area will be used for the dams, agriculture, agro-industry and forestry, while downstream will be the industrial estates, new settlements, transport and other infrastructure.

First to be developed will be the pioneer industries at the mouth of the river in Waropen Bay. Plans include a steelworks, metal smelters, pulp and paper factory and petrochemicals plant, forming the biggest industrial complex in eastern Indonesia.

The mountainous region to the south of the Mamberamo basin is rich in minerals, including gold, copper, bauxite and nickel. A copper smelter in the project area would process copper concentrate from the controversial US/ British-owned Freeport mine. Power for smelting could also make the mining of other nickel deposits feasible, such as Gag, Waigeo and the Cyclops area.


The notion of building large dams and industrial complexes in such a geologically unstable zone is highly questionable. In February 1996 the island of Biak was hit by an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale. Another, registering 4.6, struck Mamberamo and Jayapura in September 1997.

But Habibie's 'techno-dreams' went further. In late 1996 he announced that waste carbon dioxide from the gas fields of the Natuna Islands (several thousand kilometres to the west) could be used in Mamberamo's industries to produce feedstocks for petrochemicals and fertilisers. Experts have dismissed this idea as infeasible.

Mamberamo is also being promoted as a future food supply centre of national importance þ with possibly a million hectares set aside for rice cultivation to be irrigated from the dam scheme. Like the disastrous Central Kalimantan mega-project, this is packaged as part of the strategy to salvage the country's self-sufficiency in rice.

There are plans to resettle about 300,000 families from the western parts of Indonesia to the area to provide the workforce for the agricultural projects. The village of Kasonaweja, sub-district capital of Central Mamberamo and 135 km from the mouth of the river, will be the site of a shipping terminal, warehouses, offices and a trade centre.

The Mamberamo development is part of the government's push to develop Eastern Indonesia, regarded as economically backward compared with western parts of the archipelago. But far from bringing benefits to indigenous communities, the government's attempts to impose a 'modern' economy throughout the Outer Islands has brought social conflict and ecological damage. Nowhere more so than in Irian Jaya, where massive transmigration schemes plus logging, plantation and mining concessions have deprived local populations of their traditional land rights and destroyed their livelihoods.

Under construction

Reports from the region state that the process of land appropriation has already begun, with the authorities using bribery, threats and trickery to take land from local people.

In 1997 the governor of Irian Jaya, then Jacob Pattipi, said his office would mobilise local people's support for the project. But the majority have not been informed, let alone consulted about the mega-project plans. According to one report 6,000 people living near the river will be moved to a new town. Accommodation for around 3,000 people is already under construction near the mouth of the Mamberamo river. The construction of quays in the lower and middle reaches of the catchment area is one of the first priorities.

Given the conflict between indigenous peoples and mining giant Freeport, the kidnapping of foreigners by the OPM in 1996, as well as the self-acclaimed greening of multinational companies, one might expect foreign investors would not touch the Mamberamo plans with a barge pole. But no. In April 1997 an official seminar and workshop on the mega-project was attended by private companies from Germany, the Netherlands, France and Japan as well as Indonesia. In February this year Barnabas Suebu, a former governor of Irian Jaya, announced that Germany, Japan and Australia had agreed to invest in the project.

To our knowledge, no official announcements on foreign participation have ever been made. Watch Indonesia, the German NGO that is tracking German involvement, believes that bilateral discussions on the project are being kept deliberately low key. A December 1997 meeting of the German-Indonesian Forum (GIF), a group representing business interests from both countries, included an unpublicised workshop on Mamberamo. The participants included representatives from the companies Ferrostahl and Siemens.

The terms of reference show that German and, to a lesser extent, Australian funding will be used in conjunction with state funds for many of the feasibility studies. The basic preliminary studies are estimated to cost around 13 million DM (A$11 million). Three German companies have already invested about 100 000 DM each in these. Their activities are likely to be in the fields of hydroelectricity (Siemens/ Hochtief), heavy industry (Ferrostaal) and infrastructure (Hochtief).


When a German parliamentarian asked the **German government about Mamberamo in June 1997, the official reply was that there were no intentions to use development co-operation funds, and that there were as yet no other public funds involved. In response to a second question raising concern about local people's rights, the **German government said it would take into consideration environmental impacts, the problems of transmigration and resettlement of the local people.

The mega-project workshops reveal how different lobby groups are promoting their own interests through a range of options which could devastate this vast diverse region and its people. One scenario, for example, shows 75% of the total area as protected forests, which would mean no less than 2 million hectares for cultivation.

An alternative scenario, presented by a member of the agribusiness lobby, suggests clearing almost all the forest and establishing merely one million hectares for plantations, leaving the rest for **. Japanese consultants Nippon Koei suggested the project area be expanded to include all of the northern coast east of the river to Jayapura. This would bring it to 13,887,700 hectares - almost one third of Irian Jaya's land area.

Indonesian and local NGOs, the GKI church and local academic Benny Giay question the whole development approach and are concerned for the fate of the local people. They argue that at the very least the indigenous population of the Mamberamo must be involved in planning the project; their land rights be recognised; they be informed about the possible environmental and social impacts of the project; and their own organisations be recognised and empowered so community local leaders can represent the interests of their people in negotiations with the government.

Perhaps the planners think that the sparse population of this immense area will be too small to matter in the face of such a prestigious national enterprise. Development Habibie-style - top- down, centrally-planned and on an industrial scale - may well be stuck in the bad old days. But national and international opposition to environmental and social abuse has moved on. Habibie can expect widespread and vociferous resistance to his project.

Frances Carr is a campaigner for the UK-based NGO Down to Earth: the International Campaign for Ecological Justice in Indonesia. Her article is compiled from several which have appeared in DtE's quarterly newsletter (contact: 59 Athenlay Rd, London SE15 3EN, England, tel/fax: 44 (0)171 7327984, dtecampaign@gn.apc.org).

Inside Indonesia 55: Jul-Sep 1998

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