Papuan woman wearing a mask with the slogan “Protect the forest – the forest protects us” “Protect the forest – the forest protects us” (© Pusaka) Map of Papua South of Boven Digoel, the rainforest gradually transitions to savanna (© Rettet den Regenwald e.V.) A river meandering through rainforest The 500 km long Digoel River flows into the sea at Merauke (© Richard Mahuze) Biodiversity in Papua Tree kangaroo and bird of paradise (© CraigRJD & feathercollector / Korindo oil palm plantation Korindo palm oil plantation in southeastern Papua (© Mighty Earth)

Saving the rainforest of southern Papua and empowering Indigenous Papuans

The rainforests in Papua are experiencing an unprecedented onslaught of timber, palm oil and mining companies. Land grabbing and clear cutting are rife. Indigenous Papuans are losing their livelihoods as the forest disappears. The environmental and human rights organization Pusaka is mounting a defense against environmental destruction and land grabbing.

Project Overview

Project FocusEcosystems

Project Objective protecting the rainforest, empowering Indigenous Papuans

Activities supporting Indigenous communities, political work

Marius Betera spent years fighting a palm oil company. His heritage was at stake – the forest of his ancestors, which the agribusiness wanted to cut down and replace with oil palms. On May 16, 2020, Marius was badly beaten by a police officer and died hours later.

The conflict revolved around a forest in southeastern Papua, the Indonesian part of the island of New Guinea. Indigenous Papuans regard the forest as a mother who gives them everything they need: The starch of the sago palm is their staple food. They collect wild fruit, tend small gardens, fish and hunt. They see the rainforest as a sacred place of unity with their ancestors and all of creation.

The rainforest – the Indigenous ancestors’ legacy

Extensive rainforests stretch from the mountains in the center of the island to the wetlands of the south coast. The biodiversity of the forest area, the largest in all of Indonesia, is rich and unique. Magnificent birds of paradise, tree kangaroos and many still-undocumented species live there. The diversity of human cultures and languages is also staggering. In the southeast, the dense forest gradually tapers off into savanna. These two ecoregions – the lowland rainforest and the Trans-Fly savanna – both urgently need protection.

Papua’s rainforest in the clutches of agribusiness

Having plundered the rainforests in the lowlands of Sumatra and Borneo, agribusinesses are crowding into Papua. In the last twenty years, thousands of square kilometers of Papua’s rainforest have been cleared for tropical timber and mega-plantations – against the resistance of the Indigenous forest dwellers.

Papua’s natural landscapes are being turned into vast spaces for industrial agriculture. In the southern districts of Merauke, Mappi and Boven Digoel, “estates” – large-scale plantations for the cultivation of food and energy crops – are being established under the auspices of the Ministry of Defense and Security. 2,684,681 hectares of rainforest are at risk, of which 972,625 hectares are peat forest.

The Indonesian government’s economic policies are driving the “development” of Papua’s forests. New laws are facilitating investment and the destruction of rainforest for “food estates” – ostensibly for food security, in reality mostly for palm oil and paper.

The “food estate” program’s impacts on the climate, biodiversity and the rights of Indigenous people are being ignored, and the changes imposed by force. The forest no longer feeds local people and food shortages are becoming increasingly common. Fraud, looting and discrimination have become everyday occurrences.

Against this backdrop, Pusaka considers it most urgent to exert influence on policymakers and corporations. The organization’s goal is to create a political framework that recognizes the rights of Indigenous Papuans while curbing deforestation and environmental degradation.

Pusaka – preserving the natural heritage

“International attention can stop deforestation,” explains Franky Samperante, director of Pusaka. “The world needs to understand how important Papua is to biodiversity and the climate.”

Pusaka means “heritage”. The name emphasizes the will to preserve the forest as a natural heritage and to pass it on to future generations. 

“Communities are fighting back against land grabs. We support the forest dwellers with expertise, legal assistance and campaigns. They also need sources of income so they don’t fall for the false promises of corporations.”

Pusaka’s mission

Pusaka is working to save the rainforest in southern Papua and empower Indigenous Papuans by:

  • implementing laws and corporate pledges to protect and respect the human rights of Indigenous Papuans
  • improving the use of land and forest as a source of Indigenous Papuans’ livelihood and food security
  • preventing further deforestation and protecting the environment
  • strengthening the capacity of Indigenous Papuans to secure their rights and livelihoods and protect their food sources and forests
  • providing education and training, supporting and mentoring Indigenous communities and environmental defenders
  • mounting campaigns and legal action, influencing policy and law enforcement, monitoring and researching individual cases, publications
  • providing further training for Pusaka activists in the areas of security, communication, market campaigns, financial management, knowledge management, analysis of GIS data

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