Food Estate in Merauke
The development of a food estate in Merauke by marginalizing the Marind-Anim food system has led to food and health vulnerabilities for indigenous Papuans.
JAKARTA, KOMPAS – The long process of planting rice fields in Merauke has turned Indonesia’s easternmost region into a rice barn in Papua. However, despite there being a surplus of rice, the development policies aimed at increasing national food security have also brought food insecurity to Merauke’s local communities.
Efforts to develop rice barns using various rice planting projects in Merauke began in 1955 when Papua was still under Dutch control with the establishment of a rice bedrijf (company) and rice field planting in the Kurik district. After becoming a part of Indonesia, efforts to create new rice fields in Merauke were continued with the arrival of transmigrants in the 1970s.
Significant land changes in Merauke occurred when the forests, which were an important part of their food system, were used for the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE) project initiated by former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2010. Since then, around 1.2 million hectares of land and customary forests belonging to the Marind-Anim people were converted under the slogan “feed Indonesia and feed the world.”
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After the project was halted, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo revived the aspiration to turn Merauke into a food estate. It is now part of the national food security program in an effort to accelerate economic recovery and strengthen transformation in various sectors.
Presidential Regulation (Perpres) No. 108/2022 concerning the 2023 government work plan states that the food estate program is a strategic priority project, with Merauke being one of the locations. Efforts to plant new rice fields will continue in line with the clearing of forests for the plantations and timber of the agro-industry.
Merauke has a surplus of rice.” Excess rice from Merauke is sent outside the island.
Head of the food, horticulture and plantation agency, Yosefa Loise Rumaseuw, in Merauke on Monday (11/14/2022), said, “Merauke has a surplus of rice.” Excess rice from Merauke is sent outside the island, mainly to Java.
According to the Agriculture Ministry’s land expansion and protection director of the agricultural infrastructure and facilities directorate general, Erwin Noorwibowo, a total of 8,915 hectares of rice fields were planted in Merauke regency between 2015-2019. “Data submitted by the Agriculture Agency of Papua shows that the utilization of rice fields in Papua reached a productivity of 2.5 to 4.5 tonnes per hectare,” he said when asked about the productivity of rice fields in Merauke, on Monday (12/12).
Erwin added that the Agriculture Ministry had not planned a rice field planting program since 2020. Food development through land expansion in Papua, especially in Merauke, has not been planned either.
Meanwhile, a probe into the settlements inhabited by the Marind-Anim people in Merauke found that the development of the food estate in Merauke has triggered a shift in food patterns, which has led to nutrition and health problems.
While native Papuans previously consumed traditional foods that could be found in the forest, such as sago, tubers and wild meat, they now depend on food purchased outside of the village, including rice and instant noodles.
“It is common knowledge that people in Merauke have switched to rice and instant noodles, but we do not yet have detailed data on this,” said Merauke district food security, livestock and animal health head, Martha Bayu Wijaya.
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Data on consumption patterns in Merauke is only available at the regency level, which can be biased by the urban population. Due to this, the Kompas team reported and conducted quantitative surveys in the villages of Zanegi, Baad, Bokem and Wonorejo.
Zanegi and Baad villages in Animha district are inhabited by the Marind-Anim people. The majority of Zanegi residents work as collectors of branches and log residue to be sold to local forestry companies that have been operating since 2009.
The majority of Baad residents work as fisherman and hunters. Even though the forest in Baad is also part of the industrial plantation forest (HTI) concession, forest clearing has only started recently and has not had a significant impact yet.
Meanwhile, Bokem, Merauke district, is inhabited by a mix of transmigrants from a number of areas and several indigenous Papuan tribes whose main profession is rice farming. Transmigrants in Wonoerjo, Kurik district, were the first in Merauke to have rice farming as a main profession.
The survey found that people in the four villages consume rice as a daily staple food. In villages where native Papuans live, instant noodles are second to rice as a staple food, which is higher than the consumption of sago and tubers. In fact, five out of 10 residents of Zanegi and Baad eat instant noodles every day.
For protein, Zanegi residents still rely on meat from hunting on an average of two days a week. However, according to Bonifasius Gebze (62), a traditional figure and former village head of Zanegi, most of the hunting game is sold. Moreover, it is not every day that they find game to hunt.
In Baad, the residents’ main source of protein is fish from the Kumbe river and the swamps surrounding the village. Additionally, they also rely on meat from hunting. Like in Zanegi, most of the meat from hunting is sold.
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The survey shows that Zanegi residents have the lowest income compared to the other three villages. On average, the income of residents in Baad and Zanegi is spent on buying food, especially rice, as well as other consumer goods, such as instant noodles, vegetables, cigarettes, betel nuts and sweetened drinks.
Harry Woersok, the director of the Petrus Vertenten Missionaiorium Sacratissimi Cordis Papua Association, in Merauke, said the findings of the Kompas survey showed that current development policies have not resulted in significant changes since the MIFEE policy. “This aligns with our field findings that development policies in Papua, especially in Merauke, tend to marginalize native Papuans,” he said.
Harry added that the shift in food patterns caused by forest clearing, which was previously the people’s living space, is a form of gastro-colonialism. This was also stated by Sophie Chao, an anthropologist and historian from the University of Sydney in her study report on Merauke in The International Journal of Human rights in 2021.
“Development policies like this also have the potential to erase the cultural identity, knowledge and skills of local communities in food and health,” she said. (KOMPAS R&D))
This article was translated by Kesya Adhalia.