Sugar-coated plantation plans back in the spotlight in Aru, Indonesia

Written by Chris Chancellor

Confusion as representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture arrive to facilitate agricultural investor in Southern Aru.

The arrival of a helicopter and private jet at the airport in Dobo, the capital of the island regency of Aru, Indonesia, has caused quite a stir amongst local residents. Local media outlets and activists are now reporting that this activity signified the arrival of representatives from Indonesia’s Ministry of Agriculture, there to try to facilitate an agricultural investment project.

It remains unclear as to what this new development involves, but the people of Aru are no strangers to the spectre of corporate investments in their lands. Since 2010, a coalition of local residents, government officials, journalists and religious leaders, self-named the Save Aru Coalition, have been fighting off plans to develop sugar cane plantations across the islands. The plans were dropped after significant local resistance, with the then Minister of Forestry declaring the land unfit for sugar cane production.

Today, Ministry of Agriculture officials are thought to be meeting with community leaders in Southern Aru. The reported aim of the meeting is to force through a deal for an external investment project on customary territories. Members of the Save Aru Coalition have already come out in opposition to this activity and have reignited their movement, calling it Save Aru Part 2.

Sweet canes, sour roots

The Aru Islands regency is an archipelago at the very eastern tip of Indonesia. They fall under the jurisdiction of the Province of Maluku, and provide a home for around 85,000 residents.

Aru Islands
The Aru Islands in Eastern Indonesia. Source: Google Maps, 2017.

In 2010, it was revealed that the local bupati (regency head) had agreed to hand over around 500,000ha of land to a consortium of investors named PT Menara Group. The total land area of the Aru Islands is around 700,000ha. These investors are thought to have come from across the globe; the US, UK, Netherlands, Brazil, Nigeria and South Korea all nations from which members of the investment group are rumoured to come from. However, this is very hard to trace and verify as local subsidiaries were set up and registered at a fictitious address in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital.

PT Menara Concession map
Map of concessions for the 28 PT Menara Group subsidiaries. Source: adapted and translated from AWAS MIFEE

The project aimed to develop sugar cane plantations on Aru’s outer islands, which are composed largely of mangrove and tropical forest, as well as some areas of grassland savanna. Many Arunese communities rely on these ecosystems for wild gathering as well as small-scale agriculture, which underpins their food security. They also harbour iconic species of fauna such as the Lesser Bird of Paradise, Cassowary, and tree kangaroo.

Saving Aru

The Save Aru Coalition was formed in response, advocating fiercely against the destruction of indigenous forests, and gathering a book of signatures of opposition from across the islands. This was delivered to relevant Ministries in Jakarta. Opposition was also national and international with indigenous rights group AMAN and the UK-based NGO the Forest Peoples Program sending a letter of concern to United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (UN CERD). CERD responded by urging the Indonesian government to review its plantation law.

However, local opposition was not universal. A handful of community leaders and many local government officials lent their support to the plantations, citing their ability to bring much needed employment and infrastructure to this remote corner of Indonesia. Younger males in particular are attracted by the prospect of manual labour jobs, which many search for unsuccessfully on an ad-hoc basis in Dobo.

Nonetheless, the voices of opposition were by far the louder, and under increasing national and international pressure, the central Ministry of Forestry ordered a revocation of the permits in 2014. It is not clear whether this was ever officially enforced.

Investor whack-a-mole

Since the Menara case, local opposition groups have remained vigilant in monitoring the situation; it is well known that a long list of investors are circling these waters, looking to tap into its unknown natural wealth. In 2016, alarm bells were raised when the Aru regency was included under the Ministry of Agriculture’s MIFEE project. The project is aimed at attaining national self-sufficiency of certain agricultural products, such as sugar cane. However, the announcement was made without any prior consultation of the Arunese communities that it would potentially displace or incorporate.

The recent whirr of activity in Dobo and Southern Aru signals the latest corkscrew in the external investment rollercoaster that the regency seems to be riding. Debate is once again sure to be heated, with the age old arguments of economic development and modernisation, as well as that of national food security, mobilised by those in favour. Opponents will point to the wealth of examples from around the globe that have led to the marginalisation of local peoples, who ironically have often faced poverty and starvation as a result of such extractive investment models.

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