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Story Publication logo December 14, 2022

Gastro-Colonialism in Merauke


Limbung Pangan1 Papua

The food estate project has become a nightmare for indigenous peoples and the last tropical forest...

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A child prepares to eat rice at a bivouac in the Animha District, Merauke Regency, Papua, Wednesday (9/11/2022). The children are usually invited by their parents to live in the bivouac for six days and on weekends they will return to their village and return again at the beginning of the week. Image by Agus Susanto/Kompas. Indonesia, 2022.

The powerlessness of local people to meet their nutritional intake is worsened by the flooding of instant food that has increased their suffering.

Merauke’s expanse of flat land, abundant water springs and fertile soil have long been perceived as potential for large-scale agriculture. Merauke is not a vacant space. Around the forest and marshy land, the Marind Anim community has been living for tens of thousands of years as hunters and gatherers of food.

The potential of Merauke and its vicinity to serve as agricultural land, especially for paddy fields, has been widely reported since Papua was still under Dutch rule. JHA Logemann (1957) in his book, Orgaan Van De Stichting Kring Voor Nieuw Guinea, indicates that in 1947, representatives of Western countries decided to prepare Papua, particularly the southern part, as a center of agriculture and livestock breeding.

The Dutch government later sent plant technology and socio-cultural experts to conduct research in southern Papua. The result was that the paddy crop had potential for development in the Kurik area.

Starting in 1953, the Dutch built lorry routes as far as Kurik. In 1955, the opening of rice fields began in Kurik after the building of irrigation channels from Rawa Mayo. At the same time, housing, office buildings and warehouses were constructed. After Papua’s takeover by Indonesia, the office complex became BBI Padi Kurik (seedling center) and remains operational to date.

“The rice field area opened at the time covered 300 hectares, comprising 204 ha of northern rice fields and 96 ha of southern rice fields. The work was all undertaken by companies with machines, not involving farmers much,” said Yoseph Efraim Ikanubun, 59, a BBI Padi Kurik retiree who gave a copy of Logemann’s book. Yoseph’s parents came to Merauke from Kei in the 1950s.

After a planting season, the northern rice fields failed to turn out maximum production. They yielded thin rice grains, mostly being empty. In fact, lime and fertilizer were supplied before planting.

“The Dutch then decided not to grow paddy in the northern fields for being considered unsuitable. The soil was sandy and too acidic. The southern rice fields were evaluated to offer good yield so planting was carried on,” he said.

The Dutch then decided not to grow paddy in the northern fields for being considered unsuitable. The soil was sandy and too acidic.

The Dutch thus planned to expand the rice fields to cover 12,000 ha, stretching from Serapu to Nasai. They also planned to undertake large-scale cow breeding. “The new rice field opening continued in Kurik until Papua was turned over to Indonesia in 1962,” he added.

Head of the Food Diversification Division of the Food Resilience, Animal Husbandry and Animal Health Office of Merauke regency, Andre Rimbayana, said from the beginning the Dutch set up paddy companies in Merauke not to serve local people in Papua. The paddy companies were more intended to meet their own needs for rice, especially for the Pacific war.

As written by Logemann (1957), the Dutch rice expenditure to serve regional interests around the Pacific at the time amounted to 8,000 tonnes annually. The Dutch documents show that from the start the effort to make Merauke a food crop producer was meant to buffer national or regional needs rather than the interests of local people.

The paddy field printing project failed and the land was just left in Wonorejo Village, Kurik District, Merauke, Papua, Tuesday (8/11/2022). Image by Agus Susanto/Kompas. Indonesia, 2022.

Transmigrants’ arrival

Under the rule of Indonesia, rice field opening in Kurik was continued in phases through transmigration. “My father came to Kurik in 1966,” said Sofani, 53, the son of an early transmigrant from Semarang, Central Java, who was interviewed in Wonorejo village.

Sofani said when they just arrived, transmigrants were only provided with zinc sheets for roofs. Farmers also had to reclaim their land themselves.

“Actually, the Dutch left behind machines, including milling and drying apparatuses, but they could not be used by transmigrants,” he said.

For the first 10 years, according to Sofani, paddy production was very low and inadequate to support one year’s food requirement. “Most of us ate cassava, sweet potatoes and taro. We occasionally also bought sago from local people,” he said.

Sofani noted that most of the paddy yield at the time was also consumed by being pounded. Paddy milling only began in the late 1980s. “Irrigation channels started operating in the 1990s and good paddy harvests were secured at the average rate of 4 tonnes of rice per ha. Since then, farmers have been able to sell unhusked paddy or rice,” he said.

In batches, transmigrants from other islands and around Papua were arriving in Merauke so that their number had exceeded that of Marind Anim people as the early inhabitants of Merauke. Today, of the 231,696 people of Merauke, the Marind Anim population is only about 60,000.

The transmigration program in Merauke as well as Papua was entirely terminated in 2001 after the enforcement of Law No.21/2001 on Special Autonomy for Papua. Yet independent arrivals from several regions in Merauke are still taking place.

The increasing number of arrivals in Merauke has gradually changed the food pattern in the region. Moreover, those coming to Merauke from the Dutch era to the transmigration period have brought along their own food production pattern, in this case the opening of rice fields.

From the beginning, local food sources in Merauke like sago and tubers tended to be seen as lowbrow food by the newcomers. Furthermore, since the New Order era, the national policy has inclined to sideline local food by making rice the yardstick of national welfare.

A Dutch-era water pump used to irrigate rice fields in Wonorejo Village, Kurik District, Merauke, Papua, Tuesday (8/11/2022). Image by Agus Susanto/Kompas. Indonesia, 2022.

Nonetheless, their influence on the change of the local people’s food consumption pattern in Merauke has occurred since the 1990s when rice production in the transmigration center began to stabilize. This was related by Paijan, 45, a transmigrant from Java who opened a kiosk in Baad village, Animha district.

He used to enter the village by carrying wrapped meals and fried bananas. When he returned home, he bought various forest products to be sold in the city.

Rice and instant noodles, cigarettes, sugar, betel leaves and tobacco were the main things.

Traders would give foodstuff frequently called bama to local people as capital for them to gather forest products.

“Rice and instant noodles, cigarettes, sugar, betel leaves and tobacco were the main things. The value of the forest products was then reduced by the cost of bama,” said Paijan.

Since the 2000s, many newcomers have opened kiosks in the settlement of Marind Anim. Rice and instant noodles have been even more dominant, shifting from sago and tubers. But until that time, the local people of Merauke were still able to meet their protein needs from wild animals and abundant fish.

Corporate influence

A major change in Merauke has taken place especially since 2010 with the entry of the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE) project, setting the initial target of land conversion up to 2.5 million ha. The Regional Spatial Layout Plan (RTRW) of Papua in fact only allocates land for MIFEE development in Merauke with a total area of 552,316 ha, but the project continues to set off large-scale forest and land conversion in Merauke.

“Before the MIFEE project was officially started in 2010, land had already been divided into lots by at least 37 companies. MIFEE is just in the name of food, most of the investors have entered the development for oil palm and HTI (industrial forest). Only one company tried to develop the paddy crop but it failed,” said Dwi Andreas, a professor of soil biotechnology at IPB University.

In Dwi’s view, rather than attempting to build food granaries, the MIFEE project has been more prone to the control of land by large corporations. The problem is that the presence of corporations with big concessions of land causes the local community to lose access to the most important food source, which is animal protein, particularly that of wild animals.

While rice can be bought, meat is impossible to supply from the outside. This has given rise to the phenomenon of the consumption of plain rice and instant noodles in the settlement of Marind Anim.

The powerlessness of the local people to meet their nutritional intake due to the loss of access to natural resources is worsened by the flooding of different kinds of instant food, including drinks with sweeteners. This increases their suffering as the object of gastro-colonialism, or food colonialism as pointed out by Sophie Chao, an anthropologist and historian from the University of Sydney, in a report of her study of Merauke in The International Journal of Human Rights in 2021.

The term gastro-colonialism was first coined by Craig Santos Perez, a researcher from the ethnic community of Chamorro in the Pacific Island of Guam, to describe the erosion of the food path and health of the community of Hawaii triggered by mass imports and increasing dependence of the local people on cheap processed commodities produced by multinational conglomerates (Kenyon Review, 2013).

This article was translated by Aris Prawira.



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