That one’s life can turn like a wheel, with its ups and downs, is something that Samuel Maikea and his wife Rachel Derione can vouch for. This native Papuan couple from the Iwaro Tribe have now settled in Puragi village, in the South Sorong district of West Papua. Before settling in there in 2017, the couple led a nomadic lifestyle.

Samuel family West Papua

The Samuel’s. (Photo: Wicaksono/The Palm Scribe).

Maikea did not have a steady job. As with most other Papuan family, this one relied on nature for their livelihood. While he hunted, his wife gathered sago and also sold product from the forest to earn a living.

With a brood of seven, this large family’s fortune began to change for the better after Maikea began to learn how to farm from Mulyawan, a volunteer of Yayasan Paramitra (Paramitra Foundation). Mulyawan taught him and his wife about organic farming in August 2017. Since then, Maikea and Derione, and also many of the other villagers in Puragi, began to plant water lilies, peanut, Chinese Cabbage and ridged gourds.

Papuan Locals Puragi

Papuans process sago in river bank. (Photo: Wicaksono/The Palm Scribe).

The vegetables are then sold to neighbors or at the market, bringing in about Rp 2.5 million a month for the family, although not much but better than the uncertain occasional revenues in the past. “I used to get Rp 500,000 per month sometimes, and sometimes even nothing,” Derione said. “Now life is better, and we very rarely return to our village (of origin), ha, ha, ha,” she added, laughing.

Mulyawan worked in Puragi only for a brief time and was later replaced by a young man, Azhar Anas.

Speaking about the conditions in Puragi when he began to work there in August 2017, Anas, who had graduated from the Bogor Institute of Agriculture two years earlier, that despite the training provided by Mulyawan, most of the villagers had already given up on the farming.

“When I just arrived, most of the villagers had already dropped farming because of various reasons. We tried to get them to return to work in the field,” Anas said.

The fields were usually in the yard of houses. There are now 51 families who own such private fields, fields that have brought changes in the life of the villagers of Puragi.

“They now have a high spirit of independence, If one can sell vegetable, then the other would try to outdo each other in doing the same thing, Even though they only get Rp 10,000 or Rp 20,000, they deem those sums as enough to buy sugar or other household needs.

Revenues from these farming fields constitute additional income for the villagers, “Some of the men here derive their main income from working in palm oil companies,” Anas said.

To keep the spirit of the villagers to farm, Anas provides the vegetable seeds for free. Villagers only have to plant them in their respective garden.

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Maike and Derione are just examples of a West Papuan family that has begun to get empowered and change their life near palm oil plantations. Many of their neighbors in Puragi felt the same

PT Permata Putera Mandiri camp

The Hexagon, PT Permata Putera Mandiri camp in South Sorong.

Puragi lays near a concession of PT Permata Putera Mandiri (PPM), a subsidiary of PT Austindo Nusantara Jaya Tbk. (ANJ), which has planted the area of some 26,571 hectares with oil palms. PPM is committed to investing in sustainable plantations.

ANJ believed that development in West Papua needed an approach that was different compared to other regions in Indonesia. ANJ is also committed to become a pioneer in West Papua and to ascertain that all dimensions are given a balanced consideration, without disregard to the interest of economic development in challenge-packed isolated areas such as Papua and West Papua.

One of the approaches taken is by empowering the economy of the people of West Papua, starting with household economic program based on agriculture such as with Maikea’s family.

“Building a farming culture in South Sorong is not an easy thing because people are already used to just directly take produce of nature from the forest,” said Nunik Maharani, ANJ Head of Corporate Communications.

In Puragi-Tawanggire, Maharani said, people have indeed started to plant vegetable around their home but they had yet to diversify and use proper agricultural farming patterns.

Working together with Yayasan Paramitra, ANJ has been assisting communities in Puragi-Tawanggire, Saga, Sumano, Benawa, and Kaori to engage in farming practices since 2016 and the results have only now begun to be felt.

Harvests are conducted every two weeks and the produces are sold to the company or the local communities. More and more villagers are now also beginning to plant vegetables in their own yard.

“Besides planting, we are also providing local people with training in sales, calculation skills, and simple book-keeping,” Maharani said.

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Luther Manaz, Puragi village chief.

Puragi Village Chief Luther Manaz, 72, said that since the palm oil company opened its nearby plantation, the life of people in the area has undergone changes.  “Many of my residents now work with the company. Some are working as drivers, security personnel and others,” Manaz said. “They get wages so that they have money to buy things, including power generators,” he added.

Manaz said that palm oil holds some sort of spiritual meaning for Papuan.  According to him, palm oil (kelapa sawit in Indonesian) is a shortened form for “the beauty of nature across my Papua when I follow God,” (Keindahan Lintas Alam Papua Saya Waktu Ikut Tuhan.)

“So God has already given Papuans sprawling land to use. God’s servants, our ancestors are calling on us to follow God and plant oil palm,” Manaz said.

Before palm oil and sago plantation came into his area, Manaz claimed that he had first asked his people whether they wanted to accept those plantations in the area.

“It turns out that many of my residents want the sago and oil palm plantation to come into the region. They are now all pleased,” Manaz said.

Sago, he said was a shortened form of “The Voice of Allah in Shepherding his Believers” (Suara Allah Gembalakan Umat).

Manaz admitted that there were, of course, one or two people who were against the presence of the plantations. “That is normal… but generally, most are thankful because those companies are present here.”

People now even want their own plantation, Manaz said, saying that many wanted the plasma plantation scheme.

Manaz is now pushing young people in his village to get schooled as high as possible so that they can plant and manage palm oil plantations in the future.

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Papua and West Papua are sprawling territories, accounting for about 450,000 square kilometers, or about four times the size of Java. The area is also rich in natural resources but ironically, the area remained lagging behind other Indonesian regions in economy, education, infrastructure and social well-being.

Presidential Regulation Number 131 of 2015 on the Designation of Underdeveloped region in 2015-2019, puts Papua and West Papua as provinces with the highest number of underdeveloped regions.

Underdeveloped regions are defined as districts with territory and population that do not develop compared to other regions at the national scale. They are also defined based on the criteria regarding the people’s economy, human resources, facility and infrastructure, regional financial capabilities, accessibility, and a number of specific regional characteristics.

Human interventions or programs that have the potential to lift these underdeveloped regions are related to the development of facilities and infrastructure and also its people.

The development of underdeveloped regions will clearly be different than the development of regions which already possess infrastructure. In the perception of business, regions with infrastructure are much more profitable to develop in terms of cost efficiency or market availability.

In Papua, the government is working hard to build roads, airports, production centers markets and areas for tourism – some of them already starting to operate – with the aim of accelerating connectivity, progress prosperity and peace in the region.

The lubricant that smoothens the run of the development engine in a region is investors from outside the region and one of this type of investors that came to Papua are palm oil companies.

The problem is that investing in Papua is not easy. For investors in the palm plantation sector, there are two things they have to face: deforestation and land tenure conflicts. Even before they come into an area, palm oil companies usually already have to bear the burden of being suspected of intending to engage in deforestation and of robbing people’s land.

These prejudices remain even though palm oil companies operating there claim that they are committed to safeguarding the environment, by applying sustainable palm oil cultivation that meets the standards of the Roundtable Sustainable Palm Oil  (RSPO) and the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO). They also claim to always communicate with the local communities in seeking solutions to land conflicts.

In order to bridge these different interests, there is a need for the involvement of many sides. The government at the center and in the regions, the industry, and community organizations have to sit together to come out with a solution in the interest of Papua. If not, the wishes of the people of Papua to have a palm oil plantation and to have better welfare like Manaz has said, would never materialize..

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