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Only People in Cities Matter? The Papuan Palm Oil Problem

By 29 July 2017October 13th, 2021Industry News6 min read

Oddly enough, one of the “Aha!” moments in my life was sparked by a comment from a Toronto Star reporter, Antonia Zerbisias, who commented on a dam in Brazil by saying flatly, “Do only people in cities matter?”

Toronto protest against the Belo Monte Dam

She was referring to the now infamous dam in Brazil that threatened several indigenous tribes in Brazil whose territories would be drowned by the Belo Monte dam in Brazil. Inspired but incensed, I organized a protest in front of the Brazilian embassy in Toronto and was thrilled that a few dozen people showed up. It was unnerving how fast the police showed up to this illegal protest. Within minutes of our arrival in front of the Brazilian embassy in Toronto, we were confronted by cops who promptly told us where we were allowed to gather or risk spending a night in jail.

The Belo Monte dam was a monster in terms of global activism with celebrities including Sting, Sigourney Weaver and James Cameron all supporting the call to abandon it. Despite the global protests, the dam went ahead. The people in cities and Brazil’s need for energy triumphed over the tribes. Where do we draw the line to balance out the survival of forest peoples and the needs of nations to progress?

The answer may lie in our perceived needs of forest peoples and their wants. As the voice of people removed thousands of miles from us, we may think their dwellings in tree tops and extreme survival on forests is a wonderful thing. The forests we want to save are saved, while their simple forest lives are maintained.

But what if these forest peoples want to come down from their tree top dwellings and join us in our 21st century standard of living?

In my opinion, we welcome them from their tree houses and teach them about survival within a limited area. The truth of the matter is that as we speed towards a human population of 9 billion humans on earth, these small communities that relied on vast jungle areas to eek out a living will have to give up some of those jungles so that all may progress.

From developed nations in the West looking for answers to feed their growing populations and economies to the most remote parts of tropical countries in Africa and Southeast Asia, the need for growth and sustenance is undeniable. We, the people who live in cities that depend on poorer countries to fill our needs however, do not have an absolute right to dictate what developing countries can and cannot do with their land.

The only person that can decide what to do with forests in Africa or Southeast Asia is the person living in it or those of us willing to give up our modern comforts to live with these people.

Invited to Dialogue, Mighty Earth And Aidenvironment Afraid to meet Papuans

So it is with palm oil development in Papua. A breaking story named two foreign groups as complicit in harming the development of impoverished peoples in Papua. Aidenvironment from the Netherlands and Mighty Earth from the USA was asked by indigenous community leaders from Papua to stop interfering with their development when they do not have solutions for the poor communities there.

Both Aidenvironment, who maintains an office in Indonesia and Mighty Earth staff were reportedly in Jakarta but failed to accept the invitations to a stakeholders meeting last week.

Papua as one of the least developed regions of Indonesia remains well forested and therefore a favored target by foreign environmental groups seeking to protect the forests of the world. But unless these foreign environmental groups have solutions to the sustainable development of these areas, we should listen more to local people like Father Felix Amias, a member of Missionariorum Sacratissimi Cordis (MSC) who recounted his childhood days of having to walk two days to school.

Since the establishment of palm oil plantation in Merauke and Boven Digoel, everything has been better. Now, the children no longer have to row for two nights just to find junior high school.

Jonathan Porritt from the Forum for the Future asked of environmental groups that are challenging palm oil plantations in Liberia a question that none of them will answer anytime soon.

When will environmental NGOs step up to help some of the world’s poorest people?

If the problem is palm oil’s popularity as a target for environmental groups, what if local communities in Papua cleared the forests and grew coconuts or rice?

Would the current situation in Papua still have been targeted by Aidenvironment and Mighty Earth? It is possible that the Papuan communities could deforest as much as they like because coconuts and rice are not targeted by environmental groups? Coconut remains a darling in the wellness sector in developed countries while rice is a staple food for less developed countries. You can’t campaign against these and hope to get support.

I would however discourage the planting of either crop in Papua unless there are industrial facilities in processing and shipping to compete in a global market. Its fine to grow crops as part of sustainable living but the honest truth is that export revenue is needed for progress. Neither coconuts or rice have the potential to generate as much income for communities and the state at large, which is why growing palm oil in places like Papua makes the most sense.

But if the administrations in Papua have any thoughts of selling their palm oil to the premium market in the West, they would be advised to have a comprehensive plan for sustainable development that includes the protection of the tree kangaroo in Papua. We live in a disconnected world after all. As wrong as it is to put the demands of developed nations first in defining sustainability, this is the reality.

A master plan for development in Papua should be easy enough to put together. If spying eyes in the sky can pin point deforestation, surely these same eyes can be used by real conservation groups to come up with a master plan for conservation in Papua.

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