Seventeen years ago, botanist Miriam van Heist of Wageningen University and a team of local collaborators set out to explore plant diversity in the Foja Mountains in Western New Guinea. It was an uncharted realm: Of the 487 species they found, nearly one-third had never been described anywhere. “The results illustrate how much remains unknown about New Guinea’s vegetation,” the authors wrote in a 2010 paper. More such studies were needed, they concluded, “so that conservation can be planned in advance of impending threats—otherwise we may lose species and never know what we have lost.”
Those threats have now arrived, according to a study based on satellite imagery and maps from local governments that was published last month in Biological Conservation. Between 2001 and 2019, it found, 2% of Western New Guinea’s old-growth forests were cleared to make room for palm oil plantations, roads, mines, and towns and cities. And the pace of development is set to accelerate, the researchers concluded. The Trans-Papua Highway, a road system under construction that connects major urban areas, could speed up development dramatically.
Western New Guinea, also known as Indonesian New Guinea or Tanah Papua, is still largely untouched, with a bewildering variety of landscapes—from mangroves, savannas, and lowland forests to alpine grassland and tropical glaciers—and a welter of endemic species, including 29 bird of paradise species. But now, “These forests are at a critical turning point for the future because Papua is the new El Dorado for investors in land development and in extractive industries,” says landscape ecologist David Gaveau, the study’s lead author. Gaveau, who was deported from Indonesia in 2020 after publishing estimates of the damage from Indonesia’s 2019 wildfires that far exceeded the Indonesian government’s numbers, now runs the Tree Map, a France-based company that analyzes the loss of rainforests.
Indonesia’s government incorporated Western New Guinea, formerly known as Irian Jaya, in 1969, 8 years after the Papuans formally declared independence from the Dutch. (The eastern half of the island is part of a separate country, Papua New Guinea.) About the size of Iraq, it has a huge ethnic diversity, with an estimated 200 Indigenous tribes and as least as many languages.
It is also by far Indonesia’s poorest region. Its two provinces, Papua and West Papua, have poverty rates of 27% and 22%, respectively, according to the country’s statistical agency. The Indonesian government promises the Trans-Papua Highway will help alleviate that poverty and distribute infrastructure development more fairly. Snaking almost 4000 kilometers across the island, the highway connects the coastal cities of Sorong, Jayapura, and Merauke (see map, below).
But it is driving conflict as well as development. The mining and palm oil companies it attracts have cleared the land of Indigenous Papuans, often without their consent, which has sparked anger, protests, and violent attacks. Two people were killed and machinery was set on fire during the most recent one, on 8 September in Yahukimo regency. A similar attack in 2018 killed 20 people. The West Papua National Liberation Army—the military arm of the Free Papua Movement, a separatist group—has claimed responsibility for the actions. The attacks have delayed construction; so far only about half of the route has been paved.
The road’s most controversial stretch, 190 kilometers long, cuts right through Lorentz National Park, a World Heritage Site and one of the largest protected areas in Southeast Asia. In August, UNESCO called on Indonesia to close this section to traffic while the government draws up a plan to mitigate the road’s impact, as it is obliged to do under UNESCO rules.
But the highway will have important impacts elsewhere as well. The study by Gaveau and his colleagues showed a clear correlation between road construction and the massive expansion of industrial plantations in Merauke and Boven Digoel and rapid growth of Kenyam and Dekai, two towns in the heart of Papua. The highway has also attracted artisanal gold miners, who often extract gold by dissolving it in mercury, which they then release into the environment.
The two semiautonomous provinces have pledged to preserve their natural riches. In the 2018 Manokwari Declaration, they aimed to set aside at least 70% of their lands for protection while improving the livelihoods of Indigenous communities. “That is an ambitious target,” says Yubelince Runtuboi, a forest policy researcher at the University of Papua New Guinea. Many plantation concessions were granted before the declaration was made, and they may be difficult to revoke. And local governments are keen to develop new villages and towns in their quest for economic development, Runtuboi says. As a result, she wrote in a 2018 paper, Papua’s lowland forests “are likely to come under immense pressure.”
The rapid deforestation elsewhere in Indonesia, the world’s largest producer of palm oil, does not bode well. A model developed by Gaveau and his co-authors showed that under the worst-case scenario, Western New Guinea would lose about 4.5 million hectares of forest, an area the size of Denmark, by 2036. “Given the large amounts of flat lowland forests, and the suitable climate for palm oil, Papua could easily become the next agricultural frontier for years to come,” Gaveau says.
To what extent the Trans-Papua Highway will alleviate poverty, meanwhile, is unclear. A study by Cahyo Pamungkas, a sociologist at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, showed it has primarily helped migrants from elsewhere in Indonesia distribute commodities to rural areas, sometimes outcompeting local goods. Ordinary pigs raised by migrants are replacing Wamena pigs, a type of wild boar bred locally, for example. The better the surface of the road, the more logging takes place nearby, Pamungkas found. The highway “benefits the capitalists more,” he says.
Papua’s mineral riches—including Grasberg, the world’s largest gold mining pit—have barely benefited the local population either, critics argue. The development of a new gold mine close to the Trans-Papua Highway, called the Wabu Block, is now the topic of heated debate and protests. (Activists recently alleged that Luhut Pandjaitan, a retired general and Indonesia’s coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment, has business interests in the mine, a charge Pandjaitan denies.)
Still, the picture is not black and white, says Sophie Chao, an anthropologist at the University of Sydney who spent 2 years living with the Marind people in Merauke. The new road has led to the destruction of forests to make room for oil palm plantations, including sacred places that were cleared without the Marind’s consent, she says. But the road also “brings new people, new ideas, new commodities to the villages,” Chao says, as well as humanitarian aid and jobs. “It’s a mix of hope and anxiety,” she says.
Balancing the positive and negative impacts requires more dialogue with Indigenous people than there has been so far, Gaveau and his colleagues say in their new paper. Theo Hesegem, who heads the Advocacy Network for Upholding Law and Human Rights of Papua Central Highlands, agrees. “It’s no use if they build the infrastructure without listening to us,” Hesegem says. “The Trans-Papua Highway will not be finished.”