The Pacific island of New Guinea sustains one of the world’s last great tracts of unbroken rainforest. But it’s a rainforest in trouble.
The Indonesian government is attempting to crisscross the western half of New Guinea — a land called “Papua”— with some 4,000 kilometers of new paved highways.
Known as the “Trans-Papuan Highway”, this sprawling road network will open up vast expanses of forest for exploitation.
An analysis just published in the journal Environmental Science and Policy — by an international team that includes several ALERT researchers — concludes that the road-building scheme has “red flags all over it”.
Perils for Diversity
Home to such unusual creatures as Tree-Kangaroos and Birds of Paradise, New Guinea is exceptional not only for the uniqueness of its fauna and flora but also its astonishing cultural diversity — with more than 700 indigenous societies and languages.
Many of New Guinea’s indigenous groups maintain traditional lifestyles, with strong ties to their ancestral lands and forests.
But since annexing western New Guinea from the Dutch in the 1960s, the Indonesian central government has advanced a series of top-down schemes – including ill-fated agri-industrial developments and a transmigration program that reportedly brought in over a million settlers from elsewhere in Indonesia, creating intense social conflicts with local residents.
These prior initiatives have wrought major environmental and social changes, but the Trans-Papuan Highway has the potential to top them all. Here are six of the biggest red flags identified in the recent study.
Red Flag 1: Accelerating Forest Destruction
The planned road routes will cut through fully or largely intact forest, including many areas that are sparsely populated.
Analyses of the road routes and prevailing land-use trends suggest that three major new hotspots of deforestation are likely to be created — in Central, Eastern, and South-eastern Papua.
Red Flag 2: Threats to Lorentz
Lorentz National Park and World Heritage Site is a global jewel, recently ranked 13th out of more than 173,000 protected areas worldwide in terms of its biological uniqueness and irreplaceability.
Nearly 200 kilometers of new roads will be cut across Lorentz, greatly increasing access to 50,000 hectares of mining concessions inside the park.
Alarmingly, Indonesia has a long history of downgrading or downsizing its protected areas to allow access to minerals, timber, or other valuable resources.
Red Flag 3: Social Conflicts and Violence
By cutting through the traditional lands of so many different indigenous groups, the roads will almost certainly provoke further anger and anti-government sentiment — the last thing Indonesia needs. Just this week, two dozen road workers were killed by anti-government rebels in Nduga regency in eastern Papua.
Such anti-government militancy arises because indigenous peoples are very poorly represented in legal processes in Papua. Of 14 million hectares of customary land claims under review by the Indonesian government, virtually none are in Papua — illustrating just how badly the Indonesian government has treated traditional Papuan land rights.
Red Flag 4: Massive Carbon Emissions
The hotspot of deforestation in Southeastern Papua harbors some of the world’s largest peatlands — which contain exceptionally large stores of carbon. The burning and decomposition of peatlands is one of the world’s largest sources of greenhouse-gas emissions from land-use change.
And peat fires in Indonesia have been largely responsible for the choking haze that has repeatedly plagued much of Southeast Asia, forcing widespread closures of schools and airports and major increases in respiratory distress.
Red Flag 5: Spiraling Costs
The Trans-Papuan Highway has shaky financial foundations. The roads would be extremely expensive to construct because they’d need to traverse some of the steepest and wettest terrain in New Guinea, requiring innumerable bridges and culverts and heavy earthworks.
In addition, maintenance costs for roads in such steep and high-rainfall environments are notoriously high — estimated at around 20 percent of the initial road-construction cost per year, based on World Bank experts working in Papua.
Without expensive ongoing maintenance, such roads can easily be rendered useless by recurring landslides, slumping, potholes, and fissures.
Red Flag 6: Big Risks for Investors
The combination of high construction and maintenance costs, serious potential for social conflicts, and strong opposition from environmental and indigenous-rights groups means that investments in the Trans-Papuan Highway will be extremely risky for national and international investors.
The road and development projects associated with it could easily become mired in conflicts over land ownership and financial losses to corruption — two acute concerns in Indonesia.
The new study raises fundamental questions about the Trans-Papuan Highway — serious questions that need serious answers.
For instance, why is such an ambitious, expensive, and intensely risky highway network being built in the first place? Is it part of a rational development strategy, or is it motivated by central-government desires to assert top-down control in Papua?
Every nation has the right to determine its own development priorities. But there is nothing even faintly undemocratic about helping citizens to understand the risks and realities — so they can make better development decisions for everyone.
Photos by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.com, Mark Ziembicki, and William Laurance