Land clearing for palm oil production has finally reached the pristine forests of West Papua. These forests provide a critical source of food and nutrition to local communities in the form of bush food and clearing them would threaten food security in West Papua. In response to the impending deforestation, local governments have pledged to conserve 70% of the region’s native forests.
Deforestation in Indonesia
Indonesia has historically had “the highest deforestation rates in the world.” The deforestation is largely due to land clearing to expand palm oil and other mono-crop plantations, an industry that national government policy encouraged. Despite the majority of Indonesia suffering major forest cover loss over the last two decades, the impacts of the oil palm industry have only recently reached the doorstep of Indonesia’s easternmost provinces of Papua and Papua Barat, known together as West Papua.
West Papua, which makes up the Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea, is covered in swathes of pristine and highly diverse tropical rainforests. The region has remained relatively untouched during Indonesia’s period of deforestation, with primary forests still covering 83% of West Papua’s land area. However, with available land in Sumatra, Java and Kalimantan becoming increasingly scarce, cleaning of the sections of the West Papuan forests has begun.
Changing Diets in West Papua
This land clearing is set to have an especially severe impact on West Papuan communities given the high level of poverty in the area and their reliance on the forest as a source of food. West Papua is the poorest region in Indonesia, with 28% of people living in poverty in the province of Papua and 23% in Papua Barat, as of 2018.
Forests have traditionally been an important source of food for the indigenous communities of West Papua. Traditionally, indigenous communities would forage and hunt in the forest for foods such as sago, wild bush meats and fresh legumes. These bush foods help form a diverse and micronutrient-rich diet that is high in vitamins. Bush foods like this have been shown to be a huge factor in maintaining healthy diets in countries all over the world and are a critical factor in current food security in West Papua.
Unfortunately, recent land clearing and plantation expansion in West Papua has already resulted in a shift in the diets of some local indigenous populations. Without easily accessible forests, local communities living in cleared areas have turned to more easily accessible food sources, namely store-bought goods. As a result, diets in these communities have transitioned away from traditional forest foods and towards ultra-processed foods like rice, instant noodles, tofu and biscuits. This dietary transition is now fuelling an increase in the already high rates of poverty, malnutrition and food insecurity in the region.
The Manokwari Declaration
In the fight to prevent further deforestation of West Papua’s unique and important forests, local governments have committed to large-scale conservation targets. Unfortunately, new plans to carve up the two existing provinces into five may undermine the validity of the recent Manokwari Declaration, putting the people and forests of West Papua back into jeopardy. The rationale from the government for this redrawing of boundaries is to speed up development and increase economic equality. However, some claim that previous instances of remapping have in fact served the elite rather than the poor.
In the current context of changing provinces, the local governments may need support to maintain the validity of the Declaration. However, despite the threats to its existence, the Manokwari Declaration still represents the first step in preserving West Papua’s forests, and thus protecting health, nutrition and food security in West Papua.
– Amy McAlpine