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Indonesia’s big development push in Papua: Q&A with program overseer Judith J. Dipodiputro

A part of the Trans Papua highway that snakes across Indonesia's easternmost provinces Papua and West Papua. Photo courtesy of Public Works and Housing Ministry.

When Indonesian President Joko Widodo took office in October 2014, he made it clear that one of his key domestic policies was to develop and upgrade infrastructure across the archipelago.

The president, popularly known as Jokowi, was confident that his programs to build toll roads, railway lines and more would boost the local economy and raise living standards for communities in the nation’s remotest regions.

High up on his list are the provinces of Papua and West Papua, on the island of New Guinea, where human and infrastructure development lag the rest of the country, despite this region being one of the richest in the world in terms of natural resources. The number of residents living below the poverty line in both provinces is more than 25 percent of the population, more than double the nationwide rate of 10.7 percent, according to March 2017 data from the Central Statistics Bureau.

“If the infrastructure is good, roads and seaports are good, then Papua’s economy will grow faster as logistics distribution for goods and people improves,” the president said during a visit to the region in 2015.

Some of Jokowi’s ambitious development plans include the Trans Papua highway, expected to go into operation in 2018; full electrification across Papua and West Papua by 2019, from the current 47 percent; and building seaports that are part of his nationwide sea tollway program.

The amount the government is spending on these programs is significant. Last year alone, Jokowi  is reported to have allocated 85.7 trillion rupiah ($6.4 billion) to fund development projects in Papua and West Papua.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo during a visit to Papua province in May to check on the progress of the Trans Papua highway project. Photo courtesy of Cabinet Secretary’s Office.

In July, he reiterated the importance of the programs for Papua and West Papua, and called on his cabinet and local governments to accelerate infrastructure development in both provinces. “Such massive potential [in Papua and West Papua] must be utilized as much as possible for the people’s welfare,” Jokowi said.

Not everyone supports a full-on development spree in Papua and West Papua, however. Some experts and conservationists argue that Jokowi’s infrastructure push will damage protected areas in the region and benefit big businesses at the expense of local communities.

The programs also have to contend with an armed independence movement there that has waged a low-level insurgency for decades. In September, a petition demanding a free vote on independence for the two provinces was presented to the United Nations. The petition reportedly bore 1.8 million signatures — representing more than 70 percent of the region’s inhabitants — and was banned by the government in Jakarta. It was eventually rebuffed at UN on a technicality.

During the transition period leading up to Jokowi’s inauguration three years ago, a working group called Pokja Papua was created to guide his promises on development in the two provinces. The organization is headed by Judith J. Dipodiputro, a public relations professional with experience in the public and private sectors, as well as civil-society organizations.

Dipodiputro previously served as vice president of PR for the Indonesian arm of oil and gas giant Total, leaving in 2012. Prior to that, she was an expert adviser to the Kutai Kartanegara district administration in East Kalimantan province, and before that a part of the PR team at the then-Ministry of Environment.

President Joko Widodo and Judith J. Dipodiputro, head of Pokja Papua, oversee the construction of a local market in Papua province. Photo courtesy of Pokja Papua.

Before Pokja Papua, which became an independent NGO when Jokowi’s transition team was dissolved, Dipodiputro held influential roles at organizations such as the Javan Gibbon Foundation and the local economy empowerment group Rumah-Indonesia Foundation.

Mongabay recently met with Dipodiputro to talk about the progress of the president’s development programs, the environmental impact, and the government’s solutions for the challenges in Papua and West Papua.

What follows are highlights from the interview, lightly edited for clarity. For a full transcript, including specific examples of programs and policies, click here.

Mongabay: Pokja Papua was initially created by Joko Widodo’s transition team. Why did you agree to head?

Judith J. Dipodiputro: At the time, our duty was to meet the promises [made] by Bapak [Mister] Jokowi during his campaign. But after he was inaugurated, the transition office was dissolved and we were asked by the Ministry of State-Owned Enterprises to continue [working on] promises that hadn’t been [fulfilled], and most specifically for Papua, starting by the Mama-Mama Market [a micro business program for women]. But it was not about meeting promises of infrastructure.

Our duty is more to ensure that local communities and tribes could be chaperoned in order to be included in the development. Development is done in different areas, specifically in remote, in border areas, which are usually the poorest. And the issue was that development was done, roads were built, bridges were built, but the economic benefit was not immediately felt by the poorest of the poor. So really, our duty was to chaperone and help them be included in this development that is happening.

Why did you agree to that?

Actually, it takes a quite deep commitment, not only from me, but from everyone who has been involved from the beginning to try to establish Bapak Jokowi to become president. I was involved very actively in being one of his volunteers, and at the time we had a discussion and I said to [Jokowi], “If we had the opportunity, and really God gives us the way on really winning and achieving what we hoped to do, which is to put as president someone who is proven clean, honest, competent, loves the people, and also supports the unity of Indonesia, then please let’s remember that when we promise welfare for the people it should mean 253 million people, not minus one, and especially really not leaving behind approximately 5 million of our brothers and sisters, citizens of Indonesia, who opted to live a very traditional life, almost living in a different civilization than, well, certain parts of Indonesia.” So it was really a deep commitment that we don’t leave anyone behind and actually we do the catching up for those who have been left behind.

Why is Papua a priority in the president’s infrastructure development plans?

Papua is not the only priority for infrastructure development. All border regions, all left-behind areas, are today priorities. Papua is one of them. Pak Jokowi doesn’t only go to Papua, he goes to all the other regions simultaneously.

And why is Papua a priority for infrastructure development?

Because in reality, infrastructure is needed for Papua. You cannot do like chicken and egg — which starts first? You cannot wait for the community to develop and then we build the infrastructure. We have to really trigger, be a catalyst, that is why infrastructure should become a catalyst. We know that today — and for many, many years — it has been a challenge to bring out products from one village to the outside. People will say, oh yeah, it’s only like 100 kilometers, but if it’s facilitated it will be a real motivator, and the community needs to see this, especially in Papua. The local tribes worked very hard on electing Pak Jokowi as president, meaning that they elected a leader who they believe will take care of them. So I think it is just fair that now they say, “Pak Jokowi, we want to see where you’re building, where you’re really showing, proving to us.” And if you see, infrastructure that’s being built in Papua is not only about roads and bridges, it’s also about revamping, finishing infrastructure. Part of the electricity is already there — then finish it, improve the quality. Health infrastructure, education infrastructure, they’re also being completed or improved, or even adapted. Making it more adaptable for the people.

For example: because of the low density of the population, sometimes not all villages have a junior high school, and because of that, children have to travel long distance to go to school. You have to go through a river, not only crossing a river with a bridge, but by boat … We want to bring quality of education. When you want to give equality, it means you give the same thing. That is the concept of Nawacita [the Widodo administration’s nine-point priority agenda ]. It’s not only, “OK, everybody has access to schools,” and that’s it. Equality means access to the same quality. So how to access quality to very, very remote areas in Indonesia? It’s through technology.

Papua presents its own challenges, such as geography, and socio-cultural conflicts including a separatist movement. How do you see the government resolving these challenges while ensuring development continues?

The paradigm of this cabinet is very different because the generations who are in the cabinet today [have] very strong backgrounds, and most of them come from non-government backgrounds. Most of our ministers are really professionals and from private sector. So this mix is enabling to have a complete picture. That’s my observation. They have the complete picture, really viewing all the problems from all different angles. And this is allowing them to really integrate all the challenges into finding the solutions.

Personally I’ve been involved as an observer in environmental issues, back since the ’80s. So for me, definitely environment is a very, very, very important issue. But we also have to understand that we need to develop Indonesia fairly for every Indonesian. I don’t think, and I would not want my government to be saying, “OK, because you are in remote areas, and your village has less than 30 families” — and this is the case in Papua — “therefore we cannot think about your rights to access to transportation,” for example. Now, we cannot do that. But what I’m seeing is a very big effort in accessing the right solution, which you can also see from the structure of the team overall.

In the Papua province spatial plan for 2013-2033, there’s a vision to keep 83 percent of the province as “undisturbed natural habitat”. The Indonesian government also has a pledge to cut 29 percent of carbon emission by 2030 in NDC under the Paris agreement. How do these commitments affect development in Papua?

I think there’s something that’s been unfair. Because today, the language that’s being used is that since Papua is building bridges and roads, infrastructure in general, then it’s as if it’s going to massively open forest. I don’t think so. If you compare the percentage that’s being used for infrastructure, compared to the size of the island, even compared to existing opened areas, it’s not that big. I think this is where there is a difference between the way things are presented and the reality. I think people should do the math. Please do the math. Please do the math. Sometimes it’s like this is Papua, and the road is just one of these lines, and it’s a certain percentage. Come on.

So you’re confident that these green commitments by the Papuan and Indonesian government will still be upheld when developing infrastructure in Papua?

Yes. Look, West Papua back in October 2015 declared itself as a Conservation Province. My understanding from discussions with several people is that the province of Papua is also going to declare, or is in the process of studying the possibility of declaring itself, if I’m not mistaken, as a Green Economy Province. And I see that they are declaring that not only for the sake of declaring, they’re working on it. So look at how they are resolving but also monitoring, not only the local government or the national government but also the communities and the NGOs, whether they are local, national, or even foreign, monitoring and following up the incident that happened in Raja Ampat for example. You have everybody there. I think everybody is very concerned, not only for Papua, but all over. Now, as these two provinces are on this path, I’m sure the other provinces are there.

You mentioned NGOs monitoring Papua. How has their feedback been, as you are in talks with them as well?

I think there is a challenge in our society all over Indonesia. Because in the past, sometimes I think, there were promises and plans made but not delivered. So the society is used to making excuses and criticizing, and this is an old habit that they just repeat when actually the issue is not there. One time I was in a conversation with a friend that I never met actually, but later on we met. We were talking about coffee because we were starting a coffee project about one and half years ago. Of course there are glitches. We’re starting something, you always have challenges. At the time, a minister was supposed to go but got delayed for two or three weeks. And this friend said “That is why we need independency.” And I said, “What does a delay of three weeks have to do with anything?” Come on, stop using that language. Don’t ever talk to me about that. Because I know how my team is working really hard in order to be independent and we are an independent NGO. Imagine those who have the job to do it. I saw how Pak Jokowi every three month goes to not only Papua, but also East Nusa Tenggara, West Nusa Tenggara, Maluku, checking in, going around Indonesia non-stop. That’s stressing for the staff, so they have to deliver, deliver, deliver. So it’s just the habit of saying the same words. And that is why whenever someone comes to me making judgments, I say, “Have you seen what’s happening now?” There were foreign journalists who asked about separatists. I say, “Hey, before you ask me those questions, come over and see for yourself.” And talk to the right people. Don’t talk to people who are used to talk about issues and they have made it their jobs for 15-20 years of advocating something and they need to keep their job. I think the challenge for certain NGOs is how to develop their services and products. Actualization of the organization. They need to actualize, look with real eyes. Maybe in the past years, you were advocating, but maybe now look. Look at what’s happening, and be honest. And of course some NGOs because they started as being certain advocates, they will see challenges, but that’s the whole idea of reactualizing your organization, and it’s a matter of reactualizing the way of looking at things.

Is the infrastructure development in Papua going for sustainable development? If yes, is it getting enough funding? Also, is it getting political support?

I’m not involved in the financing, you have to ask the Public Works and Housing Ministry.

But if you ask me, is there political support? Yes, there is political support. Look at the Conservation Province, look at the efforts toward a Green Economy Province. Look at how the Ministry of Environment and Forestry is so strongly supervising, synergizing with other ministries. Minister Siti is very hands on with efforts. But I think that often the challenge for us environmentalists is that we are looking at things only from our perspective, not from the complete perspective. That’s the challenge: Look at things from the complete perspective. Because we have to be realistic that the environment doesn’t stand alone. It’s a complete picture.

How do you look at the environmental issue in Papua as part of a complete picture?

Listen and communicate. I’m this person who always would like to see the complete picture before making judgments. So among environmental activists — and I’m also involved in several environmental NGOs in a personal capacity — a lot of friends say we disagree with palm oil. OK, talk to them. Ask them what the problem is, why can’t they meet what we’re asking them, and how can we find a way of helping them instead of only protesting, criticizing? Why don’t we do the real thing? Talk to them. I’m sure they want to do the right thing because we’re all now in the same generations who are very concerned. I disagree if they say, OK, because I became an environmental activist, I can judge that my school mate who’s now working at a pulp and paper company doesn’t care. Come on. We grew up together, we know each other. I’m sure we all have the same concerns. So we need to talk. We need to sit down and say, OK, if I can explain to you this — sometimes they just don’t know how to. And I’ve seen myself companies are moving toward environment. When we were young, environmentalism was so simple: don’t do this and don’t do that. But as we grew up, we have to say, “OK, when we tell you [plantation companies] not to do this, you now have a challenge, then how to solve it? How to integrate solutions?”

It’s actually like this. I think every Indonesian has the same equal rights on everything all over Indonesia. So for Indonesians who chose to live in West Papua and Papua, whether they’re originally local from there or migrants, they have the same rights as, for example, people in Jakarta.

The country has the obligation to meet that. It’s not because they chose to live in a very, very remote village in Papua that they don’t have the rights if they want to have roads or if they need to have bridges. It doesn’t mean that because they live in the most remote village in Papua, therefore it’s OK to endanger their lives and their children’s lives while going to the school having to cross the bridge. And if it takes opening a little bit of the forest to construct that bridge and that road, then so be it. Why does Papua have to pay … It becomes unfair like this … to say that they’re not allowed to open their forest so that, you know, other areas are allowed. And as I said, please calculate properly, how much the infrastructure development being built today is taking out of the forest. I don’t think it’s as dramatic as people want to make everybody believe. We need to communicate in order to learn and to update ourselves about the most actual best practices, yes, but don’t judge that the government or the individual building Papua as not having the same concerns [for environmental protection]. They also have children, they also have grandchildren, they’re also leaving their legacy to their kids. I’m sure they care, especially that now we are living in climate change-era impact.

How do you see the development of Papua taking place if Indonesia has a new president in the next couple of years?

I don’t like to talk about politics. I’m just talking about logic. The government of Indonesia has been here for 72 years. And I’m sure, as long as Indonesia exists, it will be there. Government is a system that works. We have a very strong bureaucracy. Sometimes very elaborate, but we have a running bureaucracy. We have seen changes in presidency in the last 20 years, and it continues on for the better. Every time we have a new leader, our newest leaders are learning from past mistakes but also from past lessons. So I’m not worried about that because of the commitment. I think in 2014 we had a very big wake-up call that we need to find an honest, clean, caring and competent leader. That’s the answer. So we just need to continue finding these characteristics. And we’re getting better. The next generation is very demanding.

For a full interview transcript, including specific examples of programs and policies, click here.

Banner image: A part of the Trans Papua highway that snakes across Indonesia’s easternmost provinces Papua and West Papua. Photo courtesy of Public Works and Housing Ministry.

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