Will Indonesia enter the space race?

BIAK, Indonesia – For 15 generations, members of the Abrauw clan have lived much like their ancestors. They farm with wooden plows in patches of the rainforest, collect medicinal plants and set traps to catch snakes and wild boar.

The land they occupy on the island of Biak is everything to them: their identity, the source of their livelihood and the connection to their ancestors. But now the small clan fears it will lose its place in the world as Indonesia pursues its long-running quest to join the space age.

The Indonesian government claims to have acquired 250 acres of the clan’s ancestral land decades ago and has since 2017 planned to build a small spaceport there to fire rockets. Clan leaders say the project would force them out of their homes.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo personally put SpaceX founder Elon Musk last year on the idea of ​​firing rockets from Indonesia without mentioning a website. Mr. Musk has not yet committed to an agreement or commented on it publicly. But the possibility of his involvement has spurred a flurry of activity among Biak officials to promote the site, as well as renewed opposition from the island’s indigenous people.

Building a spaceport is part of Mr Joko’s efforts to modernize the Southeast Asian island nation with new airports, power plants and highways, often without regard to environmental consequences. It is also part of the country’s grumpy history of using dubious methods to acquire land from indigenous peoples, leaving some groups in need while benefiting influential Indonesians and international companies.

Leaders of the Biak tribe say building a spaceport on the site would mean felling trees in a protected forest, disturbing the habitats of endangered birds and throwing Abrauw.

“The position of the indigenous peoples is clear: We reject the plan,” said Apolos Sroyer, head of the Biak Customary Council, an assembly of clan chiefs. “We do not want to lose our farms because of this spaceport. We do not eat satellites. We eat taro and fish from the sea. It is our way of life for generations. Tell Elon Musk that is our position.”

Biak, almost the size of Maui, is located just north of the island of New Guinea and is part of Indonesia’s Papua province. During World War II, American forces defeated the Japanese there in a key battle as General Douglas MacArthur fought to recapture the Pacific Ocean. Biak became part of Indonesia in the 1960s after the UN handed over the former Dutch territory of West Papua on condition that Indonesia hold a referendum.

Instead, in a 1969 referendum that many Papuans considered fraudulent, Indonesia rallied thousands of tribal leaders – including chiefs of Biak – and held them until they voted to join Indonesia in what paradoxically became known as “The Act of Free Choice. “

The dwindling Abrauw clan, one of 360 clans on Biak, now has about 90 members. Most live in the village of Warbon, on the northeast side of the island, about a mile and a half from the proposed spaceport.

The center of clan life is a flowering heliotrope tree by the sea.

Waves gently hit the white sand nearby, and black, brown and white butterflies fly between its branches. Clan members consider the tree sacred and say it marks the origin of Abrauw. They often visit the tree to sacrifice and pray to their ancestors. Sometimes they gather there and camp for days. If the spaceport were built, the tree would be illegal, as would the beach where Abrauw often fishes, and the forest where they cultivate.

“For Papuans, country is identity,” said Marthen Abrauw, the clan chief, as he sat in the shade of the sacred tree one afternoon recently. “We will lose our identity and no other clan will accept us on their land. Where should our children and grandchildren go?”

Some clan members have found work in other parts of Indonesia, but those who remain in Warbon live largely on the fish they catch and the taro, cassava and sweet potatoes they grow. The clan practices nomadic agriculture and clears trees in the forest for crops at a new location every two years.

Some walk or ride motorcycles to the nearby village of Korem to worship in the Pniel Evangelical Christian Church. Warbon, home to more than 1,000 people, includes members of several other clans who have married Abrauw but retain the clan identity of their male ancestors. The church is also towards the spaceport.

Indonesian officials supporting the project say Biak, just 70 miles south of the Equator and facing the Pacific Ocean, would be ideal for firing rockets. SpaceX plans to put tens of thousands of communications satellites into orbit in the coming years.

“This is our wealth,” said Biak’s regent, Herry Ario Naap, who is pushing for the spaceport. “Other regions may have oil or gold. We get a strategic geographical location.”

By courting Mr Musk, Mr Joko suggested that his car company, Tesla, could also work with Indonesia to make batteries for electric vehicles, as Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of nickel, a key component. A SpaceX team visited Indonesia early in the year to discuss possible cooperation, officials said.

Tesla submitted a proposal for battery production to Indonesia in February, but the government declined to reveal details. Mr. Musk and his companies did not respond to requests for comment. In September, Mr Joko strengthened the space program by doubling its budget and placing it under the new National Research and Innovation Agency, which reports directly to him.

Laksana Tri Handoko, the agency’s president who personally inspected the Biak site last month, said the island remained a viable choice, but that the construction of the large spaceport he envisioned would require 10 times as much land. Controversy over the Biak site could lead him to choose an alternative site, such as Morotai Island, about 850 miles northwest of Biak.

A key factor, he said, would be to ensure the government has a “clear and clean” ownership of the land. “Biak is not the only place,” he said. “We have many options.”

Government maps show that almost all the lands of the Abrauw clan’s ancestors, including some homes, are within a proposed buffer zone, which would be cleared for humans if the small spaceport were to be built. The maps also show that the original project site is located almost exclusively in a protected forest.

The space agency has long said it bought the 250-acre plot of land from the Abrauw clan in 1980. But the clan says it has never sold the land. Four men who signed a document giving the agency the title were not clan members and had no right to sell, according to the clan leaders.

The older generation was too intimidated to protest, they said, because the Indonesian army carried out military operations on Biak and anyone who criticized the government could be imprisoned as a separatist.

“Silence was the only choice,” said Gerson Abrauw, a Protestant priest and cousin of the clan chief. He rejected government assurances that a spaceport would provide employment.

“They say the spaceport project will create jobs, but there is no space expert in our clan and in our villages,” he said. ‘What they mean is three years of felling trees, removing roots and digging foundations. Then there is a party to say goodbye to us and then only those with access cards can enter the area. “

Dera Menra Sijabat reported from Biak, and Richard C. Paddock from Bangkok.

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