Will Indonesia Edge Its Way into the Space Race?
BIAK, INDONESIA – For 15 generations, members of the Abrau clan have lived like their ancestors. They farm in the rainforest with wooden plows, collect herbs, and set traps to catch snakes and deer.
The land they occupy on Biak Island is everything to them: their identity, their source of livelihood, and their connection to their ancestors. But now that Indonesia is pursuing a long-running quest to join the space age, it is feared that this small clan will lose its place in the world.
The Indonesian government claims to have seized 250 acres of the clan’s ancestral land decades ago, and plans to build a small-scale spaceport to launch rockets there from 2017. Clan leaders say the project will drive them out of their homes.
The president of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, personally presented the idea of launching a rocket from Indonesia to Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, last year without mentioning the site. Mr Musk is not yet committed to an agreement or has not publicly commented on it. But the possibility of his participation has prompted Biak officials to promote the location, as well as renewed opposition from locals on the island.
The construction of the spaceport is part of Mr Joko’s efforts to modernize the Southeast Asian island nation with new airports, power plants and highways, often without much consideration for environmental consequences. The use of questionable methods to acquire land from locals, leaving some groups unaffected while benefiting influential Indonesian and international companies, is part of the country’s scrutinized history.
Biak gang leaders say building a spaceport on the site means cutting down trees in protected forests, harassing endangered bird habitats and discrediting them.
“The position of the aborigines is clear: we reject the plan,” said Apollos Schroier, head of the Biak Customs Council. “We do not want to lose our farms because of this spaceport. We don’t eat satellites. We eat taro and sea fish. It has been our way of life for generations. That’s our role, tell Elon Musk. “
Biak, almost the size of Maui, sits just north of the island of New Guinea and is part of the Indonesian province of Papua. During World War II, General Douglas MacArthur fought to retake the Pacific, and American troops defeated the Japanese in a major battle there. BIAC became part of Indonesia in the 1960s after the United Nations annexed the former Dutch territory of West Papua, subject to popular vote for Indonesia.
Instead, in the 1969 vote, many Papuans hurried, Indonesia gathered a thousand tribal leaders – including the head of BIAC – and held them back until they voted to join Indonesia in what became known as the “Free Choice Act.”
One of the 360 clans on Biak, the declining Abrau clan now has about 90 members. Most live in the village of Warbon, northeast of the island, about a mile and a half from the proposed spaceport site.
The center of the lineage’s life is the flowering heliotrope tree near the sea.
Waves gently hit the nearby white sand, and black, brown, and white butterflies flutter in its branches. Family members consider the tree sacred and say that it is the root of shame. They often visit the tree to offer prasad and pray to their ancestors. Occasionally they gather there and camp all day. If a spaceport is built, the tree will be far from the boundary, such as on a beach where fish usually catch fish and in the forest where they farm.
“For Papuans, the land is the identity,” said Marthen Abrau, head of the clan, as he sat in the shade of a sacred tree that afternoon. “We will lose our identity and no other clan will accept us in their land. Where will our children and grandchildren go? “
Some clan members have found work in other parts of Indonesia, but those who live in Warbon are largely dependent on the fish they catch and the taro, cassava and sweet potatoes. The clan cultivates nomadic Vimukta, clearing forest trees for new crops every two years.
Some go to the nearby village of Korem on foot or by motorbike to worship at the Pniel Evangelical Christian Church. With a population of over 1,000, Warbon includes numerous other clan members who have married in Abru but retained the clan identity of their male ancestors. The church also opposes spaceport.
Indonesian officials supporting the project say Biak, just 70 miles south of the equator and facing the Pacific, would be ideal for launching rockets. SpaceX plans to launch thousands of communications satellites in the next few years.
“This is our asset,” said Harry Ario Naap, Regent of Biak, who is working for spaceport. “Other regions may have oil or gold. We have been given a strategic geographical location. “
Attracting Mr. Musk, Mr. Joko suggested that his car company, Tesla, could also collaborate with Indonesia to make batteries for electric vehicles, as Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of nickel, a key component. SpaceX’s team visited Indonesia earlier this year to discuss possible cooperation, officials said.
Tesla submitted a battery production proposal to Indonesia in February, but the government refused to disclose details. Mr. Musk and his companies did not respond to requests for comment. In September, Mr Joko strengthened the space program by doubling his budget and bringing it under the new National Research and Innovation Agency, which reports directly to him.
The agency’s president, Laksana Troy Handoco, who personally inspected the Biak site last month, said the island remained a viable option but would require 10 times more land to build the large spaceport he envisioned. Disputes over the Biak site may have prompted him to choose an alternative location, such as Morotai Island, about 550 miles northwest of Biak.
An important factor, he said, would be to ensure that the government had a “clear and clean” title to the land. “The bike is not the only and only place,” he said. “We have many options.”
Government maps show that almost all of the ancestral lands of the Abrau clan, including some houses, are in the proposed buffer zone that would be open to the public if small spaceports were built. The maps also show that the site of the original project is almost entirely in a protected forest.
The space agency says it bought 250 acres of land from the Abrau clan in 1980. But the clan says they never sold the land. The four men who signed the agency’s title deed were not members of the clan and had no right to sell them, clan leaders said.
The older generation was too afraid to object, he said, because the Indonesian military was taking military action against Biak and anyone who criticized the government could be imprisoned as a separatist.
“Peace was the only option,” said Gerson Abrau, a Protestant pastor and cousin of the head of the clan. He rejected the government’s promise that spaceport would provide employment.
“They say the spaceport project will create jobs, but there are no space experts in our clan and in our village,” he said. “Three years means cutting down trees, removing roots and digging foundations. After that, we will have a party to say goodbye and only people with admission cards will be able to enter the area.
Dera Menra Sijabat Report from Biak, and Richard C. Paddock From Bangkok.
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