Image credits: Sika Group


The impending destruction of South East Asia’s tropical rainforests will impact one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, an area which remains poorly understood due to its biological, geographical, cultural, and economic features. This article will compare two case studies of deforestation in Indonesia. The Grasberg mine is a project which has been completed, and its effect on the ecology of New Guinea is unfortunately only just being understood. The second case study is that of Menara Group’s proposed sugar cane plantation in the Aru Islands which would destroy hundreds of thousands of hectares of pristine primary rainforest (long-untouched rainforest). Both projects are vastly different in that one already exists, but the other has been stalled by a highly successful grassroots campaign. However, what is clear is that neither are unique to this region, which has been plagued by vast infrastructure projects at the expense of the environment.


South East Asia’s Rainforests are facing the highest relative levels of habitat destruction and fragmentation of all major tropical areas worldwide (Achard et al. 2002; Mayaux et al. 2005), in particular driven by the rapid population growth and resultant demand for natural resources. Indeed 75% of South East Asia’s original forest cover could be lost by 2100 if current deforestation rates continue (Achard et al. 2002). By 2012, deforestation stood at 840,000 hectares, which eclipsed deforestation in Brazil (UN, 2010). This is extraordinary considering Brazil is nearly four times the size of Indonesia. The Grasberg Mine is located on the vast island of New Guinea, the second largest island in the world, at just under 800,000 km2. It is predominantly cloaked in pristine primary rainforest, with a central cordillera of mountains extending up to almost 5000m in altitude, providing a range of habitats with unique endemic wildlife. The Aru Islands are a geological extension of the mainland, but due to rising sea levels they are now located over 120km away from the mainland. They consist of over 95 individual low-lying islands creating an area of 8,152 km2 of land, saturated by saltwater channels and inlets: a unique and pristine coastal mangrove and multiple tropical rainforests.


In 1936, the Dutch geologist Jean Jacques Dozy was part of an expedition which climbed the current highest mountain between the Himalayas and the Andes, Mount Cartensz, or Puncak Jaya, which rises to 4884m in height. Dozy, being a geologist, noted the unusual rock surrounding the mountain, which was black with a green colouration, and he spent time estimating the extent of the potential ore deposits around the mountain. He subsequently discreetly filed a report which was not to become of significant value until over 20 years later. Later on, as a result of alluvial gold being discovered in the Arafura Sea off New Guinea (Lindesay, 1959), an expedition was mounted to this Ertsberg (‘Ore mountain’) by Freeport Minerals & Co, which confirmed a vast amount of copper mineralisation less than 5km from Mount Cartensz. Construction of the mine necessitated the associated infrastructure in one of the world’s most remote locations. This included a 116km road from the coast into the mountains, a 166km pipeline to transport the slurry to the coast to a port that was built bespoke, and a town built for the miners, complete with airstrip and powerplant. The cost of the mine was $175m in the 1960s, $55m over budget, and equivalent to billions of dollars today (Mc Donald, 1980). 

Figure 1: Grasberg Mine

Thus the Grasberg Mine, the largest gold mine and the second largest copper mine (by size of mineral reserves) in the world was born. It is situated at 4100m above sea level, and is predominantly of the open-caste design (Jamasmie, 2017; MiningTechnology, 2017). This huge infrastructure project destroyed thousands of hectares of some of the most unique ecosystems in the world – neighbouring Lorentz National Park is the only national park in the world to have a full range of ecosystems, from coastal mangroves and lowland rainforests to coniferous forest and alpine tundra due to the huge altitude range. Construction of the mine directly destroyed one of the worlds few equatorial glaciers, and the overburden of the mine covers an area of 8 km2 to a depth of 480m.  The mine also produces over 700,000 tonnes of mining tailings every day (Perlez & Bonner, 2005), of which over 200,000 tonnes is dumped daily into one river system, the Aikara delta (Circle of Blue, 2012). This enormous volume of waste has covered 230 km2 of formerly pristine wetlands, lowland rainforest and riverine systems (Van Zyl et al., 2002). This vast mine is one of several across Indonesia which profits mining corporations and corrupt government officials – Freeport reportedly ‘gave’ over $20m to senior government officials and units between 1998 and 2004 (Perlez & Bonner, 2005). And yet, they have collectively destroyed hundreds of thousands of hectares of pristine habitats, found nowhere else on earth.


Around 300km away from the Grasberg mine, 120km off the coast of mainland New Guinea, lies the Aru Islands, 95 low lying islands of primary rainforest. These islands have a rich ethnographic culture, with 14 indigenous languages of 117 clans dotted sparsely on the island, only accessible through the myriad channels and inlets. Historically, the birds of paradise were key to Alfred Russell Wallace forming his theory of evolution and founding the science of biogeography. These same birds have today formed the figurehead of an exceptionally successful grass roots movement called #SaveAru. In 2013, unbeknownst to the islanders, the conglomerate Menara Group was granted permission by a corrupt politician, Theddy Tengko, to produce one of the world’s largest sugar cane plantations, which would destroy over two thirds of the island group’s tropical rainforests. These pristine forests and mangroves are the only source of livelihood for the isolated and exceptionally poor islanders, and this sugar cane plantation was in one step going to destroy this all. The grass roots movement began with a small group of the indigenous population enlisting the help of indigenous populations across the archipelago in making the government accountable to the people. The government had for too long been controlled by large capitalist ventures such as the Menara Group which profit at the expense of the environment and indigenous populations. However, #SaveAru needed to work fast, as Menara had only to receive regional and national government approval before it could start bulldozing, as the permits issued by Tengko had illegally bypassed a number of stages that were legal safety nets for indigenous populations. 

Indonesian sugar company poised to destroy half of island paradise's forests
Figure 2: Map showing Menara Plantation concession (shaded)

The small group of indigenes who lived in the capital, Dobo, enlisted the help of local peace movements, formed after the collapse of President Suharto’s dictatorship in 1998. Although protests were beginning to take place in Dobo, there was no media coverage, due to underfunded journalists and corrupt businessmen. Thus the group enlisted friends who had trained in Ambon as lawyers and journalists to probe the legality of the deal and encourage media coverage. A network of informers within the local government was also set up, leading to the associated government paperwork being recovered, revealing 28 plots of land between 2 and 4 times the size of Manhattan registered to different shell companies, all owned by the Menara Group. This is how Menara had avoided government restrictions on size of land development. Local university professors and church groups were enlisted by #SaveAru to petition to the regional and national government, and members of the group travelled to all 117 clans to raise awareness of the issue. Media coverage exploded as the informants passed on inflammatory information, and tribal leaders placed ceremonial Sasis on government buildings and their own land, preventing any government business from occurring there. They also warned ministers and Menara employees not to enter; impinging on the Sasis is considered an act of war. After years of campaigning, threats and bloodshed, Indonesia’s Minister of Forestry finally halted the project, due to the increasingly heated protests, national support and media coverage. 

This grassroots organisation’s success is fundamentally down to the effective local and international collaboration that encouraged cohesion of the movement and the passion of the indigenous population in effectively protesting against a corrupt government and business conglomerate. It is a shining example of how a small local movement can initiate national support and change legislation.

Figure 3: Photo of a Greater Bird of Paradise by Tim Laman which became the image of the #SaveAru campaign

In many ways, the Grasberg Mine and #SaveAru are incomparable. One has already been implemented and is destroying/has destroyed the surrounding environment. The other is, however, a beacon of hope, highlighting how a cohesive, strategic grassroots campaign with limited resources in one of the most remote locations in the world was able to halt a very contentious project. Unfortunately, these virtues of the population don’t protect enough of the world, and Menara Group have gone on to start bulldozing 2,800 km2 of primary rainforests in New Guinea for one of the worlds largest palm oil plantations, the Tanah Merah Project, identical in illegalities to the project planned for Aru. Just bulldozing the land for this project will release more emissions than Belgium produces in a single year from burning fossil fuels. However, this project does not have a cohesive indigenous movement to halt it. Urgent research and lobbying are needed to stall what could be Indonesia’s biggest environmental catastrophe since the Grasberg Mine.


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About the author

Cosmo Le Breton