Will an Island in Indonesia Become a New Frontier in the Space Race?

BIAK, Indonesia – For 15 generations, members of the Abrauw clan have lived much the same as their ancestors. They cultivate with wooden plows in plots of the jungle, collect medicinal plants and set traps to catch snakes and wild boar.

The land they occupy on Biak Island is everything to them: their identity, the source of their livelihood, and the link to their ancestors. But now the little clan fear losing their place in the world as Indonesia pursues its ancient 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 planned since 2017 to build a small-scale spaceport there to launch rockets. Clan leaders say the project would force them to leave their homes.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo personally introduced SpaceX founder Elon Musk last year on the idea of ​​launching rockets from Indonesia, not to mention a site. Musk has yet to commit to a deal or comment on it publicly. But the prospect of their participation has sparked a flurry of activity from Biak officials to promote the site, as well as renewed opposition from the island’s indigenous peoples.

The construction of a spaceport is part of Joko’s drive to modernize the Southeast Asian island nation with new airports, power plants and roads, often without regard for environmental consequences. It is also part of the country’s checkered history of using questionable methods to acquire land from indigenous peoples, leaving some groups destitute and benefiting influential Indonesians and international companies.

Biak tribe leaders say building a spaceport on the site would mean cutting down trees in protected forest, disturbing the habitat of endangered birds and dislodging the Abrauw.

“The position of the indigenous people is clear: we rejected the plan,” said Apolos Sroyer, head of the Biak Customary Council, an assembly of clan chiefs. “We don’t want to lose our farms to this spaceport. We don’t eat satellites. We eat taro and fish from the sea. That is our way of life for generations. Tell Elon Musk that’s our position. “

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

Instead, in a 1969 vote viewed by many Papuans as rigged, Indonesia rounded up a thousand tribal leaders, including the chiefs of Biak, and held them until they voted to join Indonesia in what became paradoxically known as “The Act of free choice “.

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

The center of the clan’s life is a blooming heliotrope tree by the ocean.

Waves gently lap the nearby white sand, and black, brown, and white butterflies flutter among its branches. Members of the clan consider the tree to be sacred and say that it marks the origin of the Abrauw. They often visit the tree to make offerings and pray to their ancestors. Sometimes they gather there and camp for days. If the spaceport were built, the tree would be off limits, as would the beach where the Abrauw often fish and the forest where they farm.

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

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

Some walk or ride a motorcycle to the nearby town of Korem to worship at the Evangelical Christian Church in Pniel. Home to more than 1,000 people, Warbon includes members of many other clans who have married the Abrauw but retain the clan identity of their male ancestors. The church is also opposed to the spaceport.

Indonesian officials supporting the project say that Biak, just 70 miles south of the Equator and facing the Pacific, would be ideal for launching rockets. SpaceX has plans to put tens of thousands of communications satellites into orbit in the next few 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 have a strategic geographic location ”.

In courting Musk, 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. A SpaceX team visited Indonesia earlier this year to discuss possible cooperation, the officials said.

Tesla submitted a battery production proposal to Indonesia in February, but the government declined to disclose details. Musk and his companies did not respond to requests for comment. In September, Mr. Joko strengthened the space program by increasing its budget twenty times 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 was still a viable option, but that building the large spaceport he envisioned would require ten times as much land. The controversy over the Biak site could lead him to select an alternative location, such as Morotai Island, about 550 miles northwest of Biak.

A key factor, he said, will be making sure the government has a “clear and clean” title to the land. “Biak is not the only place,” he said. “We have many options.”

Government maps show that almost all of the Abrauw clan’s ancestral lands, including some houses, lie within a proposed buffer zone that would be cleared of people if the small spaceport were built. The maps also show that the original project site is almost entirely within a protected forest.

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

The older generation was too intimidated to object, they said, because the Indonesian army was conducting military operations in Biak and anyone who criticized the government could be jailed as a separatist.

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

“They say that 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 cutting down trees, removing roots and digging foundations. After that, there will be a party to say goodbye to us and then only those who have an access card will be able to enter the area ”.

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

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