Pasifik Pulse: Palm Oil and Food Insecurity in Papua

Prepared by Tana Thomas, PPP Arts and Culture Coordinator, who is also a Nuu-chah-nulth youth leader, canoe skipper, and healing advocate.

In Papua, Indonesia’s largest and easternmost province of Indonesia, large scale palm oil plantation developments are not only threatening animal and plant species, but also the caretakers that have sustained these species for thousands of years. Sophie Chao, an anthropologist at the University of Sydney, has spent years working with the Indigenous Marind people of southern Papua. In her powerful article, she sheds light on the severe impacts that new palm oil plantations are having on the region. What she has discovered in her in-community work is that the Marind people are increasingly unable to obtain their traditional foods and are suffering from malnutrition. 

Merauke and Boven Digoel, the districts in southern Papua where oil palm estates are concentrated.

The practice of harvesting their own food is one of the many factors that sustains holistic wellbeing in many Indigenous communities. Witnessing the loss of their traditional foods can bring overwhelming feelings of grief and shame stemming from not being able to provide for their families. The Marind children of the village have grown up learning to sustain and create abundance within their natural food systems when harvesting. Since time immemorial, Marind children have been firsthand witnesses to the generations before them, following protocols and enacting ceremonies passed on through generations in order to coexist with their relatives of the forest. 

Marind families are now fighting to sustain their customs, feed their families, and protect the natural forests that are their home, working from their deeply held belief that everyone and everything is interconnected. Exploitation of their forest food systems is destroying the spirit and wellbeing of their communities. The generational act of enculturation is being severed due to the detachment from teachings that stem from their environment. It’s an enforced act of assimilation into a system that bypasses the basic needs of humanity. Unfortunately, this is a common fight Indigenous people are facing throughout the world.

The Indonesian government continues to approve more palm oil projects with increasing impacts on Indigenous Papuans and their lands. Learn more about this important issue and catch a glimpse of the stories of Marind families in Chao’s article published by Mongabay and The Gecko Project.

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