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Will Indonesia lead the space race?

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Will Indonesia lead the space race?

BIAK, Indonesia – For 15 generations, members of the Abruw clan have lived like their ancestors. They plow the rainforest with wood, collect medicinal plants and set traps to catch snakes and wild boars.

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

The Indonesian government claims to have acquired 250 acres of the clan’s ancestral land decades ago and plans to build a small-scale spaceport to launch rockets from 2017. Clan leaders say the project will force them out of their homes.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo personally pitched SpaceX founder Elon Musk on the idea of ​​launching rockets from Indonesia last year without mentioning a site. Mr. Musk has not yet publicly agreed or commented on this. But the prospect of their involvement has sparked a flurry of activity by the Biyak authorities to promote the location, as well as renewed opposition from the island’s indigenous people.

The construction of the spaceport is part of Mr Joko’s modernization of the Southeast Asian island nation with new airports, power plants and highways, often with little regard for the 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 while benefitting influential Indonesian and international companies.

Leaders of the Biak tribe say that building a spaceport at the site would mean cutting down trees in the protected forest, disturbing the habitat of endangered birds and eviction of the abrau.

“The position of the indigenous people is clear: we reject the plan,” said Apollos Soyer, head of the Biak Customary Council, a gathering of clan chiefs. “We don’t want to lose our farms because of this spaceport. We don’t eat satellites. We eat taro, and fish from the ocean. This has been our way of living for generations. Tell Elon Musk this is our stance “

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

Instead, in a 1969 vote considered by many Papuans to be rigged, Indonesia rounded up a thousand tribal leaders – including the chief of Biyak – and held them back until they incorporated Indonesia. Voted not to be, which paradoxically became known as the “Act of Free Choice”.

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The Abruv clan, a dwindling one of the 360 ​​clans on Biyak, now has about 90 members. Most live in the village of Warban, about a mile and a half from the proposed spaceport site, on the northeastern side of the island.

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

Waves fall softly on the white sand nearby, and black, brown and white butterflies fly among its branches. The members of the clan consider the tree sacred and say that it symbolizes the origins of Abru. They often visit the tree to offer offerings and pray to their ancestors. On occasion, they gather there and camp for days. If the spaceport was built, the trees would be off limits, as would the beach where the abrus often fish, and the forest where they farm.

“For the Papuans, the land is identity,” said the clan chief, Marthene Abrau, as he sat under the shade of the sacred tree on a recent afternoon. “We will lose our identity, and no other tribe 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 live in Warban depend largely on the fish they catch and the taro, cassava and sweet potatoes they grow. The clan practices nomadic farming, clearing trees in the forest for crops at a new location every two years.

Some go on foot or by motorbike to the Penil Evangelical Christian Church to worship in the nearby village of Korum. Home to over 1,000 people, Warban includes members of several other clans who have married in Abru, but retain the clan identity of their male ancestors. The church also opposes the spaceport.

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

“It’s our money,” said Biak’s regent, Heri Ario Knapp, who is pushing for the spaceport. “There could be oil or gold in other areas. We have been given a strategic geographical position.”

To tempt Mr. Musk, Mr. Jocko suggested that his car company, Tesla, might collaborate with Indonesia to make electric vehicle batteries, as Indonesia produces the world’s largest nickel, a key component. A team from SpaceX visited Indonesia earlier this year to discuss possible collaborations, officials said.

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

Agency president Laksana Tri Handoko, who personally inspected the Biak site last month, said the island remains a viable option, but requires 10 times more land to build the larger spaceport he had envisioned. will be required. The dispute over the Biak site may have prompted him to select an alternative location, such as Morotai Island, about 550 miles northwest of Biak.

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

Government maps show that nearly all of the Abarouw clan’s ancestral land, including some homes, is within a proposed buffer zone, which would be cleared of people for the construction of a small spaceport. The maps also show that the original project site is almost entirely within a protected forest.

The space agency has long said it purchased the 250-acre site from the Abruev clan in 1980. But the clan says he never sold the land. According to the clan leaders, the four men who signed a document giving the agency title were not members of the clan and had no right to be sold.

The older generation was too intimidated to object, he said, because Indonesian forces were conducting military operations on Biyak and anyone criticizing the government could be jailed as a separatist.

“Silence was the only option,” said Gerson Abrew, a Protestant pastor 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 are no space experts in our clan and our villages,” he said. “That means three years of cutting down trees, removing roots and digging foundations. After that, we will have a feast to say goodbye and only then can enter the area who has the access card. ,

Dera Menara Sijabati reported from Biack, and Richard C. Paddock from Bangkok.

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