Activists stage protest against Archbishop of Merauke signing deal with palm oil firm “at expense of environment”
Together with several colleagues, Papuan Catholic activist Melvin Waine stood in front of Good Shepherd Parish Church in Abepura, Papua province, on Jan. 31.
There was a box in front of them and they were holding up posters appealing for donations.
“One thousand rupiah for Bishop Mandagi,” the posters said, referring to Archbishop Petrus Canisius Mandagi of Merauke.
However, their effort was not in support of the bishop; it was a sarcastic stunt criticising Archbishop Mandagi.
The local Church is set to receive billions of rupiah after signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with a controversial palm oil company, PT Tunas Sawa Erma, part of the Korindo Group. The funds raised will be presented to the Diocese of Merauke.
“The archbishop shouldn’t be cooperating with this firm. It’s scandalous that the Church conspires with a company that has brought suffering to Papua,” Waine told UCA News.
He said they collected 882,000 rupiah (US$63) from supporters who attended Sunday Mass in Abepura Parish and two other parishes.
“We will continue this at other churches every Sunday. We are also preparing to collect online,” he said.
Their aim, he said, was for the archdiocese to cancel the MoU, signed on Jan. 5, in which the company committed to providing 2.4 billion rupiah, which is given in stages over three years. The company will also give the archdiocese operational cost 20 million rupiah a month for three years.
Archbishop Mandagi has said the archdiocese needs to raise money, including from palm oil companies, to fund services including the construction of a minor seminary. He said the Church still expects the company to adopt environmentally sustainable practices.
However, for Waine, what the archbishop has done has aided the destruction of Papua’s forests, which the Korindo Group, a joint Indonesian and South Korean venture, has been accused of doing.
“It would be better for the money to have been collected from the people rather than companies that are clearly bringing suffering to Papuans,” Waine said.
Petrus Supardi, another layman, said that “Archbishop Mandagi has rubbed salt in the wounds of Papuans.”
“How do you set up a seminary, an educational centre for future church leaders, by collaborating with companies that destroy Papua’s natural forests?” he asked.
Among the religious themselves, this cooperation is equally controversial.
Father Alexandro Rangga, a Franciscan priest from Papua who is studying in Rome, said he cannot stop thinking that the Church now supports palm oil companies.
“The Church must be firm in rejecting palm oil. We already know the impacts and that is always the poor who are the biggest victim,” he said in a recent webinar organised by the Franciscan Commission for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC).
In November, Greenpeace Indonesia and Forensic Architecture reported that Dongin Prabhawa, one of Korindo’s subsidiaries, had destroyed 57,000 hectares of rainforest, based on forest fires captured on NASA satellite imagery between 2011 and 2016. In “Burning Paradise,” a report released in 2016, environmental group Mighty Earth also pointed to Korindo’s systematic and abundant use of fire during land clearing.
Sacred Heart Father Anselmus Amo, chairman of Merauke Archdiocese’s JPIC Commission, did not respond to UCA News’ request for comment.
However, speaking to local media, he criticised the laymen’s actions and asked them not to doubt the agreement, stating that the archdiocese would not cancel it.
“Whether the bishop will accept [the money they collect] is up to the archbishop. The point is we should not think negatively [of the cooperation],” he said, as quoted by the Papua Selatan Pos newspaper.
Archbishop Mandagi is currently hospitalised in Ambon, Maluku province, after being diagnosed with COVID-19 on Jan. 29.
Voices grow louder
The protesters also issued a statement last month in which they declared they had lost trust in bishops from Papua and the Indonesian Bishops’ Conference, whom they accused of not caring about Papuan issues.
They added that the Vatican should consider appointing native Papuans, or at least those who understand the situation in Papua, as bishops in Indonesia’s easternmost region.
“We need those who care about the local situation, especially regarding human rights violations and environmental damage,” they said.
They said that they no longer felt that the Catholic Church offered hope for salvation.
Waine, who participated in drawing up the statement, said they represented lay groups from five dioceses in Papua.
“We have formulated this call after reflecting together on the recent development of the Church,” he said. “We are forced to do this, so that the Church will return to its mission, to its calling to be the voice of the voiceless.”
Marthen Goo from Papua Itu Kita (Papua Is Us), a Jakarta-based advocacy forum, said the opposition is something that the Church must take seriously.
“The protestations of this lay group are an expression of despair because they principally see the Church as the last bastion in the face of humanitarian problems that occur,” he said.
The Church must reposition and totally evaluate itself so that it once again is a church of the oppressed.
“The Church is better off living in poverty and speaking out for God’s people rather than prioritising money while allowing people to be threatened,” Goo said.
Reproduced with permission from La Croix International.