BIAK, Indonesia – For 15 generations, the members of the Abrauw clan have lived similarly to their ancestors. They farm with wooden plows in patches of the rainforest, collect medicinal plants and set traps to catch snakes and wild boars.

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

The Indonesian government claims to have acquired 250 hectares of the clan’s ancestral land decades ago and has been planning to build a small spaceport there since 2017 to launch rockets. Clan leaders say the project will drive them from their homes.

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo spoke personally to SpaceX founder Elon Musk last year about the idea of ​​launching rockets from Indonesia without mentioning a website. Mr Musk has yet to commit to a deal or comment publicly on it. But the possibility of his involvement has sparked a spate of activity by Biak officials promoting the site, as well as renewed opposition from the island’s indigenous people.

The construction of a spaceport is part of Mr. Joko’s initiative to modernize the Southeast Asian island nation with new airports, power plants and highways. often with little consideration for environmental impacts. It is also part of the country’s checkered history to use questionable methods to acquire land from indigenous peoples, which leaves some groups penniless while benefiting influential Indonesians and international companies.

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

“The position of the indigenous people is clear: we reject the plan,” said Apolos Sroyer, head of the Biak Customary Council, an assembly 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 sea. This has been our way of life for generations. Tell Elon Musk that this is our attitude. “

Biak, almost as big as Maui, is located north of the island of New Guinea and belongs to the Indonesian province of Papua. During World War II, American forces defeated the Japanese in a key battle when General Douglas MacArthur fought to retake the Pacific. Biak became part of Indonesia in the 1960s after the United Nations surrendered the former Dutch territory of West Papua on condition that Indonesia hold a referendum.

Instead, in a 1969 vote viewed as manipulated by many Papuans, Indonesia gathered a thousand tribal leaders – including chiefs from Biak – and held them until they voted to join Indonesia in what, paradoxically, came to be known as “The Act of Free Choice.”

The dwindling Abrauw clan, one of 360 clans on Biak, now has around 90 members. Most live in the village of Warbon on the northeast side of the island, about a mile and a half from the planned spaceport.

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

Waves beat gently on the white sand nearby, and black, brown, and white butterflies dart between its branches. Clan members consider the tree sacred and say that it marks the origin of the Abrauw. They often visit the tree to make offerings and pray to their ancestors. Occasionally they gather there and camp for days. If the spaceport were built, the tree would be banned, as would the beach where the Abrauw often fish and the forest where they farm.

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

Some clan members have found work in other parts of Indonesia, but those who stay in Warbon feed mostly on the fish they catch and the taro, cassava, and sweet potatoes they grow. The clan practices nomadic agriculture and every two years clears trees in the forest for harvest at a new location.

Some walk or ride a motorcycle to the nearby village of Korem to pray in the Evangelical Christian church of Pniel. Home to more than 1,000 people, Warbon includes members of numerous other clans who married into the Abrauw but retained the clan identity of their male ancestors. The church also rejects the spaceport.

Indonesian officials backing the project say Biak, just 70 miles south of the equator and overlooking the Pacific, would be ideal for rocket launchers. SpaceX has plans to put in place Tens of thousands of communications satellites into orbit in the years to come.

“That is our wealth,” said Biak’s regent Herry Ario Naap, who is pushing towards the spaceport. “Other regions may have oil or gold. We get a strategic geographic location. “

To solicit Mr. Musk, Mr. Joko suggested that his auto company Tesla could also work with Indonesia to make batteries for electric vehicles, as Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of nickel, a key component. A team from SpaceX visited Indonesia earlier this year to discuss a possible collaboration, officials said.

Tesla put a battery production proposal to Indonesia in February, but the government declined to reveal details. Mr. Musk and his companies did not respond to requests for comment. In September, Mr. Joko strengthened the space program by multiplying its budget twentyfold and subordinating it to the new National Research and Innovation Agency, which reports directly to him.

Laksana Tri Handoko, the agency’s chairman, who personally inspected the Biak site last month, said the island remains a viable choice but that the large spaceport he envisioned would require ten times the land to build. Controversies over the Biak location could lead him to choose an alternative location such as Morotai Island, about 850 miles northwest of Biak.

A key factor, he said, will ensure that the government has “clear and clean” ownership rights 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 land, including some homes, is within a planned buffer zone that would be evacuated by humans should the small spaceport be built. The maps also show that the original project location is almost entirely in 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 they never sold the land. According to clan leaders, four men who signed a document with the agency title were not clan members and had no right to sell.

The older generation is too intimidated to object because the Indonesian army is conducting military operations against Biak and anyone who criticizes the government could be detained as a separatist.

“Silence was the only choice,” said Gerson Abrauw, a Protestant pastor and cousin of the clan chief. He rejected government assurances that a spaceport would create jobs.

“They say the spaceport project will create jobs, but there is no space expert in our clan or in our villages,” he said. “They mean cutting down trees, removing roots and digging foundations for three years. Then there is a party to say goodbye to us and then only those with an admission card are allowed to enter the area. “

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



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