In December 2020, the Indonesian government reportedly offered Biak Island, papua province,as a rocket launch pad to the planet Mars, to Elon Musk, a US billionaire and founder of SpaceX company.
SpaceX is a space company with the most advanced technology built by Elon Musk in 2002.
The company aims to bring humans flying and living on Mars and other potential planets– sustainably and on a large scale.
Thus, human civilization can continue to exist even if a major disaster hits Earth,such as an asteroid strike or nuclear war, which makes life on the planet difficult.
The government stated that the project will improve the economy of biak people, an island with minimal infrastructure.
The latest developments, media reported on March 11, that the Indonesian government denied having offered Biak to Elon Musk, despite reports from JUBI, a Papua-based news website, Jayapura, that claimed that the SpaceX project was still ongoing.
There is no certainty on Elon Musk’s part regarding the offer, but some residents in Biak have expressed their disapproval of the project.
They worry about the negative impact on their environment, culture and livelihoods, and potentially displace communities from their native homes and villages.
Economic factors and strategic location
Biak Island is considered the right location for Mars expeditions for economic and strategic reasons.
The island is known to be rich in copper and nickel, a raw material essential for rocket and battery production for electric vehicles, such as Tesla (which is also owned by Elon Musk).
In addition, Biak island is located about one degree south of the equator,a strategic location because this means there is no need to consume more fuel to reach orbit.
From this project to Mars, spacex company’s projected profit will reach 36 billion dollars (Rp514 trillion) by 2025.
However, this profit projection still invites debate.
As a social anthropologist, I have spent years researching how indigenous peoples in Papua interact with their natural environment.
In particular, I have explored how Papuan cultural values and traditions shape how they interact and understand the values and meanings of the nature they live in, such as in forests, oceans, rivers and land.
Throughout March and April 2021, I have interviewed 10 residents in Biak to understand their perspective on the SpaceX project.
Quite a lot of people say that they believe they have the right to determine what kind of development they want on their land and what kind of livelihood they want to seek.
One of the elders explained that the local community in Biak has become fishermen, food collectors, hunters, running horticulture and small-scale breeding from generation to generation.
The idea of being able to survive in space, let alone Mars, is an alien concept to them. This is because they strongly believe that the way they cultivate forests and oceans is sustainable enough.
Land and livelihoods
The SpaceX project also threatens the land and livelihoods of Biak residents. They continue to depend on fishing, hunting, and horticulture for the day-to-day.
As with other indigenous Papuan communities, land and the environment represent an important part of their local cultural wealth.
Some of the communities interviewed explained that clans and tribes in Biak share ancestors with plants, species and locations in different landscapes, which is also their responsibility to be guarded and protected.
For example, there is a belief that crocodiles represent the power of the sea and the clans in Biak consider this to be sacred animals.
For other Biak and Papuans, the environment is a valuable source of traditional knowledge, where stories and belief systems of animism are passed down from generations.
Myths Biak sometimes depicts forest plants, such as oil palm, animals, including snakes and birds, and natural phenomena such as the Moon and Sun.
For biak residents, destroying the environment means destroying their cultural identity, ownership, and pride.
Another risk is that the Biak project could displace the population.
One of the Biak elders I interviewed stated that moving the tribe to another region would cause problems with the tribes that already lived and owned land in the area.
This will potentially result in land disputes,social conflicts, and increased violence.
Many of the Biak residents I interviewed also argued that the project would obscure a history of violence and suffering, and a dream for justice and freedom for West Papua, drowned out by rockets and space exploration.
In particular, the transformation of their island into a launch base for interplanetary search could potentially obscure the still-profound trauma of the families and descendants who were victims of“Biak Mascare”,in 1998.
The Biak Massacre Citizens Tribunal,a judicial inquiry and testimony of expert witnesses held at the University of Sydney, in December 2013, found that the Indonesian military and security forces had tortured, raped, and dumped hundreds of Biak civilians at sea.
Some of the victims have tried to raise the flag of West Papua, which is a criminal act and could face a 15-year prison sentence.
To date, no lawsuits have been filed against the perpetrators of the violence.
The government also denies involvement in the action, which human rights defenders organizations consider one of the worst massacres in Indonesia, in post-Suharto history.
The incurable trauma has a large part that shaped Biak’s reaction to the SpaceX project.
For most residents, looking to the future demands recognition from the national and international community of the violence that characterizes West Papua’s past and the rejection of freedom that remains a feature of the present.
From years of working together and learning from indigenous Papuans, I understand that they also have their own dreams, including dreams for justice, a healthy environment and a sustainable culture.
Papuan indigenous peoples are one of the last custodians and protectors of indonesia’s rich indigenous culture.
This grows from respect and protection of land and the environment.
Papuans have hope for the future of their children and grandchildren, not on Mars or the moon, but in their own customary lands, in forests and oceans.
Problems arise when some dreams are prioritized at the expense of others.
Interplanetary exploration may be able to deliver on the promise of a revolutionary future for humans in the future. However, it should not ignore existence and justice for human beings today.
The future of humanity will be great if all visions can be respected, both from the vision of entrepreneurs and governments, the existence of local communities and their increasingly vulnerable environment.