Damaged Road, Near-Deserted Port Show Limits of Indonesia’s Infrastructure Push in Papua

Victor Mambor
2022.01.27
Jayapura, Indonesia
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Damaged Road, Near-Deserted Port Show Limits of Indonesia’s Infrastructure Push in Papua The Depapre Port is seen in Jayapura, Indonesia, Jan. 25, 2022.
[Victor Mambor/BenarNews]

Updated at 5:48 p.m. ET on 2022-01-27

A new port touted to become an international shipping hub in Indonesia’s restive Papua region remains mostly deserted a year after it became partly operational, with its main road in a state of disrepair.

Uncertainty about the pace of completing the Depapre Port project is raising questions about President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s push to boost infrastructure in this deeply impoverished but resource-rich region in the country’s far east, where Jakarta is trying to mollify desires for independence while fighting a decades-old separatist insurgency.

“About 200 local residents have been recruited to work at the port, but now they can’t work because the port has not been operating as expected,” Jayapura regent Mathius Awoitau told BenarNews.

A part of the port started operating in January 2021 after the first phase of construction, covering 24.1 hectares (59.5 acres), was finished.

At present, the four operational piers only serve small boats sailing between Jayapura, the capital of Papua province, and Merauke. Locals and officials say the roads leading to the port are partly to blame.

“Under the plan, this port is supposed to become a shipping hub in the Pacific region. It’s supposed to bring down high prices in Papua and bring immense economic benefits for local residents,” Awoitau said.

Once completed, the port will extend to 74 hectares, including a reclaimed area of close to 16 hectares. Indonesia is slated to spend 1.2 trillion rupiah (U.S. $83.4 million) on the entire project. 

Earlier this month, Transportation Minister Budi Karya Sumadi said that the port was expected to become a shipping hub for eastern Indonesia as well as a gateway for international trade, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.

But a 24-kilometer road that links the towns of Sentani and Depapre is badly damaged and barely passable for cargo trucks, locals said.

Flash floods that hit the area in 2019 inundated the road with rocks and sand from the hills and created potholes, but no attempts have been made to repair it.

Depapre is about 50 km (31 miles) from Jayapura city.

“People have died [from accidents on the road],” Loisa Yerisitouw, a local resident, told BenarNews.

La Ode, a minivan driver, said his vehicle breaks down frequently along the damaged main road to the port, forcing him dig deep into his pockets to buy spare parts.

“I once transported a pregnant woman who was in labor to a hospital. The mother gave birth on the way to the hospital,” said La Ode, referring to the slow progress that vehicles make on the road.

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A vehicle travels on a damaged road that links Sentani Town and Depapre, in Jayapura regency, Indonesia, Jan. 25, 2022. [Victor Mambor /BenarNews]

‘There must be a commitment’

In 2016, Papua Gov. Lukas Enembe designated the street a provincial road, which means that the responsibility for maintaining it rests with his administration, and not the central government.

The same year, Jokowi, while on a visit to Papua, gave orders for the road to be fixed. That would allow direct exports and imports from and to Papua, the president had said. But repair work stalled after a corruption case at the road project came to light.

Awoitau, the Papua regent, said he had repeatedly raised the road issue with provincial and central government officials, but there has been no solution to the impasse.

Helson Siagian, an advisor on infrastructure at the Office of the Presidential Staff, said the government was seeking to complete the road construction this year. But, he said, the local government must change the designation of the road from a provincial to national road, so that the Public Works Ministry could take over the project.

“There must be a commitment from the province to meet the readiness criteria so that the provincial road can be upgraded to become a national road,” Helson told BenarNews.

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A woman sells produce at the Depapre Market in Jayapura regency, Indonesia, Jan. 25, 2022. [Victor Mambor /BenarNews]

Other challenges

The head of the Jayapura Port Authority, Rony Fahmi, said a lack of supporting infrastructure was hampering the port’s operations.

Locals are also unwilling to let go of their land to make way for the projects because the compensation offered was deemed too low, he said.

“Currently there are obstacles related to the rights of customary landowners. Landowners are demanding certainty from the government because they feel they aren’t adequately compensated,” Rony told BenarNews.

Another challenge is violence in the region and at project sites in particular.

For instance, in December 2018, separatist rebels killed a soldier and 19 members of a crew working on Jokowi’s flagship trans-Papua highway project. Afterwards, the president vowed to press ahead with the project.

“We will never be afraid. This [attack] has only strengthened our resolve to carry on with our great task of developing the land of Papua,” he said back then. “There’s no place for armed criminal groups in Papua and throughout the country.”

Jakarta granted special autonomy for Papua in 2001 to pacify demands for independence, but Indonesian security forces have been accused of human rights abuses during anti-insurgency operations. Rights activists have said that impunity for violators is the norm.

The Papua region, which makes up the Indonesian half of New Guinea Island, was formally incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a United Nations-administered ballot known as the Act of Free Choice.

Many Papuans and rights groups said the vote was a sham because it only involved 1,000 people, but the U.N. accepted the result, which essentially endorsed Jakarta’s rule.

Ronna Nirmala in Jakarta contributed to this article.

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