by Asrida Elisabeth / adapted by Hans Nicholas Jong / Mongabay
- The Indonesian government plans to pave a stretch of highway running through an ecologically important wildlife reserve in the country’s Papua region.
- Experts warn the paving will encourage greater encroachment into Mamberamo Foja Wildlife Reserve, which is home to at least 332 bird species and 80 mammal species.
- Another section of the Trans-Papua Highway was constructed through Lorentz National Park earlier, and studies show it’s already having an impact in terms of increased deforestation.
Paving of a dirt road linking two cities in Indonesia’s easternmost Papua region could spark the destruction of a wildlife reserve whose isolation has made it a biodiversity hotspot.
The 585-kilometer (364-mile) road runs from the coastal city of Jayapura, the provincial capital, southwest through the mountainous hinterland to the town of Wamena. It forms part of the Trans-Papua Highway, a web of asphalt cutting thousands of kilometers across the Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea.
About a sixth of the Jayapura-Wamena stretch runs through Mamberamo Foja Wildlife Reserve, but has not yet been paved. Spanning nearly 950,000 hectares (2.35 million acres), the reserve covers an area six times the size of London, and has been dubbed a “species generator” due to its diversity of wildlife and vegetation.
The reserve has 40 types of ecosystems, including montane rainforests, lowland and hill rainforests, freshwater swamp forests, flooded grasslands and savannas, and mangroves. It’s also home to at least 332 bird species and 80 mammal species, with many more species yet to be described by science.
Thirty-nine Indigenous communities also live in the wildlife reserve.
The government says the road will open up access to isolated regions, lower the prices of goods, and generally improve the welfare of people living in the mountainous areas. The Trans-Papua Highway plan was first concocted during the regime of former president Suharto in the 1980s. Some sections of the 4,325-km (2,687-mi) network have already been built and paved, with the rest to be finished by 2022.
In Indonesia, the construction of roads is permitted in national parks to a limited extent, but is prohibited entirely inside wildlife reserves. In 2014, however, the forestry ministry issued a permit allowing the road to cut through the wildlife reserve, according to Yan Ukago, the head of the public works department in Yalimo district, where the reserve is located.
“From Benawa subdistrict in Yalimo, to Yahuli bridge until Elelim subdistrict, the road runs through protected areas,” he said. “But the status of the areas can be converted with a permit from the ministry of forestry. The road has been constructed, which means the process has been carried out.”
The bureaucratic process of declaring an area no longer protected for wildlife doesn’t mean it doesn’t still constitute wildlife habitat, Yan said. He said paving the road would likely open up the wildlife reserve to encroachment, with surrounding communities moving in the area to establish settlements there.
“When a road is constructed a bit further into the forest there, the locals would also move there because that’s also their area,” he said. “They will live along the road.”
This will eventually lead to the forests inside the wildlife reserve being cleared to make way for houses and farms, he added.
“From the aspect of ecology or environment, the road will have an effect,” Yan said.
To the southwest of Wamena, Lorentz National Park serves as a cautionary tale for how the Trans-Papua Highway can alter the landscape of a protected area.
Spanning 2.35 million hectares (5.81 million acres) — the size of the U.S. state of Vermont — Lorentz is the largest protected area in Southeast Asia. It’s also known for being the only protected area in the world to range continuously from snowcapped mountain peak down to tropical marine environment, with extensive lowland wetlands in between.
Its mountain range contains glaciers, making the national park one of the only three tropical regions in the world that have glaciers. The park’s most famous mountain, Puncak Jaya, is the tallest peak in Southeast Asia and Australasia.
A 2018 study by The Asia Foundation and the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) found that a 178-km (110-mi) stretch of the Trans-Papua Highway that runs through the national park has devastated parts of the protected area. It has led to clearing of trees that serve as habitat for wildlife and source of water for the ecosystems in the park.
The study also noted the dieback of Nothofagus beech rainforests in the national park as one of the consequences of the road being built there.
Indonesia’s 1990 Conservation Act bans activities that could alter the intactness of national parks. But the road through Lorentz was allowed to be built after it was approved by the forestry minister in 2012.
In a 2014 report, UNESCO said the road was being constructed without a comprehensive environmental impact assessment, a process known locally as Amdal, and called for the project to be halted pending the completion of a proper Amdal process. In 2017, UNESCO noted that the new Amdal had identified significant potential environmental impacts to the protected area, and said the construction of the road represented “a significant additional risk for the fragile alpine environments of the property, which may exacerbate the impacts of climate change.”
But in pushing ahead with building the road, the Indonesian government said it would make sure not to damage the ecosystems and biodiversity of the national park.
Since the completion of the Lorentz stretch, known as the Habbema-Kenyam road, in 2019, UNESCO has urged the government to assess the current and potential impacts on the area and the effectiveness of plans to mitigate them. It also called for an assessment of the measures being developed to reduce the impact of the road on the dieback of the Nothofagus stands.
The 2018 study found that road construction could lead to deforestation in protected areas as people build settlements along newly paved roads. The timber to build these houses typically comes from the forest, with villagers in mountainous areas logging trees and selling the wood to meet the demand. This alters their relationship with their surroundings, where, in the past, they would hunt and gather food in the forests to meet their needs. The arrival of the road has pushed them toward a market-based economy as they cut down trees to sell.
Yulia Indri Sari, the coordinator of the research team behind the 2018 study, said the impact of the road through Lorentz National Park will only increase.
“If we imagine in the future, if this route is already well developed, the connectivity will increase and there’ll be many trips there [in the national park],” she said. “This has the potential to disturb the biodiversity in Lorentz National Park.”