Indonesia offers SpaceX small Papuan island despite risks

Biak. Photo: 710928003 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Indonesia’s move to proffer up a small island to Space X as a would-be site for a spaceport is facing major objections from voices at home and abroad, as critics say it falls into a pattern of economic extraction and exploitation and the West Papua region.


While many countries in Southeast Asia are focused on ambitious infrastructure plans, Indonesia’s government has offered a small island in the province of Papua to interstellar exploration company SpaceX as a possible site for a spaceport. 

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo reportedly offered Space X founder Elon Musk part of the island of Biak last December, though the government later denied any offer was made and Musk has yet to say whether SpaceX will accept the offer. SpaceX aims to launch thousands of satellites in the next five years to provide low-cost internet around the world; the company’s stated long-term goal is to colonize Mars.

An Indonesian government spokesperson told The Guardian in March that the plan to turn Biak into a “space Island” would “bring positive economic impacts” to the area. Aside from the offer to Space X, the Indonesian government is already hoping to build a launch site for unmanned space rockets, with a goal of starting construction in 2023.

But many of Biak’s 100,000 residents say they don’t want a spaceport and that it will damage their local economy, natural resources and culture.

The Biak rely on their land for fishing, hunting and farming and depend on the area’s natural resources for their livelihoods. The local population of Biak manages much of their land through customary tenure, making land acquisition complicated for outside initiatives like the would-be spaceport. Residents say displacement could lead to major conflicts between families and clans over land.

The first launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy Rocket on January 6, 2018 from Kennedy Space Center. Photo: Daniel Oberhaus, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Potential Space X launch site sits in disputed territory with a complicated past

Biak’s local population has also historically been targeted and attacked by the Indonesian state. In an incident referred to as the 1998 Biak Massacre, an unknown number of civilians—some sources say hundreds—were killed, raped and tortured by the Indonesian military after a West Papuan political prisoner raised the banned morning star flag, a symbol of West Papuan independence. 

West Papua includes the provinces of Papua and West Papua on the island of New Guinea, where people have been pushing for independence from Indonesia for decades and say the central government’s economic plans bring little benefit to the area.

Space X isn’t the only foreign investor looking into Biak; the Russian state space agency is also hoping to construct a rocket launch facility on the island. But when local residents heard about the Russian proposal back in 2002 and began to protest against it, they were arrested and interrogated by Indonesian authorities. Today, the altercations make some local residents apprehensive about voicing any concerns over the SpaceX deal.

“This spaceport will cost us our traditional hunting grounds, damaging the nature our way of life depends on. But if we protest, we’ll be arrested immediately,” local chief Manfun Sroyer told The Guardian in March.

In March and April, Sophie Chao, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Sydney, interviewed 10 local residents about their views on the project. “The overwhelming majority of these individuals believe they have the right to decide what developments happen on their lands and what kind of livelihoods they want to pursue,” Chao writes.

For its part, Indonesia’s National Institute of Aeronautics and Space (LAPAN) says local objections to the potential Space X deal are due to miscommunication and that gains from the project would justify the risks.

The Tesla Model S electric car. Photo: Vauxford, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Space X offer adds to Tesla talks

Last July, Musk reportedly told Indonesian officials that his Tesla corporation would sign a “giant contract for a long period of time” in Indonesia if the country can promise to mine its nickel “efficiently and in an environmentally sensitive way.”

Papua as a whole has some of the world’s largest reserves of nickel and copper and the Indonesian national government has backed a host of projects to capitalize on these resources. Nickel and copper are key to the production of rockets as well as the lithium batteries used in Tesla’s electric vehicles.

Tesla and the Indonesian government are actively discussing a partnership around electric battery production. According to CNA, Indonesia hopes to go beyond resource extraction and is aiming to become a global hub for electric car and battery manufacturing.

The West Papuan independence movement is well-established. Photo: Nichollas Harrison / CC BY-SA

Musk risks sparking conflict in Papua

But Papua’s natural resources are a flash point in the region’s conflict over its independence and the track record for large, top-down efforts by the central government in Papua isn’t good. 

Many extractive projects in the region have been marred by human and environmental rights violence, including the Grasberg mine, a joint venture of the Indonesian government and an American mining company. Among the biggest gold and copper mines in the world, the Grasberg project is worth an estimated US$100 billion.

The Indonesian government is now opening up the region for coal mining, having issued exploration permits to at least 25 companies, as well as natural gas; BP is currently developing a US$10 billion gas field at Bintuni Bay in West Papua.

But so far, the revenues from Papua’s rich reserves of resources have done little to alleviate poverty in the region; Papua’s GDP had already shrunk by over 7% in 2019, prior to the pandemic.

Whether SpaceX invests in a launch facility on Biak or not, the island is moving towards some of the biggest changes of any rural place in Southeast Asia. A space project may not carry some of the risks of a large mine but it still faces major questions about local consent, the potential for conflict and how to ensure economic benefits reach communities in the area.

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