World

Will an Island in Indonesia Become a New Frontier in the Space Race?

A remote coral island in eastern Indonesia is an unlikely setting for the next chapter in space exploration.

As civilians are launched into orbit and billionaires try to put humans on Mars, Indonesian officials hope to turn the island into a new frontier in the space race.

The island’s Indigenous inhabitants are pushing back.

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Will an Island in Indonesia Become a New Frontier in the Space Race?

An Indigenous clan fears it will lose its place in the world as the government pursues a quest to open a spaceport and lure the billionaire SpaceX founder Elon Musk.

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By Dera Menra Sijabat and Richard C. Paddock

Photographs by Ulet Ifansasti

Nov. 16, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

BIAK, Indonesia — For 15 generations, members of the Abrauw clan have lived much like their ancestors. They farm with wooden plows in patches of the rainforest, gather medicinal plants and set traps to catch snakes and wild boar.

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

The Indonesian government claims to have acquired 250 acres of the clan’s ancestral land decades ago and has planned since 2017 to build a small-scale spaceport there to launch rockets. Clan leaders say the project would force them from their homes.

Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, personally pitched SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk, last year on the idea of launching rockets from Indonesia, without mentioning a site. Mr. Musk has yet to commit to a deal or comment on it publicly. But the possibility of his involvement has spurred a flurry of activity by Biak officials to promote the location, as well as renewed opposition from the island’s Indigenous people.

Building a spaceport is part of Mr. Joko’s push to modernize the Southeast Asian island nation with new airports, power plants and highways, often with little regard for environmental consequences. It is also part of the country’s checkered history of using questionable methods to acquire land from Indigenous people, leaving some groups destitute while benefiting influential Indonesians and international companies.

Leaders of the Biak tribe say building a spaceport on the site would mean cutting trees in a protected forest, disturbing the habitat of endangered birds and evicting the Abrauw.

Apolos Sroyer, 49, is chief of the Biak Customary Council, an assembly of clan chiefs.

Abraham Abrauw, the eldest son of the Abrauw clan chief, prays to his ancestors under a tree the clan considers sacred.

“The position of the Indigenous people is clear: We reject the plan,” said Apolos Sroyer, chief 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. That is our way of life for generations. Tell Elon Musk that’s our stance.”

Biak, nearly the size of Maui, sits just north of the island of New Guinea and is part of Indonesia’s Papua Province. During World War II, American forces defeated the Japanese there in a key battle as Gen. Douglas MacArthur fought to retake the Pacific. Biak became part of Indonesia in the 1960s after the United Nations handed over the former Dutch territory of West Papua on the condition that Indonesia hold a popular vote.

Instead, in a 1969 vote regarded by many Papuans as rigged, Indonesia rounded up a thousand tribal leaders — including chiefs from Biak — and held them until they voted to join Indonesia in what paradoxically became known as “The Act of Free Choice.”

The dwindling Abrauw clan, one of 360 clans on Biak, now has about 90 members. Most live in the village of Warbon, on the island’s northeastern side, about a mile and a half from the proposed spaceport site.

Marthen Abrauw, the clan chief, chops down a tree in the area that would be off limits if the spaceport was built.
Women carry firewood from a forest in Biak.

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

Waves lap gently on the white sand nearby, and black, brown and white butterflies flit among its branches. Clan members consider the tree sacred and say it marks the origin of the Abrauw. They often visit the tree to make offerings and pray to their ancestors. On occasion, they gather there and camp for days. If the spaceport was built, the tree would be off limits, as would the beach where the Abrauw often fish, and the forest where they farm.

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

Some clan members have found work in other parts of Indonesia, but those who remain in Warbon largely subsist on the fish they catch and the taro, cassava and sweet potatoes they grow. The clan practices nomadic farming, clearing trees in the forest for crops in a new location every two years.

Some walk or ride motorbikes to the nearby village of Korem to worship at the Pniel Evangelical Christian Church. Warbon, home to more than 1,000 people, includes members of numerous other clans who have married into the Abrauw but retain the clan identity of their male ancestors. The church also opposes the spaceport.

A youth choir performs at the Pniel Evangelical Christian Church near the village of Warbon. Members of the Abrauw clan often attend services at the church.
Members of the Abrauw and other clans leaving a Sunday service at the Pniel Evangelical Christian Church, which also opposes the spaceport.

The Indonesian officials who support the project say Biak, just 70 miles south of the Equator and facing the Pacific, would be ideal for launching rockets. SpaceX has plans to put tens of thousands of communications satellites into orbit in the coming years.

“This is our wealth,” said Biak’s regent, Herry Ario Naap, who is pushing for the spaceport. “Other regions may have oil or gold. We are given a strategic geographical location.”

In wooing Mr. Musk, Mr. Joko suggested that his car company, Tesla, could also collaborate with Indonesia to make electric vehicle batteries, as Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of nickel, a key component. A team from SpaceX visited Indonesia early this year to discuss possible cooperation, officials said.

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

Laksana Tri Handoko, the agency chairman, who personally inspected the Biak site last month, said that the island remained a viable choice but that building the large spaceport he envisioned would require 10 times as much land. Controversy over the Biak site could prompt him to select an alternate location, such as Morotai island, about 550 miles northwest of Biak.

A key factor, he said, will be making sure the government has “clear and clean” title to the land. “Biak is not the one and only place,” he said. “We have many options.”

Government maps show that nearly all the Abrauw clan’s ancestral lands, including some homes, are within a proposed buffer zone that would be cleared of people should the small spaceport be built. The maps also show that the original project site is almost entirely within a protected forest.

The clan practices nomadic farming, clearing trees in the forest for their crops in a new location every two years.

The space agency has long said it bought the 250-acre site from the Abrauw clan in 1980. But the clan says it never sold the land. Four men who signed a document giving the agency title were not clan members and had no right to sell, according to clan leaders.

The older generation was too intimidated to object, they said, because the Indonesian army was conducting military operations on Biak and anyone who criticized the government could be jailed as a separatist.

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

“They say the spaceport project will create jobs, but there is no space expert in our clan and in our villages,” he said. “What they mean is three years of cutting down trees, removing roots and digging foundations. After that, there will be a feast to say goodbye to us and then only those with an access card can enter the area.”

Melkianus Dimara, whose great-grandmother was Abrauw, fishes with his daughter at Warbon Beach, within the proposed spaceport buffer zone.
At the mouth of the Warbon River, Mr. Dimara and his family clean fish he caught in the ocean.

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

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