Elon Musk’s SpaceX project could put Papuan lands and futures at risk

SOPHIE CHAO

14 MAY 2021

There is nothing wrong with believing in great futures or striving towards dreams of betterment – so long as they do not trample on, or obscure, the dreams and futures of others.

Dreams of outer space

SpaceX – an aerospace corporation founded in 2002 by centibillionare Elon Musk – is arguably the world’s most avant-garde technological project. Described by its visionary founder as a “bold” and “exciting” endeavor that will “revolutionize space”, SpaceX’s objective is literally out of this world. It aims to enable humans to travel to and live on Mars, and potentially other planets, sustainably and at scale. In this way, human civilisation can continue in the event of a planetary disaster – for instance, an asteroid strike or nuclear war – that would make life on Earth impossible. 

In December 2020, the Papuan island of Biak, home to some 100,000 inhabitants, was offered by the Indonesian government to Elon Musk as a potential launch site for the SpaceX Mars-bound expedition. 

From the government and SpaceX’s perspective, Biak is an attractive location for the Mars expedition for economic and strategic reasons. The island sits within a region rich in natural resources including copper and nickel. These metals are essential to the production of rockets and long-range batteries for electric vehicles like Tesla (another Elon Musk venture). Biak is also located one degree south of the equator, meaning less fuel will be required for a spacecraft to reach orbit. 

SpaceX expects to generate revenue of US$36 billion by 2025, although the accuracy of such projections is disputed. At a local level, government officials affirm that the project will help enhance the economic development of the residents of Biak, a rural island where urban infrastructures are lacking.  

Dreams of social justice

While Musk has not yet confirmed his acceptance of the government’s offer, Biak dwellers have voiced strong opposition to the project. Between March and April 2021, I interviewed 10 Biak inhabitants to understand their perspectives on the SpaceX project. Many of my interlocutors believe that the project will undermine the health of their natural environment, negatively impact on their livelihoods, and potentially displace local communities from their natives homes and villages. 

One of the elders explained to me that rural communities in Biak have been fishing, gathering, hunting and engaging in small-scale horticulture and animal husbandry for many generations. The idea of achieving sustainability in outer space, especially Mars, was strange for many of the interviewees. They firmly believe that the way they use forests and oceans is already sustainable.

Furthermore, the language used to describe SpaceX by proponents and detractors of the project in particular – for instance, “colonization” and “human colony” – strikes a deep chord with the dozen or so Indigenous communities of Biak. Under the visionary veneer of their island’s new label – “Space Island” – lies a violent history of human rights violations, denied human freedoms, and unfulfilled claims to self-determination. 

Just over a decade ago, over a hundred civilians in Biak were tortured, raped, killed, and dumped at sea by Indonesian military and security forces after attempting to raise the West Papua Morning Star flag – a crimepunishable with up to 15 years of jail under Indonesian law. Justice remains unfulfilled for the victims of an event that has been described by human rights organisations as one of the worst massacres in Indonesia’s post-Suharto history, yet, that the government denies responsibility for.

For many Biak residents, the transformation of their island into a launchpad for extra-planetary discovery risks further obscuring the violence and trauma that continues to haunt the relatives and descendants of those who perished during the Biak Massacre. 

As one Biak dweller reported to me, “If the project goes ahead, people will only know Biak for its rockets and space dreams. People will not know Biak for its people and suffering. People will continue to ignore Papuan peoples’ dreams of justice and freedom.”

Land and livelihoods

The SpaceX project also poses potential risks to the lands and livelihoods of Biak residents, who continue to rely primarily on fishing, hunting, and horticulture for their daily subsistence. As among other Indigenous Papuan communities, the land and environment represent an integral part of the richness of their local cultures. 

Different clans shares ancestry with different plants, species, and locations with the landscape, and are responsible for their health and wellbeing. The environment is also a source of traditional knowledge, intergenerationally transmitted stories, sacred mythologies, and animist belief systems. Damaging the environment, then, also means damaging local inhabitants’ sense of cultural identity, belonging, and pride. 

For some tribal representatives, the risk of population displacement accompanying the Biak project poses a further threat. As one tribal elder explained to me, “If different tribes (suku) have to move to other territories, then that will cause problems with the tribes already inhabiting and owning these territories. This will lead to land disputes, social conflict, and more violence.” 

As for the argument for economic development made by the government, many Biak inhabitants believe they have the right to decide what kind of livelihoods they want to pursue. As the tribal elder explained, “Our way of life might be simple, but it has existed since time immemorial. We hunt, we gather, and we fish. We cherish and protect the land and forest. For me, this is sustainability. Not in space. Not on Mars. Right here, on Papuan land (tanah Papua).” 

Colliding futures

In a famous quote that has become the mission statement of SpaceX, Elon Musk affirms: “You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great – and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about. It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”

There is nothing wrong with believing in great futures or striving towards dreams of betterment – so long as they do not trample on, or obscure, the dreams and futures of others. In Biak, Papuans, too, have dreams of their own – dreams of justice, healthy environments, and cultural continuity. 

Papuans, too, are the guardians and custodians of rich Indigenous civilisations, that are grounded in relations of respect and nurture with the land and environment. Papuans, too, envision hopeful futures for their children and grandchildren to come – not on Mars or the moon, but right here on their customary lands, forests, and seas. 

The problem arises when some peoples’ dreams are prioritised to the detriment of others’. For many Biak inhabitants, envisioning the future demands first and foremost a recognition from the national and international community of the violence that has defined West Papua’s modern past and the denied freedoms that continue to define its present. 

Extra-planetary exploration may promise revolutionary futures for humans to come, but it should not undermine the wellbeing, environments, and justice of humans today. Humanity’s shared future can only be great if all visions of the future are respectfully and consultatively taken into account – those of entrepreneurs and government, but also those of local communities and their increasingly threatened natural environments.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

We welcome all pitches and submissions to TRT World Opinion – please send them via email, to opinion.editorial@trtworld.com

Sophie Chao

AUTHORSophie Chao

Dr. Sophie Chao is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Sydney’s School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry and the Charles Perkins Centre. Sophie previously worked for international indigenous rights organization Forest Peoples Programme in the United Kingdom and Indonesia and has published over thirty works on human rights and the palm oil sector in Southeast Asia

source Elon Musk’s SpaceX project could put Papuan lands and futures at risk (trtworld.com)

Categories: Asia, Indonesia

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