Will an island in Indonesia become a new frontier in the space race?

Will an island in Indonesia become a new frontier in the space race?

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. 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 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.

“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, U.S. 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.

Will an island in Indonesia become a new frontier in the space race?
At the mouth of the Warbon River on the Indonesian island of Biak, Melkianus Dimara and his family clean fish he caught in the ocean on June 9, 2021. The islandÕs Indigenous inhabitants are pushing back against a government plan to build a small-scale spaceport there to launch rockets from the island. (Ulet Ifansasti/The New York Times)
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