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Top-down or bottom-up approach?

“How to best balance economic growth with the conservation of biodiversity & indigenous communities in Papua?”



Recent movement in development in Papua has caused both national and international debates of how to balance economic growth without causing irreversible habitat and ecosystem destruction. Another important factor should be considered into the equation is the human rights and sustenance of the indigenous people. Top-down conservation approach has brought disadvantages to the affected local indigenous community and resulted in conflicts in several protected areas around the world. A conservation project within an indigenous people’s territory is likely to be more successful when sensitive and inclusive approach is adopted.



Papua is one of the islands in far east Indonesia consists of two provinces – Papua and West Papua. It covers the area of 416,129km2  and home to the largest intact rainforest in Asia (Indrawan, Caldecott, & Ermayanti, 2017).

Although majority of the island is still undeveloped up to today, this region has endured various forest resources exploitations, environmental destruction, and human right abuse which were caused by central government top-down policy (Carolyn Marr, 2011). The problems were started in the 1960s, when the president of Indonesia at that time had an ambitious short-term plan to boost the country’s economy by exploiting its valuable resources – the rainforest. During his 32 years of ruling, the president and his cabinet issued a number of forest destructive policies and permit which allow private (national and international) companies to access and exploit Papua’s resources (Barber, 2001).

Due to challenging terrain and geographic isolation, most of the projects above have not been materialised. In 2014 however, a new development project was announced by the government comprising 4,325 km of road connecting Sorong and Merauke. The aim of this project is mainly to provide better infrastructures to support health, economic, and social services (Sekretariat.Pres, 2015).  Over the past few years, investors have shifted their focus from depleting rainforests in other parts of Indonesia, (primarily Sumatra and Kalimantan), to the resource-rich land of Papua. Government policies and plans have accelerated this trend by relaunching the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE) programme in 2015, allocating over a million hectares of rainforest for the use of farming, logging and plantations (Indrawan et al., 2017). What will be the fate of the pristine rainforest through which this road will run, and the indigenous peoples who call it home?

Different perspectives and perceptions of values of the rain forest lead to the conflicts between different agencies. The government perceives it as an economic commodity ready to be exploited, the indigenous people see it as the source of livelihood and a place to call home, while the ecologists recognise rainforest as a valuable habitat that needs to be conserved (Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend, Michel Pimbert, M.Taghi Farvar, 2004). The recent developments in Papua aggravated these differences and a sensible conservation management is critically needed.

Conservation Outcry

Different perspectives and perceptions of values of the rain forest lead to the conflicts between different agencies. The government perceives it as an economic commodity ready to be exploited, the indigenous people see it as the source of livelihood and a place to call home, while the ecologists recognise rainforest as a valuable habitat that needs to be conserved (Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend, Michel Pimbert, M.Taghi Farvar, 2004). The recent developments in Papua aggravated these differences and a sensible conservation management is critically needed.


Top-down Conservation Approach

Top-down conservation projects typically produced by high level of authorities, international treaties or large international conservation corporations (Abrams et al., 2009). This exclusive approach is based on the notion that nature could only be preserved as an inhibited area that is pristine and wild (Colchester, 2004). Conservation policies to create protected areas in developing countries often creating considerable conflicts between governments, development agencies, and local population. This may lead to eviction, malnutrition, landlessness, socio-cultural stress and heritage loss (Colchester, 2004)(Torri, 2011). This conservation approach provides little or no involvement of the local dwellers who usually bear the most consequences from those policies. The local community are often alienated from the policy  making process hence create resentment towards the conservation projects in their area (Torri, 2011).

Case Study

(1)Settlement relocation from Sariska Tiger Reserve, India (Torri, 2011)

Sariska Tiger Reserve was gazetted as protected area in 1978 and was previously a hunting reserve for the local Maharaja. There are approximately 3000 villagers live within the reserve, dominated by two ethnic groups (Gujjars and Meena) who are cattle herders and farmers. The protected area was created to allow the dwindling Bengal Tiger (Pantera tigris tigris) population to recover.  Following the designation of this reserve, the villagers have been banned from harvesting forests products (fodder, honey, and timber) and 17 villages were to be relocated. This restriction was not informed and socialized prior the implementation hence the relationship between the authorities and the villagers are characterized with friction and antagonism.

(2)Conflict within Huaorani Indian Territory (Holt, 2005)

Conflict that leads to violence was also one of the results of top-down management approach. Change of land use in Amazon created problems for indigenous people live in the area. Mining company was granted access within the territory of Huaorani Indian in Ecuador to build road and extract oil. The community claimed that the mining activities have resulted in pollution and habitat fragmentation which affect the livelihood of the Huaorani Indian. There have been cases of violence recorded caused by these frictions.

Bottom-up Conservation Approach

Bottom-up method is usually a community based conservation that initiated by local population because of specific concerns about environmental issues affecting the community. On the contrary with top-down management, the programmes and initiatives were heavily involving the local communities.  This method has recently been seen to be the appropriate conservation strategy in developing countries and thought to be the sustainable approach environmentally, socially and economically (Baral & Stern, 2007). Cross-cultural collaboration are challenging but has been implemented successfully in several countries and shown measurable benefits (Ens, Scott, Moritz, & Pirzl, 2016). For example collaboration between scientist and Maori tribe to share knowledge on local sea birds, park management by Indigenous Yugul Mangi Rangers in Australia, and participatory mapping by native communities in Brazilian Amazon (Ens et al., 2016)(Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend, Michel Pimbert, M.Taghi Farvar, 2004).

Case Study

Raja Ampat archipelago is part of West Papua Province and listed as one of the UNESCO Natural Heritage Sites. Its rich marine resources have been a target for economic development such as big-scale fishing, aquaculture, tourism, and mining. Marine Protected Areas were established to protect which believed to be 75% of world’s total marine biodiversity (Grantham et al., 2012). Government together with marine experts and local community groups set several different types of marine protected areas to regulate human different activities within the zones (Grantham et al., 2012). Following these, two community based conservation and eco-tourism have been set up (Stay Raja Ampat and Raja Ampat Research and Conservation Centre). The community based conservation programmes are ranging from eco-tourism and development Projects, reef and diving workshops, and sustainable farming.

The Best Approach for Papua

Conservation issues in Papua are rather unique and different from other countries in the region. In some cases, the Government has lost its legal power to suppress deforestation activities due to concession permits that have been issued by the previous government regime (Barber, 2001). Due to its unique situation, I will catagorise the conservation approach into two types: (1)Conservation Area (owned by the state) and (2)Concession Area (permits owned by private companies)

Conservation Area (owned by the state)

After looking at several case examples, studying the current political situation, and history of Papua, I suggest the Bottom-up Conservation model is more suitable for Papua than the Top-down model. Three principles of the bottom-up approach are as follow:

  1. Policy Review by local authority.

The local government shall utilise this Special Autonomy Law that have been granted by the central government. Papua and West Papua were granted Special Autonomy Law which gave both provinces regional rights to manage and to use the natural resources to enhance the living standard of the natives and prevent any top-down development which causing violations of the basic rights of the Papua natives (Indrawan, 2017).

  1. Community driven conservation programme

According to Unpresented Peoples and Nations Organisation (UNPO) 2014 data, there are about 1.8million indigenous people live in Papua island spread across protected and concession areas. Top-down approach in Papua for the past few decades had been associated with conflict and violence (Barber, 2001). The local populations have endured various human rights abuse and these series of event have created indignation and resentment towards the central government (IPWP, 2016).

Learning from the past events, the Papua government has approach the conservation issues from different angle. Together with NGOs, the government are currently working together with the indigenous groups in various conservation and sustainable development groups. The two on-going programmes are Bird’s Head Seascapes (BHS) and Sustainable Landscape Partnership (LSP), both operated in West Papua province (CI-Report, 2015). Involving the local community in the process has been proven to be efficient and welcomed by the indigenous groups in Papua (CI-Report, 2015).

  1. Transparency & Socialisation

A model of Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) has to be applied in all developments in Papua.  FPIC is a special right that recognized by United Nation Declaration to allow indigenous community to give or withhold consent to a development that may affect their territory.

Indigenous people often unaware of any development in their land up to commencement of the project. For example, the indigeneous people of Sorong weren’t aware of upcoming logging project by PT Intimpura until the project started on site and the logging company continued to operate regardless of the protests and complaints by the indigenous people (Carolyn Marr, 2011). Another similar event also happened in Mamberamo River Catchment for Power Plant Project, the 7300 villagers who affected by this development weren’t informed prior the commencement of the project (Carolyn Marr, 2011).

Concession Area (permits owned by private companies)

Since the private companies have valid permits to operate the development in Papua, the government can’t impose any legal actions towards them. Conservation approach for this land use type has to achieve the delicate balance between biodiversity conservation and economic compromises. Two big conservation agencies (Mighty Earth and Korean Federation for Environment Movement) have made public complaint and publications to put pressure on Korindo (one of the palm oil company in Papua). Putting pressure and blame to the private companies has been a regress in achieving any conservation outcomes (Satu Nusantara, 2017).

The more sensitive approach has been done by USAID Lestari. This NGO supports 4 projects in Papua, one of them is Mappi-Digoel Digoel – the area affected by MIFEE Programme. The core principle in the Mappi-Bouven Digoel Landscape is to rationalize the  proposed development and to assure the protection of high conservation value (HCV) and high carbon stock (HCS) forest. USAID Lestari provide the safe platform for negotiation for all the stakeholders including indigenous people to achieve sustainable strategies and minimize further destruction on Papua’s rainforest and indigenous communities.

The success of a bottom-up conservation approach is determined by what the local communities see as important and affecting their lives. The approach has to be relatable to the local cultures and perspectives, not merely based on scientific data and method. A web of socio-cultural values, economic opportunities, biodiversity conservation, and political situations have to be seen as opportunities rather than constraints.


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Torri, M. C. (2011). Conservation, Relocation and the Social Consequences of Conservation Policies in Protected Areas: Case Study of the Sariska Tiger Reserve, India. Conservation and Society, 9(1), 54–64.

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