The island’s location (one degree below the equator) makes it an ideal place for launches as rockets will need less fuel to reach orbit. Musk is not the only one who has set his sights on Papua. The Russian space agency Roscosmos plans to build a launch site on Papua by 2024.
Elon Musk is generally associated with life-affirming news (that day when he wiped $14 billion of Tesla’s value doesn’t count), but this time the tech maverick has caused anger among residents of Biak island, who learned that he may build a launchpad on it in the near future. Musk’s company SpaceX is working on its Starlink project designed to provide high-speed broadband internet across the world. It has already launched more than a thousand satellites to low earth-orbit and plans to finish the project by 2027, creating a constellation of 12,000 satellites.
Biak is in the provcince of Papua, which belongs to Indonesia. In December, the country’s president Joko Widodo offered Musk to use part of Biak island as a potential launch site for SpaceX. As mentioned earlier, the island’s location is perfect for space launches, while Papua possesses vast natural resources such as copper and nickel that are essential for the space industry.
In addition, both metals are used in the production of long-range batteries for electric vehicles (EV) – another potential contract between Indonesia and Musk, who is also the CEO of Tesla, a major manufacturer of EVs.
Destruction of Ecosystem and Support of Genocide
Residents of Biak are concerned that the construction of the launch pad and its use will devastate the island’s ecosystem and drive people from their homes.
“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”, said Manfun Sroyer, a tribal chief on the island.
Musk told Indonesian officials in July that he will offer them a “giant contract for a long period of time” if they mine nickel in an environmentally friendly way. However, a coalition of Indonesian environmental organisations warned that expanded mining will speed up deforestation, endanger the health of local people, and pollute a proposed UNESCO world heritage site.
Another issue is Papua’s complex relations with Indonesia. Jakarta established control over the province in 1969 and since then residents of the province have waged an independence campaign. For Biak, the issue seems to be especially sensitive because it was the site of a massacre in 1998 after pro-independence activists tried to raise a West Papua Morning Star flag.
“As a South African you understand apartheid, the killing of black people. If you bring your business here you are directly sponsoring Indonesia’s genocide against Papuans”, said Biak elder Tineke Rumkabu, who survived the massacre.
A spokesperson for the Indonesian government said that authorities had consulted extensively with Papuan officials on the construction of the launch pad, noting that it will bring positive changes.
“The Papua provincial government considers that the building of the spaceport in Biak will make the Biak Numfor District a hub and bring positive economic impacts for the regional government and the local community. The Indonesian parliament also sees that the building of Biak Island as a ‘Space Island’ will [a] bring multiplier effect to the surrounding community”, the government spokesman told The Guardian.