West Papua

A group of Dani women chew palm wood heart into a pulp that they use to soak up the brine from ponds, their source of salt for thousands of years. They carry the spongy wet mass back to their village in palm leaves, where they burn it, leaving ash and salt.

The salt is a big trading item between these highlanders and the coastal people. The people of the Asmat, Yali, Dani, KimYal/Goliat, Obini, Tokiat and Shetak regions and the Wickbone of the Seng River, and the many other aboriginal cultures living in West Papua, epitomize the communion between man and nature. Who they are, where they are, and what they do, are inseparable. They live with a rare sensitivity to nature - recognizing that they are part of something much larger than themselves.

West Papua’s aboriginal people are now being confronted with a very different approach to resources and a culture of gratuitous production and consumption that is quite at odds with their own culture and experience. Not far from here, in the highlands belonging to the Amungme and Komoro people, is the worlds most profitable mine. The vast gold and copper open pit mining operation is a highly restricted area secured by the Indonesian military, and accounts for roughly half of West Papua’s GNP. It also dumps over 100,000 tons of toxic tailings into the Aykwa River every day. It is owned by Freeport McMoRan of New Orleans, and RTZ of London, and of the 7,500 company employees, less than 300 are Papuans.

While they lose their land rights and self-determination, the highland people have access to none of the advantages that are touted by the advocates of globalization and “trickle down” economics. Almost nothing is trickling down - money, health services or education. Instead there is environmental and cultural disintegration resulting in rising infant mortality rates, pollution and disease. In the face of this, the company persists with plans to acquire more land, more mines, and build roads leading to deepwater ports.

Thousands of Papuans continue to be displaced through expropriation and the Indonesian government’s transmigration policy, which is making the Papuans a minority in their own country. The fate of West Papua’s aboriginal population depends on how well they are respected by Indonesia and the rest of the world. Respect means to “look over/again”. This requires looking at the world’s aboriginal cultures differently from the way the colonialists did and continue to do. It means not confusing democratization with corporatization. It requires celebrating who they are and what they can offer, rather than what can be taken of their land, labour and resources. For development to be truly sustainable, common ground has to be found between economic progress, and ecological and cultural integrity.

The ecological imperative is completely disregarded by the mining operators, whose narrow, selfish, and fear-based vision is not unlike the views that pervade the Pentagon, the kind of perspective that produces landmines, or uses food and children as weapons of war. The Papuans live their lives with the understanding that everything comes from the earth, and that they belong to the earth more than it belongs to them. We, in the so-called “civilized” world, need their vision far more than their oil, copper, gold and timber.

We cannot damage what we are dependent upon without damaging ourselves. There is no “us and them”, “we and our environment” - Only us. In my heart, I learned things in West Papua that my head knows nothing about.

Robert Semeniuk