Famine grips West Papua

Down to Earth No. 36 February 1998

The highland region of West Papua is in the grip of the worst famine in living memory. Thousands are dying of starvation and disease. The effects of the prolonged drought have been exacerbated by apparent government indifference, lack of transportation for relief supplies and inappropriate "solutions" to the crisis. Once again government officials are pushing mass resettlement as the answer, although previous attempts have always ended in failure. Once again, there is a distinct lack of consultation with the afflicted population.

By early January the official death toll from drought-related causes was 673. A further quarter of a million people were then estimated to be at risk of starvation, according to sources quoted by the International Red Cross mission operating in West Papua. In late December the Australian Red Cross reported that food stocks in the drought-stricken regions of the territory were almost exhausted and that up to 20% of the population in some villages had already died.

The worst hit regions include Jayawijaya district in the central highlands and Mimika, near the Freeport/Rio Tinto gold and copper mine. Some areas to the south of the mountains, have also been affected. Late last year forest fires made things worse by destroying gardens, hunting grounds and further drying up water courses.

The Red Cross report said that in two villages reached by helicopter 20% of the population had died, 55% of infants were suffering from malnutrition and 96% of villagers had malaria. It appears that malaria is now rife in areas not susceptible in the past, possibly because of higher temperatures in high altitude areas or because villagers are travelling to lower areas to find water.

Said Jim Carlton of the Australian Red Cross:

Malnutrition and malaria have reached devastating proportions and famine has advanced to the final stages in some villages in the highlands, with children and the elderly the main victims. (The Age 24/12/97)

It is likely the real death toll is far higher, possibly reaching into the thousands, due to the lack of effective relief.

And the misery is set to continue for many months. Even if villagers in their weakened state manage to plant the food staple crop of yams, they will not be ready for harvesting for another six months. Villagers are resorting to foraging for leaves and ferns in nearby forests and hunting whatever animals still remain in the fire-damaged forests.

In Puncak Jaya district, food shortages have been caused by the worst snowfall ever to hit the area. Three villages were reported to be practically empty as villagers left to seek food in nearby settlements. Snow had rotted crops and livestock had died from hunger according to a local village head. Between August and October twenty three people in the village died, far more than in previous years. According to the Dutch–based organisation Stichting Werkgroep Nieuw Guinea, the famine in these villages occurs annually and the government is at fault for not devising a means of dealing with it. (Kompas 23/10/97, comment by SWNG)

How did the situation come to such a pass? It appears that the same early warnings of fires and drought ignored by timber and plantation companies across Indonesia, were also ignored by government officials responsible for West Papua.

This year's severe El Niño climate effect has prevented crop growth since May last year and in August the first drought-related death was reported. But it was not until the following month that the relief operation got going. Even then, the lack of transport meant that abundant supplies of relief have been stuck in warehouses, instead of getting straight to the isolated villages who need them.

According to a December report in the Guardian, there were fewer than two dozen helicopters and planes to make food drops. Pilots were flying a limited number of hours, because of the poor flying conditions. The UK-based human rights organisation Tapol said in its December Bulletin that only one helicopter had been made available by the armed forces, "as compared with the six helicopters that were sent to territory to free the hostages held by the Free Papua Movement, the OPM, in 1996." (Tapol Bulletin 12/97)

A United Nations spokesman, Fritz Loebus, said "there is masses of food in the warehouses but it cannot get to the starving people. It is simply a question of logistics. There are not enough aircraft and there is not enough fuel." (Guardian 8/12/97)

The distinct lack of a sense of urgency on the part of the government is highlighted by President Suharto's refusal to call a state of emergency, thereby alerting the world to the seriousness of the situation. Foreign journalists are not allowed in to report first-hand on the famine, adding to the impression that this is a disaster Jakarta would rather let take its course without undue attention from the outside world. It has remained up to Indonesian journalists, relief workers from national and international agencies and local government officials to try to bring the crisis to the public's attention.

Reports by Indonesian journalists point to the sporadic and misdirected nature of the relief dropped in remote villages. One report quotes local people who said the rice received would only last one day. Others had no containers to boil water to cook the rice. In another village people were given water when what they needed was food.

Some reports have compared the emergency in West Papua with the situation over the border in Papua New Guinea, where fewer people are affected. In PNG a state of emergency has been declared and an international relief effort mounted with strong support from Australia. In West Papua, the United Nations Department of Humanitarian Affairs and the International Committee of the Red Cross have been allowed to start drought relief programmes, but, writes Lee Rhiannon of the Australian group AID/WATCH, urgently needed support from other countries is being limited due to the Suharto government's refusal to alert the world to the unfolding tragedy.

In some areas close to the border, villagers in West Papua have crossed into PNG to gain access to relief supplies brought in with Australian aid, as there is no comparable help in their own home villages. Overall the impression is one of a government far away in Jakarta in the midst of its worst financial crisis, unable or unwilling to cope with a 'regional' crisis at the other end of the archipelago. As one Western diplomat in Jakarta remarked, "I am sceptical that Jakarta really wants to help. For the government the area is the Wild West and they leave it up to the missionaries to distribute aid." (Guardian 8/12/97)

The notion that longer-term problems have played their part in the famine strikes a chord with the International Committee of the Red Cross' chief official in West Papua, Ferenc Meyer. In December he told a Indonesian newspaper:

I doubt whether the disaster that has struck Irian Jaya can be resolved quickly because it is also related to the development in the area, going back for years. I get the impression that the development policies being implemented here are inappropriate and many things have been seriously neglected. (KONTAN 13/12/97)

Mr Meyer did not respond to a question on whether the military operations still going on in the Mapnduma region (where the hostage crisis of early 1996 took place) had been the cause of food shortages there. But a recent report from West Papua in a publication called MamBeramo does raise suspicions about the activities of troops in that area. In December Indonesian television (TVRI) had reported 75 deaths in Bella and Alama villages in the central mountains, from starvation and disease. The armed forces had been quoted as saying that the disaster had been caused by fires which had destroyed thousands of hectares of forest and had burned down people's homes. But, said the MamBeramo report, trusted local sources deny there have been fires in those villages. The report also says a letter from churchmen in West Papua asking the National Human Rights Commission for assistance in getting relief to the villages of Bella, Alama Nggeselma and Mapnduma, had not yet been answered. (MamBeramo 21/1/98)

The current tragedy is rooted in the Indonesian government's treatment of West Papua as a colony to be exploited for its natural resources. Jakarta, with its foreign and home-grown business friends, has made vast profits from West Papua's minerals and timber. In return it has imposed damaging development schemes that serve its own interests.

This is not to say that ordinary Indonesians are not concerned about what is happening in West Papua. From the many letters to the press and student fundraising activities it is clear that frustration about government inaction is widespread.


Jakarta Protest

West Papuans living in the Indonesian capital held a demonstration at the national parliament in October. The Forum for Irian Jaya's Young Generation called for immediate action to alleviate the famine and demanded that a national disaster be declared. Spokesman Andy Manobi said the famine should not have taken place given the huge revenues the government receives from miners PT Freeport Indonesia. "The mining activities give the government an income of US $240 million per year, one third of which should go into the province's coffer. So, why are people dying of hunger?" he asked. (Jakarta Post 24/10/97)

For its part Freeport says it has spent millions of dollars on medical services and supplies, food, water and transport and has worked with the ICRC, the United Nations Development Programme, UNESCO as well as the Indonesian Government to co-ordinate relief programmes since early September. In a letter to an Australian newspaper Ed Pressman, Public Affairs Manager for the Anglo-American mining giant, attacked the author of an article critical of the company. He said his company remained "extremely concerned about the situation in Irian Jaya" and pointed out that in the company's area of operations life-expectancy had risen twofold, infant mortality had dropped and malaria had been greatly reduced. (Letter to Australian Financial Review 29/12/97)

But the real question is not whether Freeport has been providing aid, but why the government, which reaps such rich rewards from its partnership with the company, is all but ignoring the peoples who have been forced to sacrifice so much for the mine.


The Highland Clearances

The knee-jerk reaction to disasters in West Papua is mass resettlement. After the 1989 earthquake in the Soba Valley, south of Wamena, it was decided by government officials that people should no longer live in this seismologically active area, but instead be moved to a lowland area to the south. The plan was to move a total of 43,000 highlanders, starting with 3,500 of those worst affected by the earthquake to lowland areas near the region's main Trans-Irian road, still under construction.

This and earlier attempts to move highlanders to lowland areas failed. Most families simply left the resettlement site and walked home after a few weeks, despite government coercion to have them stay. At least twenty people died at the new site at Elelim, north of the Baliem Valley and many others suffered from malnutrition. Drinking water, which the highlanders were not accustomed to boiling, caused a lot of sickness and the highlanders had little resistance to malaria prevalent at lower altitudes. (See DTE 5, October 1989 and DTE 8, May 1990 for more on this case.)

The main reason why resettlement fails is that land is central to tribal identity and social cohesion in West Papua. Social disintegration and cultural deterioration are the all-too-frequent results of government-driven relocation.

In October last year, it seemed that this time, the lessons of the past had been learned when Governor Jacob Pattipi said that villagers from the drought-affected sub-districts of Kurima, Ninia and Anggruk in Jayawijaya would not be moved from their homes. They were "at one with nature," he said, and would experience "culture shock" if they were moved. He admitted that the attempt to resettle highlanders to Elelim had not been successful. Instead, roads would be built into remote areas, to make them more accessible. (Jawa Pos 28/10/97)

But only months later, resettlement was once again being adopted as the best option for the highlanders. It was decided that they live in villages too small and scattered to be suitable for receiving government services and must be moved to more accessible sites. The occasion for the announcement was Transmigration Day on December 11th. Minister for Transmigration and Resettlement Siswono Yudhohusodho said the government had developed resettlement sites along the Trans-Irian Road which are expected to become centres of growth. According to one report by Antara (the Indonesian official news agency),

"Mr Siswono Yudhohusodho admitted however that it was not easy to implement the idea because of the strong link between the people and their land, and that there should be sociological as well as anthropological engineering to make them willing to move for the sake of better welfare."

This report added that while this "engineering" was being carried out the government was seeking to rehabilitate the present villages. (News and Views Indonesia December 1997).

In the new year Siswono announced more details of the resettlement plans. Of 140,000 people in Jayawijaya identified as isolated, those who lived in villages where the number of people was greater than the carrying capacity of the land, would be targeted for resettlement. Families, who would be resettled under the transmigration scheme, would each receive a house, two hectares of land and guidance in better farming methods.

Help and co-operation from the missionaries will be enlisted to persuade people to move.

The first stage of the effort will be to move 200 families to the Vale Valley, near the Mamberamo River (in the north of the territory) and by the road running from Jayapura to Wamena. The families will be able to grow crops they are used to on the new site but they will be "guided" so that they get better results. Plans for the site have already been drawn up and work will begin in April. Three months after that resettlement will start.

The government plans to use the much-abused Reforestation Fund alongside the state budget to pay for the scheme. If the Vale Valley is forested, trees will be cut down to clear the site -- more deforestation courtesy the Reforestation Fund.

Siswono also suggested that NGOs who want to help overcome famine in Jayawijaya should direct fund towards the resettlement project, as sending relief was only a short-term solution.

It remains to be seen whether this latest attempt will result in the same waste of resources as on past occasions when it would have been better spent on finding more appropriate ways of dealing with recurrent food shortages. There are few details of the site being prepared. But if, as the government says the land is fertile, it is more than likely that somebody will already own it, creating the potential for further conflict. (Source: Suara Pembaruan 9/1/98)