Songs of worries, songs of strength

Workshop participants singing, Arfu, May 2011 (Photo: Adriana Sri Adhiati)

DTE 89-90, November 2011

...and some hopes for securing sustainable livelihoods.

Notes from a workshop co-organised by LP3BH, Yalhimo, Mnukwar, DTE and PPP.

Nanoto tompan fo wojaro, nanoto tompan fo wojaro

Nanipun sorsoremo, nanipun sorsoremo


Let us see the star rising from the sea

to stand on the peak

to convey the news

(that) something will happen in Mpur


Something was indeed happening in Mpur. The song above was composed by participants in their own language, Amberbaken, during a climate change workshop in May 2011. Worries about the changing landscape, bringing uncertainties to their livelihoods, were a dominant theme at the event. 

The Amberbaken area lies on the northeastern coast of the Bird's Head region, West Papua, and is the home of the Mpur people. Linguist Malcolm Ross tentatively assigned the Mpur/Amberbaken language as one of the three West Papuan language families. It was once also catalogued as a language isolate (an independent language) by Ethnologue[1] as it is a relatively independent language.

Until less than a decade ago, Amberbaken was a relatively isolated place. The military clamp-down on the OPM (Free Papua Organisation) had been very heavy in the area, and consequently access to it was restricted.

Historically however, Amberbaken did not have a reputation for being isolated. Local folklore tells a story of how rice - which is not a traditional Papuan staple - was brought into the area and became a locally cultivated crop. The story goes:

A man escaped from his detention at the Tidore court during the time the northeastern coast of Papua was under the domination of the Tidore Kingdom. He came home bringing rice seeds wrapped in his curly hair. From then on the people of Mpur grow their own rice as well as sago and sweet potato as their staples.

The local rice - which is a matter of local pride - tastes much better than the raskin (government-subsidised rice provided for the poor people).

Today, a leg of the Trans-Papua Road connecting Manokwari and Sorong (a distance of around 568 km) passes through the area. It is helping to make the Amberbaken more accessible, but it is also making it easier for outsiders to come and exploit the area's rich natural resources. Amberbaken's isolation is being broken once more but this time much more rapidly and on a massive scale.

The roar of chainsaws and bulldozers tearing down the pristine forests has been countered by the loud protests of environmental activists at the development of the Trans-Papua road. The road has allegedly cut through parts of North Tambrauw Nature Reserve.[2] The protests underline concerns that the new artery aimed at bringing the new blood of investment to the region will also suck the life-blood out of the local communities. The revenue it brings may well only line the pockets of members of the local government elite, while the newly opened access brought by the road will speed up the destruction brought by oil palm plantation development and mining.

JASOIL, the local NGO coalition working on social and environmental justice, has studied the development plans of West Papua province. After overlaying maps of the plans, the group concluded that between 2000 - 2010 the fastest increase in the rate of deforestation occurred in several districts including Manokwari district and now also the newly created Tambrauw district, where Amberbaken is located.

The Mpur people have learned about the problems associated with oil palm plantations from the experience of transmigrants living in transmigration villages in the palm oil zone, some 60km away from Amberbaken. The transmigrants have introduced a new kind of economy, which includes selling garden produce - most vegetable and fruit supplies from the Manokwari region come from the transmigration sites. But they have  also witnessed the land provided for them under transmigration programme slowly but surely deteriorating following the introduction of oil palm.

Problems around the transfer of land ownership for transmigration sites persist today. They are the fire hidden inside a mound of rice chaff (as a local saying goes) which could flare up at any time. Demands from the previous Papuan owners to return the land have often led to conflicts, sometime with fatalities. None of the parties can sleep peacefully until this matter is settled.

Land grabs and ecological destruction - a formula for climate injustice

Down To Earth and the Manokwari-based NGO LP3BH ran a Training of Trainers workshop on the theme of Climate Justice in Manokwari, March 2011. As follow up to this workshop, five NGOs organised jointly a workshop for village leaders in Amberbaken.

During the workshop, the issue of climate justice was linked to local concerns about oil palm development, how the increase in demand for alternatives to fossil-based energy may lead to conversion of forests into plantation estates for so-called renewable energy, and how the solution for one group of countries problem creates problems for others.

Such false solutions to climate change, which is itself the result of ecological imbalance, add to the existing ecological problems and those which might develop in the future, should there be no change in the development model.

Papua, a land where injustice prevails in most aspect of people’s lives, is also on the receiving end of climate injustice. 


Isok ifo burodaiimo

bahabimo burodaiimo

bahabimo mugouwaoroh

monuh mogetew


Those people chase after us

Kill us

Kill our blood

To pay for this land

(song composed in Meyakh language at the workshop)


A land rich in resources that will not last forever, Papua is like a cake and many people are eager to get their hands on a slice. Those people - the ones eager for a slice of the cake - include Papuans who are keen to reap some cash rewards from acquiring positions of power and control over the resources. The push to gain political power, as well as pemekaran - the creation of new districts by dividing old ones -  has been splitting families and clans. Some local groups in Amberbaken have been worried about splitting Manokwari district to create a new district - Tambrauw (named after the mountain range in the region) - at the western end of the region. They feel this will only benefit a few people rather than improving the welfare of whole community. In their view, pemekaran only helps shorten the distance for negotiation and decision-making between investors and the self-enriching local elites. And those people are not always trustworthy.


Seeking a sustainable solution

Inta nek Papua

nek mafuno

war disiyo

soro bundake


ilmu bwano jasa bwano

inun mbe intar waro dokone



My land Papua

land of beauty

water of refreshment

mountains covered in clouds


for the calling of knowledge and service

I have to go

leaving my land of Papua

(song in Kebar language, composed at the workshop)


The Mpur are aspirational people. Given the opportunity they will send their children far away from home to get a higher education, even to another island, if necessary, since only limited education facilities are available in the area. While the arrival of big oil palm estates looks imminent,[3] during the recent workshop, the Mpur participants expressed an interest in looking for positive alternatives to oil palm to boost the local economy. The thinking goes like this: once local people's welfare is improved, they will better be able to resist the temptation to sell their land. They know that more often than not, they would end up worse off if they relinquished their resources. Not only would they lose the resources that are the basis of their livelihoods, but they would also lose their cultural and psychological connections to the forests.


nek te eyen

land is our mother

(Mpur expression)


Aware of the conflict that might erupt within the community once they start giving in to outside pressure, they are looking inside their own community - to strengthen and improve their customary (adat) rules. Adat has been tried and tested and has helped them to survive over the centuries. This strengthening work to 'look inside' to better equip themselves to face change has just started. 

One woman's story

Selviana Anari is a guru jemaat[4] in her late 20s, with the main responsibilities of teaching the Gospel, leading church services and taking care of the church community. Her choice of work is not typical of Papuan women. Most women in her community stay at home to take care of the housework and the forest garden, and look after children. In a conversation with DTE's Adriana Sri Adhiati, Selviana outlined some of the main concerns facing women in her area.

Selviana grew up in a religious family. Her father and husband are also guru jemaat. Although uncommon, the call to become a religious leader seems natural, given her family background. To become a guru jemaat she has had to go through a special religious teacher college - in her case, it is equivalent to high school - that makes her one of the most highly-educated people in the community.

For women in the community, her church runs a special religious service at home, followed by other activities. They also provide home economics training (eg sewing, cooking skills) for women in the community.

Among the many challenges of her work, she admits that pemekaran is quite a substantial one. One of her main tasks is to maintain the size of her congregation. If it is not growing in number, at least it should not be decreasing. Pemekaran, however, has shifted the administrative borders where her congregation lives. This makes her worried that her congregation members might join other churches with better access to religious facilities under the newly established district.

Pemekaran and the opening up of the region by the Trans-Papua road development, has also indirectly influenced her family's decision to move house. The house they live in now used to be a hut in their forest garden. They moved there to be near the new road. Currently, around 25 families like hers have settled in the area, forming a new village, Wasanggon, which in turn is supporting pemekaran because of the expansion of facilities it brings with it.

The issue of pemekaran (at district and provincial level) is one that doesn't get the attention it deserves given its effects on Papuan communities and ecosystems, as it leads to more military personnel, more resource extraction, and the imposition of government structures which are divisive for local communities.

Selviana also pointed out that the high rate of maternal and infant mortality, due to the limited basic health facilities, remains a major problem for women and children in the community.  Her observation confirms reports that put Papua among the regions with highest maternal mortality rate in Indonesia, while the country itself is already ranked bottom of the Southeast Asia table on maternal mortality.[5]

Another common problem in the community is domestic violence against women by their husbands, mostly linked to alcoholism. A Manokwari-based NGO, LP3BH, has been trying to address the problem in its campaigns in the past couple of years, in line with their work to promote human rights.[6]


[1] A publication of SIL International, which studies lesser-known languages, with the primary intention of translating the Bible into such languages.

[2] Jubi, 7 Jan 2010, ‘Jalan Trans Papua Barat, Serobot Kawasan Cagar Alam Tambrauw Utara’

[3] news about inauguration of a new oil palm estate of some 15,500 hectares in Sidey owned by subsidiary of the Medco Group, one of Indonesia’s super-conglomerates. Sidey is a neighbouring area of Amberbaken.

[4] The teacher of the congregation - see The history of Christianity in Indonesia, eds. Jan S. Aritonang, Karel, A. Steenbrink