West Papua

Down to Earth Special Issue, October 1999

The Indigenous Peoples' Congress was held only a few weeks after one hundred West Papuan representatives came to Jakarta as part of a long-awaited 'National Dialogue' to discuss the future of their homeland. President Habibie offered nothing. So it was not surprising that the Congress' Papuan contingent was in no mood for compromise. They were united in their message: 'Merdeka' - independence.

The sense of anger was palpable as West Papuan delegates voiced their many grievances against the exploitation and oppression which communities had suffered in over three decades of integration with Indonesia.

The Papuans denounced the 'development' which the Indonesian authorities claim to have brought the people of what is officially called 'the province of Irian Jaya'. The government has seized their ancestral lands and carved it up into packages which it has presented to state-owned or private companies.

Representatives from Sorong, Timika, Yei, Nabire, Wamena, Mamberamo, Manokwari and other indigenous communities presented many examples of how their rights had been violated by logging and mining concessions, large-scale plantations, transmigration, mining and prestige 'mega projects' e.g. the proposed Mamberamo basin development.

There is more at stake than the impoverishment caused by the appropriation of their land and the plundering of natural resources for the benefit of outsiders. Papuans bitterly resent the contempt which the Indonesian government and international and foreign companies have shown for them and their beliefs.

Papuans complain that they are treated as sub-human by the authorities. Their lands have been appropriated with no negotiation – as if they were devoid of human population. Any attempt to claim their rights is met with repression: a constant stream of intimidation, harrassment and killings by the military. Decky Zonggonau related that over two thousand five hundred indigenous people had 'disappeared' from the Paniai area alone since 1963. He had documented 600 killings; the fate of the others was unknown, but he had set up an orphange to care for children abandoned in these atrocities.

They are tired of the corruption; of the collusion between the security forces and logging and mining companies manifest in organised illegal logging, smuggling sandalwood and valuable tree resins (gaharu) and the protection of mining operations.

For many Papuans, the very use of their land by outsiders is a desecration. Tom Beanal, head of the Amungme tribal council, LEMASA, described to participants of a workshop on mining how the highest mountain is like a mother to Amungme. It protects and feeds them and when they die, they return to her lap. This mountain, known to outsiders as Grasberg is now the site of the world's largest gold mine owned by US-based Freeport McMoRan and the UK's Rio Tinto.

In addition to the land rights issues and the massive pollution problems caused by a daily output of 200,000 tonnes of tailings into the local river system, the Freeport mine has brought misery to indigenous women through the high incidence of rape and other forms of violence associated with mineworkers and security forces. Thea Mamayao explained how she and other Timika women had set up their own organisation to fight against this.

Although the Papuan delegates had, in their own words, 'come to Jakarta to tell of our suffering and our hopes', their priority was not to discuss with outsiders what forms of advocacy may bring about some justice or how individual cases might be addressed. Most regarded the Congress as a tool to fight for their identity; as one of several fora to be used to push for their rights. Their overriding agenda was 'Papua Merdeka!' – independence for West Papua.

This stance was exemplified by the refusal of delegates from West Papua to join a drafting team intended to present a consensus view on political issues to Congress with the words:

" We do not want to draw up proposals with other regions that are basically compromises, because West Papua wants independence from the Republic of Indonesia."

"Papua has been used like an innocent virgin forced into prostitution. She is now old and abused. It is time to let her go."
                                                                                                      [Julius Pege, Nabire, Papua]