Yosepha Alomang - a Papuan woman fighting for human and environmental rights

Down to Earth No 63  November 2004

The indigenous Amungin human rights defender, Yosepha Alomang, grew up in the shadow of the huge Freeport/Rio Tinto gold and copper mine and under Indonesian military oppression in West Papua. She survived numerous hardships as an indigenous woman in a world dominated by men and by the Indonesian security forces, going on to form her own human rights organisation and to gain international recognition as winner of the Goldman Sachs Environmental Prize in 2001.

The 2003 book, Yosepha Alomang, the struggle of a Papuan woman challenging oppression (Pergulatan seorang Perempuan Papua Melawan Penindasan), is based on a series of interviews with Mama Yosepha, as she is widely known. These took place at the offices of Papuan human rights group, Elsham in conditions that were far from ideal - the process was being watched by the security forces, and a tribal war which broke out between Amungme and Dani meant that Yosepha had to cut this work short to return home.

For Papuan human rights defender John Rumbiak, Mama Yosepha is a symbol of the suffering of the Amungme people, and her story bears this out. Yosepha Alomang was born in the 1940s, in Tsinga, or Nusulanop in Amungkal (Amungme language). She was orphaned as a baby and lived with her step-father. She moved around a lot during her childhood, along with the other villagers, under orders of the Dutch, then Indonesian governments. She was nine years old when she first saw an Indonesian during one of these forced relocations.

Yosepha married in the early 1970s after a few years at school, by which time she had become skilled at midwifery and, through the Catholic church, had worked to help others.

When her husband failed to pay a bride price for Yosepha as required by customary law, Yosepha saved up for it herself, to allay her family's anger. This was a sign of the determination and self-reliance she had developed from a very young age - indeed this had been forced upon her by her position as an orphan in a large step-family where she was not popular with her step-brothers and sisters.

Yosepha's husband began to drink heavily - for which she blames the Indonesian military, the government and Freeport, as it was they who introduced alcoholic drink into the community, intentionally, she believes, to destroy Papuan families. Yosepha campaigned to get alcohol made illegal in Timika. Once, when Yosepha was away from home, her husband sold her land to spend the money on drink. When her youngest child was 8 months, Yosepha left her husband, because his drinking was destroying the family. She wanted to carry on her work as and with whom she liked.

Yosepha had 6 children - the first, Johanna, was born in 1974 but died in 1977 from starvation while the family was hiding in the forest from army operations. The military action against the local population was launched after hundreds of Amungme people cut a Freeport pipeline. The protest had itself resulted from the killing of thirty people after a peaceful protest against Freeport's theft of Amungme land in Agimuga. Bombs and bullets then totally wiped out Waa and Kwakmi villages - and villagers fled to hide in the forests.


Freeport/Rio Tinto

The relationship with Freeport/Rio Tinto has dominated Yosepha's life and work. The book contains an account of Freeport's presence in Papua, from the company's negotiations with Suharto regime in 1966, through the violent history of the mine's development and the Indonesian military's brutal response to whoever challenged the takeover of indigenous land or wholesale destruction of the environment. This included mass protests in 1994 and a large-scale military crack-down in 1994-1995 which saw the massacre of eleven adults and children in Hoea village.

Among Yosepha's many protests against the company and the military security guards in its pay, was an attempt to bring some benefits to local people. Assisted by the church, Yosepha and several other women set up a cooperative, called Kulalok, to market their fruit and vegetables. Yosepha felt that Freeport should support the local people by buying from them, but the company imported these goods from outside Papua, flying them into Timika airport. So the women planned a way of drawing Freeport's attention to their group by destroying the imported fruit and vegetables. With the money earned from the co-op, the women paid for homes built with batako (concrete bricks) and supplied with electricity.

In 1991, Yosepha held a three-day demonstration at Timika airport, by lighting fires on the airfield, to protest against the refusal by Freeport and the Indonesian government to listen to local people's concerns and against the continuing ill-treatment of Papuans.

In 1994, Mama Yosepha was arrested on suspicion of helping OPM independence fighter Kelly Kwalik. Along with another Papuan woman, Mama Yuliana, she was locked in a container for human faeces and urine, flushed from a toilet. Mama Yosepha spent one month there, up to her knees in faeces.

Two years later, Yosepha launched a civil lawsuit against the Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold in the US, suing the company for personal injury and environmental damages.

Yosepha also worked to free other Papuan prisoners held in containers by the security forces around the Freeport mine. She has been a constant thorn in Freeport's side, repeatedly demanding that the company answers for the damage inflicted on local people's lands and livelihoods and protesting against human rights violations.

When news of the Wanagon dam collapse of May 2000 reached Mama Yosepha, she immediately returned to Timika from Jayapura, and phoned Freeport. She secured permission to visit the inundated village downstream of the dam, Banti II. She saw how the flood had swept away all gardens and houses and livestock. Mama Yosepha returned to Jayapura with several other Amungme people. They organised a large demonstration outside the provincial parliament.

In 2001, Mama Yosepha set up Yahamak, the Foundation Against Violence and for Human Rights, using money from the Yap Tham Hien human rights prize, awarded to her in 1999. Its purpose was to continue the struggle for human rights in Timika.

In the end, her dogged campaigns against Freeport were successful in that the company decided unilaterally to award Yosepha funding for her work. Shortly before Mama Yosepha went to the States to receive her Goldman award, Freeport announced that it would give her USD248,000. In the book, Mama Yosepha says she challenged Freeport to put its money where its mouth was. An agreement was signed under which Freeport funded the construction of the Yosepha Alomang Complex - consisting of a clinic, meeting hall, orphanage, human rights violations monument - then used by Yahamak for its programmes.

Questions were raised by contributors to the book as to how far this new financial relationship with Freeport changed or weakened Mama Yosepha's attitude and whether it would curb her criticism of the company. However, late in 2003, after a major pit collapse at the Freeport's giant Grasberg mine killed 9 workers, Yosepha was once again calling on Freeport to get out of Papua. At a joint press conference of Yahamak, Elsham and Walhi Papua, she said:

"I say Freeport must close this month (December) because many people have died, Freeport must be held responsible for these casualties, including the large scale, and wide spread, destruction of the environment." (Elsham News Service, 5/Dec/2003)


Challenging adat
Mama Yosepha's religious faith has been a very strong influence on her life, as have Amungme adat (customary) beliefs and traditions. However, by organising direct actions such as the airport protest, by putting herself at the forefront of action and campaigns, and by adopting a challenging attitude towards Freeport, the military and Indonesian government as well as towards Papuan men, Yosepha frequently found she was going against Amungme adat. This is evident from what Mama Yosepha says about Lemasa, the organisation set up, with her help, to present a united Amungme voice against Freeport. The male-dominated leadership would not listen to her, Yosepha says, so she did not play a big role in Lemasa, but eventually set up her own human rights organisation, Yahamak.

I often say openly that if you are hard [keras] I will also be hard. But I say that because I work hard to defend myself and fight against violence towards women and other victims of men or outsiders in military uniforms or from the civil government or Freeport. Whoever they are. You could say I am not like other women. I speak up and fight. Never mind if my Indonesian isn't very good. I convey what I feel as a woman. And I think that my attitude and my struggle represent the attitude and experience of women in Papua every day. I can't turn back now. (p.30)

I am aware that I belong to this culture, I myself know that although I am part of this culture, this isn't good because it demeans women. Eventually I became aware that opposing these traditions is right thing for me to do because I'm opposing traditions that aren't right, which demean one group of people.

In her work, Yosepha was encouraged and supported by human rights defender, John Rumbiak, as well as Pater Nator Gobay and Pater John Jonga. In his introduction to the book, Nator Gobay says:

Mama Yosepha really opposed the attitude of glorifying men, while women were held in a lower position. So her emancipation was very evident. She challenged cultural currents that demeaned the dignity and position of women. Maybe this wouldn't be a problem in another tribe, but here this was not allowed at all. And Yosepha challenged all this openly - she is a very strong woman. (p.xv)

(Source: Yosepha Alomang, Pergulatan Seorang Perempuan Papua Melawan Penindasan, European Commission and Elsham Papua, June 2003. See also Latitudes Magazine [Bali] August 2004: 'Mama of Papua' by Margiyono.)