Case Study: WEST PAPUA’S CULTURAL IDENTITY
West Papua borders the independent nation of Papua New Guinea.
The island has some 245 different tribal peoples. Indigenous peoples in West Papua and Papua New Guinea speak some 15% of the world’s known languages.
West Papua together with the rest of the island of New Guinea contains the second largest virgin rainforest after the Amazon.
The peoples and environments of West Papua have been challenged by the Indonesian government’s development projects and the extraction of resources by large corporations.
In an effort to assert their culture, there has been an ongoing call for independence by West Papuans.
Following the departure of the Dutch in 1962, and a brief period of UN administration, Indonesia took over the administration of West Papua in 1963.
In 1969, West Papua became the 26th province of Indonesia, following a UN-supervised Act of Free Choice, the legitimacy of which has been debated by some observers. Later, the province was renamed Irian Jaya.
Since then, there has been an ongoing call for independence by the people of West Papua, led by the Free Papua Movement (OPM), in an effort to assert and maintain their culture.
Anthropologist and historian Eben Kirksey, a scholar at the University of Oxford, points out that the Indonesian government has tried to suppress Papuan culture.
He says, “Historically, any Papuan cultural expression that does not fit neatly within Indonesian national ideology has been silenced.”
The Indonesian government, he adds, does not recognise West Papuan indigenous rights to land, which is central to both their physical and cultural survival.
West Papua is home to some 245 different tribal peoples, each with its own language and culture.
The highlands are densely populated regions, where bigger tribes such as the Nduga and Amungme live and survive by shifting cultivation and hunting.
The Indonesian government has placed pressure on indigenous communities and cultures in West Papua.
The appropriation of land for new settlements, forestry concessions, mining projects including oil, gas, copper, and gold and farming, as well as military presence has infringed upon indigenous rights to land, resources and culture.
West Papua hosts one of the world’s largest copper and gold mines, the Grasberg mine in which US based Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold has a majority stake. Despite this source of wealth, the people of West Papua have remained poor and separatist leaders say Indonesia has plundered its resources with little in return.
Extraction of the mine’s resources has been accompanied by degradation of the surrounding environment, most notably dumping of untreated tailings into the Aghawaghon River system where the Amungme people live.
According to the New Internationalists this has resulted in hundreds of deaths within the Amungme community.
Throughout its long history in West Papua, the Freeport mines have relied on security provided by the Indonesian armed forces.
The Australian Council for Overseas Aid has reported these security officers allegedly engaging in acts of intimidation, torture, shooting and ‘disappearing’ local people.
An Indigenous Voice
In 1999, Tom Beanal, a leader of the indigenous Amungme people who has long fought a campaign against the mining corporation Freeport, made a statement to the UN Commission on Human Rights.
He said, “Any form of negotiations, which are linked to our land and which are being held between the government and Indonesian as well as foreign companies, always occur without the consultation or the consent of the indigenous people of West Papua.”
He continued, “Millions of hectares of Papuan lands have been plundered by the Indonesian government and handed over to foreign companies and trans-migrants. Our forests, mountains, sago gardens, indigenous lands, sacred places, all the natural resources are being plundered, squeezed, crushed, and then annihilated.”
“The indigenous people, who are the traditional owners of the lands, are increasingly becoming squatters … because their ancestral lands are being used by governments and companies. The Papuan culture is more and more marginalised, as it is considered inferior…”
Special autonomy legislation came into effect in West Papua on 1 January, 2002.
Under the new laws, West Papua will receive 70% of oil and gas revenues and 80% of revenue from natural resources such as forestry, fisheries and mining.
But many have rejected the package as it does not offer a solution to infringement on indigenous land, resources and way of life.
The long-established Free Papua Movement wants nothing less than a referendum.
According to the historian Eben Kirksey, the word merdeka or freedom is an important West Papuan political concept and is a key to understanding contemporary Papuan culture and the struggle for independence.
The term unites West Papua’s diverse cultural groups and incorporates concepts of equitable development, environmental sustainability and political independence.
Most Papuans in rural areas desire more than an independent nation-state.
They hope for new systems of governance based on indigenous cultural practices. This would include indigenous modes of authority and a social and legal order that combines indigenous traditions of oration with written legislation.
For many West Papuans who struggle for self determination, indigenous leadership and control of land and resources is central to achieving the right to participate in cultural life.