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The Human Tragedy of West Papua (Page 3 of 3)

Economic “Development”: Entrenching Poverty

WikiLeaks released cables in 2010, revealing that U.S. diplomats blame the Indonesian Government for “chronic underdevelopment” in West Papua, and believe that human rights abuses and rampant corruption are fuelling unrest. Still, military ties between the two countries were renewed.

The cables also confirmed that U.S.-based mining company Freeport-McMoRan, which owns the word’s largest gold-copper mining venture – called Grasberg – in Papua province, has paid millions of dollars to members of the Indonesian security forces to help “protect” its operations.

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Concessions for this company were granted by Indonesia in 1967, two years before the dubious independence vote. Declassified U.S. policy documents divulge its support for Indonesian rule – this arrangement meant the U.S. could carry out its plans to carve up Papua’s rich natural resources. The then-national security adviser, Henry Kissinger wrote to President Richard Nixon just prior to the vote, that a referendum on independence “would be meaningless among the Stone Age cultures of New Guinea.” Kissinger later became a board member of Freeport. He is described in a 1997 CorpWatch article as being the “company’s main lobbyist for dealings with Indonesia.”

Freeport is Indonesia’s biggest taxpayer, reportedly channeling $9.3 billion to Jakarta between 1992 and 2009. And yet, Papua, where Freeport’s Grasberg mine is located, is the poorest province in Indonesia, with one of the “most alarming food insecurity and malnutrition rates.” About 30 percent of the population lives in poverty, compared to 13 percent in East Java and the infant mortality rate in West Papua is at least twice the national average.

Survival International’s Asia Campaigner Sophie Grig told The Diplomat: ‘’The mine has caused environmental devastation by discharging waste directly into the local river, on which the local Kamoro tribe depends for drinking water, fishing and washing, and Indonesia employs soldiers to protect the area resulting in reports of grave human rights violations such as torture, rape and killings of Papuans.’’

She notes that the HIV/AIDS rate in Papua province is up to 20 times higher than the rest of the country.

Years of Indonesia’s transmigration policies have resulted in non-ethnic Papuans forming 50 percent of West Papua’s population. With development and urban influences comes a change to the traditional way of life, the influx of workers and security personnel, for example, resulting in the emergence of karaoke bars and prostitution. In 2011, the Papua AIDS Prevention Commission revealed that the area with the highest increase of cases and overall infection rate was Mimika district, which is home to the Grasberg mine.

The latest “development” project, the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE), is already showing signs of entrenching poverty in the region.

August 2010 marked the launch of the mega MIFEE project, which Yudhoyono announced would “Feed Indonesia, then feed the World.” The venture earmarks 1.28 million hectares in southern Papua for crops such as: timber, palm oil, rice, corn, soya bean and sugar cane. Indonesia produces roughly half of global supply of palm oil and plantation expansions in other parts of the archipelago have been linked to rapid rates of deforestation and land conflicts. A report by the Asian Human Right’s Commission exposes MIFEE as being part of a “global land-grabbing phenomenon,” which strings together powerful state and private actors in a dubious chain of collusion. The report notes that specific to MIFEE is “the military-business-political framework and the climate of political intimidation and oppression present in West Papua.” The report highlights that key players in MIFEE are all politically connected, raising serious questions about the blurring of political, security and corporate interests. The Comexindo Group, for example, is owned by Hashim Djojohadikusumo, the brother of Prabowo Subianto, the ex-special forces general and son-in-law of former President Suharto.

Customary land tenures are being wiped out without the free, prior and informed consent of local villagers. Compensation given to communities that are duped into handing over their land is beyond inadequate; lured by empty promises of greater prosperity or intimidated by a company’s security personnel – indigenous people are left hungry and with deep regret. According to Awas MIFEE, a network of activists monitoring the mega project, the average rate of compensation to an affected community is about $30 per hectare, a “pitiful” amount considering the many generations a forest can sustain.

MIFEE is touted as a source of jobs for impoverished Papuans but numerous accounts contest this. Indigenous Papuans lack the knowledge and experience to gain meaningful employment in these plantations and are given menial jobs that pay below a living wage, while lucrative positions go to migrants. A massive influx of workers is expected. Government predictions, reported by The Jakarta Globe, suggest the population of Merauke could rise from about 175,000 to 800,000 as a result of the project, making Papuans the ethnic minority in their ancestral lands.

Papuans are traditionally hunter-gatherers, living on staples of sago starch and wild meat, foraging for tropical fruit, and cultivating plots of sweet potato and other plants in small gardens. Since chunks of forest in Zanegi were cleared to make way for acacia and eucalyptus plantations, the resulting timber destined for power stations in Korea, the villagers are having a harder time finding food. A local nurse, interviewed in the documentary Our Land is Gone, points to the rise in cases of infants suffering chronic malnutrition — from one a year in the past up to a dozen since the forest was destroyed. In the first half of 2013, five infants reportedly died of malnutrition. Pollution from fertilizers and wood-chipping has also caused a surge in cases of bronchitis and asthma. A man interviewed in the documentary laments that the company, a subsidiary of Medco Group, broke its promise to leave a buffer of 1500 meters around sacred sites and cleared sago groves and destroyed birds of paradise habitat. Another villager said, ‘’We thought they had come here to develop our village but in reality they are crushing us, to put it bluntly, they are stomping on us.’’

Two UN experts have warned that moves to convert 1-2 million hectares of rainforest and small-scale farming plots to export-led crop and agro-fuel plantations in Merauke could affect the food security of 50,000 people.

Survival International’s Grig said, ‘‘It is ironic that a project designed to ensure food security is robbing self-sufficient tribal people of their land and livelihoods – which have sustained them for many generations. The same human rights problems that have plagued the communities around the Grasberg mine are now beginning to emerge in the MIFEE area too. It is an emerging humanitarian and environmental crisis.’’

The struggle continues

The West Papuan struggle for self-determination is unwavering despite half a century of Indonesian security forces brutally muzzling independence sentiments.

ETAN, a group which advocated for the independence of East Timor from Indonesian rule, astutely wrote that by branding all Papuans as enemies of the state every time they try to exercise their right to freedom of expression, and by continuing to commit gross human rights abuses, the resolve of the Papuan people to be liberated will grow stronger – Indonesia’s fears will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This month, the Free West Papua Campaign (FWPC) opened an office in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, where the Mayor raised the Morning Star Flag alongside the PNG national flag in a show of solidarity. FWPC wrote on social media: ‘‘Indonesia can draw as many lines on the map as it likes, but it can never separate the spirit of the people of New Guinea. We are one people, one soul, one Kumul [bird of paradise] Island.’’

Gemima Harvey (@Gemima_Harvey) is a freelance journalist and photographer.

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