We could see the village of Pileam tucked away in a deep valley. Tepi, my guide and good friend, started yelling in a high tonal pitch waiting for a response. Seconds later a return yell echoed through the valley walls. Our invitation to enter put a smile on Tepi’s face. Within an hour I was in front of the chief’s hut toting presents, tobacco, and pocket knives, which he graciously grabbed from my hands.
It’s only been a few years since West Papua’s natives exchanged their stone tools for missionary axes and machetes. In some areas, tribes hunt and fish as they have for thousands of years. The men still wear their traditional penis gourds and the women wear grass skirts.
West Papua occupies the Indonesian half of New Guinea. Much of it still remains unmapped, and as a result untouched tribes hold a part of its mystique. It is nestled in a corner of the world where some two million Melanesian people live among rain forests, swamps, and cloud-snagged mountains reaching to heights of 16,000 feet—the highest elevation between the Himalayas and the Andes.
I first arrived in Papua 24 years ago. For years I worked as a tour guide, sharing my knowledge with those few individuals who desired a glimpse into this remote culture. However, my passion is for the people and their fight for independence from Indonesian rule.
Over the last ten years I’ve had the privilege to speak to students at Santa Barbara City College’s anthropology department about the West Papua issue. I have also worked with the local non-profit organization Direct Relief International in bringing small amounts of medical supplies to West Papua.
When Indonesia first took control over West Papua in the 1960s, the indigenous people did not embrace their new rulers. Immediately a rebel movement was created. The movement rapidly grew, fueled by the people’s anger over the central government’s authoritarian approach. For close to 50 years the rebels have been at battle with the Indonesian military. It’s estimated that over 200,000 Papuans have been killed during this time.
The territory, Indonesia’s 26th province and its wealthiest, is home to an enormous gold and copper mine: U.S.-owned Freeport-McMoRan. In the north. huge oil and gas reserves are under development. The island has the largest rain forest outside the Amazon. As one Papuan said, “We have been cursed living on a land rich in resources. Our lives have been turned upside down as Indonesia and the rest of the world steals our wealth.”
The Indonesian government has let multi-nationals enter the province under the heading “resource development.” The French are looking for uranium, the Australians for gold, the British and Americans for natural gas and oil, and the Japanese for timber. Local villagers claim that they are being driven off their traditional lands. Many are being re-located in the lowlands where malaria and dengue fever are causing widespread death.
With a population of two million indigenous peoples spread out over an area the size of California, West Papua is Indonesia’s least populated province. Indonesia sees Papua as elbow-room. Transmigrants from heavily crowded islands such as Java and Suliweisi are arriving in record numbers. Human Rights Watch and medical personnel in Papua are alarmed at the resultant rise in cases in AIDS among remote tribes. There have been allegations that the Indonesian military introduced HIV as a means of wiping out the indigenous peoples of West Papua.
For years the Indonesian government has tried to blanket the Papua issue with laws of special autonomy. Richard Samuelson. co-director of Free West Papua Campaign Oxford, UK, points out that the strategy “was aimed to give indigenous West Papuans a voice directly to the Indonesian central government in Jakarta. It was supposed to protect their rights and cultural identity. But it was a fake from the start, designed as a smoke screen to fool the international community and the U.N.”
In December, 2009, the Indonesian military shot and killed Kelly Kwalik, field commander of the independence movement. This has only provided new impetus to the Papuans’ efforts for independence. Kwalik over the last few years was trying to promote peaceful dialog. With his death, the Papuans realized their fight is long from over. And the hopes and dreams for independence, among a people willing to sacrifice their lives for a future free from Indonesia, will only intensify.
During my last visit, Tepi handed me a letter he had written and wanted me to share with the outside world.
“As a child, I spent a lot of time fishing and shooting at birds with my bow and arrows. I’m an expert archer. I guess in hindsight that’s why I’m still alive.
”At the present time my life is divided between my village and an area called [name withheld].”
“While in [name withheld] I train as a freedom fighter and have been for the last 12 years. I have had skirmishes with the Indonesian military not too far from [name withheld]. I have seen my arrows penetrate the bodies of young soldiers probably no older than me.
“My first death arrow devastated me. I couldn’t sleep for weeks but as time passes on I grow numb to the killings. I have seen what the military have done to my people and I realize my fate and the destiny of my people depend on our success. Being a freedom fighter carries a tremendous responsibility. If I’m caught by the soldiers and the whereabouts of my background is established my whole village would be attacked.”
“Like all people I have dreams and it’s hope that impels me to wake up every morning, breathe in the cool air and realize that today is a new day and the infinite possibility that this day could bring change. Hope is what drives my vision for a free West Papua.”
A sovereign state controlled not by the Indonesian military but by a people of honor and passion whose resilience is tested everyday in a faraway corner of the world.
Santa Barbaran Craig Harris first traveled to West Papua after reading an article about it in National Geographic. He has made documentaries on West Papua and on the Tea Fire, among other subjects.