I received a late-night phone call from my friend Mike who lives in Portland, Oregon. “There’s going to be the 38th environmental law conference at the University of Oregon and nine West Papuans have been invited to attend.” My heart was pounding. Rarely are Papuans given the chance to leave their open cage. It has been this way ever since West Papua became a part of Indonesia in 1969.
West Papua is Indonesia’s 26th province. It became so under a suspicious piece of legislation called the “Act of Free Choice.” For years West Papua was a Dutch colony, but Indonesia had plans for this remote corner of the world. The Dutch were preparing West Papua for independence. It even went as far as the Papuans creating their own flag, the morning star, and a national anthem. However, a team of geologists had been exploring this hidden corner of the world and came to the conclusion that minerals, specifically copper, were abundant. Now, Papua had taken on a whole new perspective, one that has haunted the indigenous people of this land for over 50 years.
In the 1960s the Republic of Indonesia was finishing up becoming a country, but there was one important link that needed to become part of the chain in Indonesia’s vast archipelago. The Dutch had other ideas and continued to prepare the Papuans for independence. But outside pressure by the United Nations and the United States caused the Dutch to cave in. What followed will go down in history as one of the biggest UN shams, a disgrace to the organization.
With help from the U.S. under something called the “New York agreement,” which led to the “Act of Free Choice,” 1,000 Papuans out of a population of 1.9 million were given the right to vote at gunpoint as to whether to become part of Indonesia or not. What should have been a one-person one-vote consultation of the Papuans about the future status of their nation became an Indonesian-controlled mockery of the United Nations policy on de-colonization and self-determination. The results were obvious. Papua is now under the control of Indonesia.
For the Indonesians it seems to matter little that the people of Papua belong to a different culture of the South Seas, that they have animist beliefs, praying to the gods of the water and sun, an economy based on pigs rather than money, and hardly anything in common with the Asian, predominantly Muslim, culture that abhors pork.
The indigenous, however, declared their jungle-clad province to be an independent state. Armed with arrows and spears as well as a few guns, obsolete booty of the Dutch, they founded the organization Free Papua-Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM). To this day, the OPM pounds in practically every Papuans’ heart.
Of the nine Papuans who were supposed to attend the Portland conference, seven had their visas rejected. Not surprising! The two that did arrive gave a presentation regarding Freeport-McMoRan, the giant U.S.-based mining company that has been in West Papua since the 1960s. Originally a copper mine, the company recently found gold in its diggings, and now Freeport is considered one of the largest gold mines in the world. Freeport extracts some eight million U.S. dollars every day. The mine is on land that belongs to the Amungme tribe, who have been at war with the mining company since its beginning.
The two Papuans at the conference focused on the mine’s environmental destruction over the years. Massive amounts of tailings from the mine’s processing have polluted sacred river systems as well as destroyed animal life so vital as a food source of these indigenous people. Villages have been relocated overnight as the mining company pushes to devour more and more land.
Freeport has contracted with the Indonesian government for at least the next 10 years. However, with the vast amounts of minerals in Papua, and Freeport being the largest foreign taxpayer providing millions of dollars to the Indonesian government, they could be around for a while.
The two Papuans received a standing ovation after their presentation. It was their first time in America, and I could feel their excitement in relaying their message to this large audience. A message that begins with awareness leads to hope and ends in victory.