West Papua: An Island in Peril

Independence Struggle Continues as the Government Uses COVID to Isolate the Island

West Papua holds splendors such as Teluk Cenderawasih National Park, but today the government even uses COVID-19 to crack down on street protests against government logging and mining. | Credit: Arbasbarong/WikiCommons

West Papua occupies the Indonesian half of New Guinea, the second largest island in the world after Greenland.

Indonesia unilaterally annexed the former Dutch colony in 1969 with the United Nations referendum “Act of Free Choice.” 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 UN policy on decolonization and self-determination.

The indigenous people declared their jungle-clad province to be an independent state. Armed with arrows and spears as well as a few guns — the obsolete booty of the Dutch — they founded the Organisi Papua Merdeka (OPM), or Free Papua Movement.

For the Indonesians it seemed 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 year was 1988, my third visit to West Papua. Three porters, Tepi, Nadius, Lyndie, and I were on our way to the village of Waniyok, a five-day trek from Wamena, the major outpost of the central highlands. On our fourth day we were approaching Mt Elit, twisting and turning on a path no wider than my foot. The heavy rains had continued throughout the night and into the morning. Papua averages 300 inches of rain annually. We tarped all our gear we were carrying on our backs to keep it dry. 

The thick jungle canopy echoed the sound of birds that took refuge from the rain. Waterfalls started to appear on the steep mountain slopes. It was difficult to keep my footing in the thick mud. At times I found myself on all fours sliding down a trail that at times seemed more like a river. The challenge was to stay upright on both feet until we reached higher ground. By late afternoon I was exhausted as we reached the village of Pileam.

Much of West Papua still remains unmapped and, as a result, untouched tribes hold a part of its mystique, living as they do in an area of rain forest, swamps, and cloud-snagged mountains reaching to heights of 16,000 feet, the highest elevation between the Himalayas and the Andes.

I have built lifelong friendships with many of the indigenous people and have learned much about my inner self through their wisdom. They have taught me the importance of humility and patience, two concepts which are so vital to a fulfilling life.

Why would Indonesia even be interested in this area 3,000 miles from the capital Jakarta? Simple, natural resources — the world’s largest gold and copper mine, vast amounts of timber and oil. Geologists call Papua “elephant country,” a term used for a region with an abundance of natural resources.

What first brought me to this far away land was an article I had read in National Geographic. The Indonesian government, in trying to so-called modernize this ancient culture, had an idea. With a population of roughly two million indigenous people wearing traditional attire consisting of penis gourds and grass skirts, the government decided to drop thousands of jogging shorts via small Cessna planes onto villagers in hopes they would replace their novel attire. When the same planes flew back a few weeks later the pilots saw the villagers were wearing the shorts on top of their heads to protect themselves from the rain. Within months of reading the article I was on my way to Papua and have continued to return over the last thirty years.

For awhile I was leading treks for a company out of Virginia. Taking small groups of people who wanted a glimpse into this remote culture, I worked my way from the highlands to the coastal swamp lands exploring regions few outsiders have ever seen. Looking back, those were amazing times. I was fortunate to learn about a people firsthand, about a culture that grabbed my heart and continues to do so to this day.

The Indonesian government forces its policy of no foreign journalists or UN members allowed in the area. Sealed off from the outside world news and events remain hidden from the outside world.

In 1971 Papuans comprised over 96 percent of the population. Now Papuans make up less than half of the population due to the inward migration of non-Papuan settlers. Many indigenous believe they are facing a slow-motion genocide as they are progressively marginalized and their lands are forcibly expropriated for military-backed logging, oil palm, and mining operations.

The president of Indonesia, Jokowi, believes economic development will trump Papuan nationalism. The UN has turned a blind eye.

The COVID pandemic has hit Papua hard. Access to the area is closed to all outsiders. Villagers are not allowing anyone within their compounds. The few medical facilities that exist are overwhelmed with patients. Most Papuans are being treated within their village.

The moderator of the Papuan council of churches, Reverend Benny Giay, said many West Papuans were resisting the vaccine rollout chiefly because of the role of Indonesian security forces, which he said indigenous Papuans mistrust. In most districts it is the military and police who accompany medical teams to promote the vaccines. But villagers turn them away. Given the on-going violent conflict between Indonesian security forces and West Papuans, as well as decades of human rights abuses and racism against Papuans, Reverend Giay said the resistance was understandable.

Reports in Papua indicate 27,000 cases of COVID with totals rising. However these numbers may only be a fraction of the truth. Only seven respiratory doctors and 73 ventilators are available for 45 hospitals and clinics.

The Indonesian government has used the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to crack down on West Papuan street protests and impose on-line censorship according to Human Rights Watch.

The doctor in charge of the capital Jayapura’s Covid 19 response team stated, “I know this might sound harsh; if you don’t want to die, don’t come to Papua.”

While Papua remains in the grips of COVID, statements like this only support the government’s policy: “Stay out of Papua. It’s our secret war to be determined by our policies.”

Only time will tell if Papua will survive these tumultuous times. Their future is in serious jeopardy as they cry out for help hoping someone will listen.

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