Why the future of West Papua is crucial for us all
by Samira Homerang Saunders
Since the colonial era, West Papuans have been engaged in a long struggle for their independence and freedom from outside rule, first as a Dutch colony, and then, in a rather complex and underhanded turn of events, as an indigenous land occupied by Indonesia. On the world map, the island can be seen split into two, and if anyone were to give pause as to how one island is split into two countries with distinctively different cultural and ethnic identities, we need to trace the series of events that occurred at the moment of decolonization.
With the Asia-Pacific region a battleground for influence during the Cold War, the actions of the Dutch were being closely monitored by the United States. Expecting its own independence to come, West Papua raised the Morning Star flag at the end of 1961; but this same year, Indonesian president Ahmed Sukarno announced Indonesia’s intentions to incorporate West Papua into its territory. With the threat of communist influence in Indonesia, which was engaging in a military build-up with arms supplied by the Soviet Union in order to stake its claim to West Papua, the US urged the Dutch to support Indonesia’s request. An internal memorandum from then US Secretary of State Dean Rusk, outlined the ways in which both parties might be convinced to agree to the US’s proposed course of action, serving their political interests.
Recently declassified documents from the NSA archives confirm that from the beginning, there was no real intention for West Papuans to have any chance of independence. A telegram from the US Department of State refers to the West Papuans as “stone-age, illiterate tribal groups whose horizons are strictly limited…Free election among groups such as this would be much more of a farce than any rigged mechanism Indonesia could devise.”
For a newly independent nation like Indonesia trying to stand on its own legs in the global economy, West Papua’s vast richness in natural resources was a treasure chest. Those riches include the Grassberg mine, one of the largest reserves of gold and copper in the world, operated by Freeport-MacMoran. Today, Grasberg Mine remains one of Indonesia’s most important sources of revenue, and the recent discovery of gold deposits in Wabu Block promises to be even larger, heralding an even greater threat to the villages, food, water sources and culture of indigenous peoples. The development of Wabu Block will lead to an increase in displacement, forcing communities to become either translokal or cross the border to the refugee camps in Papua New Guinea.
In a report from 2014 analyzing satellite images of West Papua over the years, it is noted that roughly 83% of palm oil expansion has occurred at the expense of forests. Government policy allows “palm oil estates to be twice the size of those in other provinces in Indonesia.”
Yet another megaproject slated to take place on West Papuan land is the Trans Papua Highway. Penetrating remote areas, the network of roads is planned to be 2,700 miles in length with the aim of increasing access to the minerals, timber, palm oil plantations and other exploitable natural resources. While the government byline is that the highway is yet another venture that will produce jobs and increase quality of life, the Melanesian communities know only too well what this means for their lands, their customs and ways of life.
The myriad plans that the Indonesian government have for West Papua might possibly produce jobs for some, but what it will certainly do is create toxic waste, poison food and water sources, devastate some of the world’s richest coral reefs, destroy some of the most untouched and biodiverse forest left on our planet, produce large carbon sinks and further displace and oppress the West Papuans. The rainforest area covering the island of Papua is the third largest on the planet. It’s protection is therefore crucial for the planet.
And directly linked to this development, a we see a level of state repression that is barely reported in the international media. In rural areas of West Papua where the increasingly disenfranchised and internally displaced peoples are forced to watch their land be exploited and themselves ethnically cleansed. News from West Papua regularly reports military and police brutality, arrests, and the killing of independence activists. Whilst transmigration, as an official policy, ended in 2000, economic migration continues to this day, and its continuation belies its relative success.In addition to the environmental degradation from mining, millions of hectares of land are set aside by the Indonesian government for palm oil plantations. The production of palm oil increases soil erosion, decreases water quality, leads to loss of forest cover and habitat for endangered species and contributes to climate change through its production of carbon sinks. In fact, Indonesia is the third largest global emitter of greenhouse gasses. West Papuans also note a link to an increase in disease, air pollution and crop pests.
Media blackouts, arrests and the killing of activists are all regular features of life for West Papuans under a regime that has no plans to let go of their most profitable territory. As awareness of the situation in West Papua increases, the Free West Papua Campaign team is working around the clock to build the future their people desire and envision. This July, the Melanesian Spearhead Group Summit (MSG) will be held in Port Vila. A decision will be made as to whether West Papua will finally be granted full membership. If successful, this will be one of the biggest diplomatic wins for them to date. It also may well be crucial for protecting the West Papuan rainforest and the future for us all.