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Story of West Papua

August 8, 2012

Niall Fahy recently wrote about opportunities in West Papua. I thought I would share with you part of what he wrote. But before I do that I want to share with all of you something –

I myself have found a great opportunity. The posting is in West Papua. Long –lived geographically diverse operations – Here was it, a line cool enough to floor me. I read it when I was looking for global opportunities on net. The line is up there on the home page of world’s leading international mining company, FCX. They offer innumerable global opportunities and strive to provide best environment possible for a well-trained and diverse workforce.

For quite some time I did not know where to apply to – British Petroleum, Rio Tinto, Amoco, Union Oil, Shell, Texaco, Mobil, Esso, Phillips or FCX? They all promise best possible work environment and loads of money. The line helped me choose – FCX it is now – Will soon spread the joy on Facebook too. Do like it.

Anyway here is about West Papua, a few lines from the article by Niall Fahy, an Irish guy living in Australia –

I first met Sem Karoba in Ireland in 2002. Sem is of the Lani tribe; their home is in the Baliem valley of West Papua. During his adolescence Sem had been selected by the tribal elders to be an emissary of the people. His training as a warrior ceased, and he left the forest to begin studying English. This was unprecedented amongst his people, and born of an ominous necessity. The Lani needed somebody to speak for them in the world, to tell the story of what was happening to their land and culture, and to ask for help.

West Papua is the western half of the island of New Guinea, situated to the north of Australia. It is one of the most biologically diverse areas of Earth, home of the bird of paradise and believed to contain countless undiscovered species. West Papua’s indigenous population consists of over 300 tribes, some of which have never been contacted by outsiders. The island is considered to be the most linguistically diverse region in the world. Until 1962 Western New Guinea was a colony of the Netherlands. The Dutch had intended to leave an independent state on their departure; elections were held and the New Guinea Council took office in 1961. But Indonesia recognized the potential value of this land to their eastern border, and threatened to invade with help from the Soviet Union. A potential alliance between these two did not appeal to the United States, who pressured the Dutch into handing the territory over to Indonesia.

Part of the agreement was that a democratic referendum would take place, allowing all adult Papuans to vote on their future self-determination. But it came as little surprise in 1969 when Indonesia annexed the country, which they now call Irian Jaya, through the UN sponsored ‘Act of Free Choice’. Roughly a thousand local officials were rounded up to vote. With guns trained on them, they were told to choose Indonesian rule or die. Thus began a reign of murder, rape, detention and torture that continues today. Estimates of the number of Papuans killed by the Indonesian army over the last forty years vary from 100,000 to 300,000.

The Papuans certainly haven’t taken it lying down though. A widely supported independence movement known as Organisasi Papua Merdeka (the OPM, or Free Papua Movement) was founded in 1965. Its military wing has united tribes, some formerly each other’s enemies, against their invaders. They fight a guerrilla war, using spears and bows against the army’s guns and helicopters. But they know the forest and the mountains — away from the roads, they’re unbeatable. So the army began burning and bombing villages. Following the assassination of prominent advocate of Papuan independence Theys Eluay in 2001, death threats were made against Sem and his second trip to Ireland was hurriedly organized by supporters. He felt that he had found solidarity in Ireland as a nation that had known foreign occupation, calling it his second homeland.

In the mourning tradition of his ancestors, Sem wears his deceased uncle’s finger on a necklace. He once told me about a day when he was 7 years old. Indonesian soldiers lifted him down from his uncle’s shoulders before hacking the man to death and then mutilating him. During his presentations and concerts in our city he described the arbitrary slaughter of innocent people and immense cultural repression. He spoke of how he and his friends in Papua would hide musical instruments under the roots of trees in the forest and play them in secret, far from the ears of the soldiers. Many activities viewed by Indonesia as cultural expression are harshly punished. Under their law, it’s considered treason and punishable by death to fly the West Papuan flag, known as the Morning Star.  

But what has this got to do with us? How are these massive human rights abuses and cultural genocide connected to us? Simple: Natural Resources.

Grasberg gold and copper mine in West Papua is the largest open-cut mine in the world, a gaping hole visible from space. It lies where the sacred mountain of the Amungme tribe used to be. US mining corporation FCX, having struck a deal in 1967 with Suharto (the Indonesian dictator infamous for massacres in East Timor), have already dumped roughly a billion tons of toxic mine waste into the mountains and surrounding rivers.

All of the aquatic life in the area has died. A geologist employed by the company told the New York Times in 2005 that acid from the mine tailings is causing springs in a World Heritage site several miles away to run bright-green.

Sem tried to explain to us how it feels inside when the trees and mountains are torn down. It’s something that goes way beyond concern for the community’s material livelihood. To these people, who perceive the natural world as their extended body, it is like watching your own mother being murdered. It would be an understatement to say that the local people do not look favourably on the destruction of their forests, their hunting grounds, their villages, their way of life. In 1996 some corporate personnel were taken hostage by the OPM, two were killed. Prior to this, FCX had already forged tight bonds with the military who manage the local security situation, issues of gross human rights abuses notwithstanding. They have given army officials huge sums of money — nearly $20 million between 1998 and 2004 according to their own figures. In the NY Times article cited above, the company said, “our relationships with the Indonesian government and its security institutions are ordinary business activities.”

Indeed, this appears to be ordinary business activity. From Potosi in Bolivia, to Ogoniland in Nigeria, to Iraq, to Botswana, to Chiapas, to Siberia. If you’re unfortunate enough to live in the vicinity of something that’s valuable to industrial society, better watch out. The Grasberg mine is just one example of the operations of a Western corporation in West Papua. Other companies in the region include British Petroleum, Rio Tinto, Amoco, Union Oil, Shell, Texaco, Mobil, Esso, Phillips, and various other Canadian, French, South African, American, British, and Australian businesses. The UK has also sold large quantities of arms to Indonesia.

Where does the gold and copper from Grasberg end up? Possibly in the chips of the computer I’m typing on right now. Possibly in the one you’re using to read these words. This article isn’t going to go too deep into the technology/ecology debate. And neither is it intended to be another “Dear god, so many awful things are happening.” piece. But we need to be asking ourselves questions. 

Derrick Jensen writes in Endgame: “How would this understanding — that this culture will not voluntarily stop destroying the natural world, eliminating indigenous cultures, exploiting the poor, and killing those who resist — shift our strategy and tactics? The answer? Nobody knows, because we never talk about it: we’re too busy pretending the culture will undergo a magical transformation.”

Recently, during the closing ceremony of a trance festival, I heard an Australian Aboriginal elder say, “For a long time, people have looked down on us blackfellas. Because we didn’t build high-rises, and we didn’t drive cars, and we didn’t invent things. Like nuclear bombs. And it’s funny how now — with the climate the way it is, with mental health the way it is, with all the violence going on — people are starting to think that maybe us blackfellas might have some ideas worth listenin’ to.”

I don’t know where Sem is now. The last time I heard from him was maybe in 2004, all of my recent attempts to contact him have failed so far. An Australian activist has assured me that he’s still alive.

I wanted to write a sarcastic post. But am unable to do so. Apologies for creating a mess. On one hand I am helplessly seeing, hearing of similar things happening in my own country while on the other I am also seeing thousands trying to get hold of the global opportunities, thousands vying for high flying careers that some of these big corporations offer… I have never lived a life close to Earth and so probably cannot really hear her cries. But I can see the atrocities happenings, atrocities that are kept well hidden from most of us, so that we continue to do what is demanded of us and not what we ought to. I am already getting tired of the debates and arguments. All my heart tells me is that these atrocities could have easily been avoided. Let me just end it here…

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Hridesh permalink
    August 8, 2012 05:32

    Dost, pareshan mat ho logon ke sawaalon aur daleelon se… Main jaanta hoon ki teri jagah main hota toh kab ka haar maan chuka hota… Ab tak datte rehna bhi kaafi himmat ka kaam tha… Mere khayal mein abhi ki duniya adarsh duniya ho jaaye woh toh mushkil hain, lekin farak toh padega tere madad se…


    • August 8, 2012 15:45

      pareshan nahi hain dost.. kal raat thoda thak gaye the bas… lagta hai tumne humara galat evaluation kar diya hai 🙂 itna mat chadhao ped ke jhaad par, wahan se ek din girenge to bahut chott lagegi 🙂


  2. Sudha permalink
    August 9, 2012 19:47

    A wonderful post once again. It is heartening to come here time and again. All I would say I and a lot of us share similar angst and concern. Keep writing


  3. skaroba permalink
    September 7, 2012 23:27

    Thank you for writing this Niall. Long time no contact. I am grateful that you understood the message I brought. Ten years ago seems not long ago, you are still here with us, well we don;t really count years, we only count days by the sun rise and sunset.

    I hope all of you wll support our “Tribal Democracy Proposal: Democracy for All Communities of Beings”. I pray that all communities of beings accept this proposal, and they englighten human beings to accept this proposal as a way ahead to face the global phenomenan, particulary global warming and climate chage. This is a proposal for democracy not by the people for the people, but from and for all communities of beings by human beings.

    Thank you.


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