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By Neles Kebadabi Tebay

ABEPURA, Irian Jaya (December 2, 1999 – Jakarta Post/Kabar Irian)---In former days, the Papuans said they were the owners of the forest under the customary adat rule, which has an economic as well as religious meaning to them. The forest was seen as a source of food, a shelter in time of ethnic wars and a place to communicate with ancestral souls. To Papuans, the meaning of the forest is embodied in their saying that "The forest is our mother."

Now many forestry concessionaires have invaded the Papuans' ancestral land. Companies with their head office in Jakarta have divided the forests in the province. The authorities and business people who are non-Papuans have become owners of the forest/land. The local inhabitants, who are the true owners of their land, have now become mere guardians of the forest/land, which belongs to other people.

If a mine is discovered in a forest concession, the company wishing to exploit the mine must pay for the mining area to the concessionaire, who claims to be the owner of the land, not to the local community.

If a palm plantation concession is opened, the status of the local inhabitants changes. Before, the status was to become the owner of the land. Now they have become company labor.

The forest has been divided by the forest concessionaires, the local inhabitants have been made unskilled laborers, all -- it is said -- for the sake of enhancing their welfare.

In reality, they get nothing. Many forest concessionaires do not even pay taxes to the regional government.

It is true that the government has opened elementary schools in far-flung villages but there are no teachers.

Teachers, on the other hand, complain about the lack of schoolbooks and other education facilities, the late arrival of salaries, rice rations and delays in promotions.

It is not unusual that teachers abandon their schools to try their luck in town. It is not surprising that the majority of Papuans in rural areas cannot read or write.

However, in the towns where the majority of people are non-Papuans, there is an abundance of teachers, books and facilities.

Children are not encouraged to study their own culture and environment. Worse, they are taught cultures that are alien to them. Consequently, Papuan children in rural areas are alien to their own culture, environment and even themselves.

A parallel is found in the health sector. Community health centers are present even in remote areas. But villagers complain about the absence of doctors and paramedics. Medicine is not available and there is a lack of medical equipment. This condition has contributed to the fact that Papuans in the villages have returned to traditional medical treatment which is familiar to them.

It is ironic that while Papuans in villages complain about the lack of medicine and medical personnel, the health agency spent millions of rupiah to purchase fitness equipment to be used by a handful of people in the cities.

Meanwhile, a low awareness in the importance of personal hygiene and the environment of rural inhabitants is a factor in the threat of the future and life of Papuans.

The mountainous terrain, the isolation of the region, the high cost of transportation, the close links of rural people with their customs are always given as the main reasons for the slow development in the field of health and in other fields.

Meanwhile in the towns, where the majority of the inhabitants are non- Papuans, there is an abundance of doctors, medical personnel and medicine.

Apart from the problems mentioned earlier, Papuans do not accept each other and do not see each other as fellow human beings. This is evident from a feeling of superiority of certain ethnic groups vis-à-vis other groups.

For example, Papuans from the northern coast – although not all of them -- see themselves as superior and look down upon fellow Papuans from the interior or the mountains. It is reflected in the expressions used by the inhabitants of the northern coast to those from the mountains.

Derogatory words like "noge", "meno", "Pace Genyem", "Pace Ayamaru" are insulting to the mountain inhabitants.

The Papuans are challenged to accept each other with their own uniqueness and to treat each other like fellow human beings.

Moreover, the Papuans are also facing various problems of cultural changes. Formerly, before contact with the outside world, the Papuans lived according to the teachings of customs in their community. Now the Papuans are confronted with the demands and developments of the times. On the one hand, the developments make possible the influx of new people, new religions, new laws, new values, new facilities and new institutes.

On the other hand, the majority of Papuans are not ready to accept all of that in a critical way, but they cannot refuse that either with a reason of being unprepared. These encounters have caused clashes between the old values taught in their customs and the new values.

The number of migrants and their descendants grows exponentially compared to that of the Papuans. Before integration into Indonesia, the land was 100 percent inhabited by Papuans. Now 36 years after integration, they make up only 55 percent of the total population. The migrants and their descendants number 45 percent.

In five to 10 years the Papuans, who are a minority in Indonesia, will also be a minority in their own land. If there is no special treatment for the land of Papua, the process of marginalization will take place rapidly, and this may lead to the extinction of Papuans.

There are already signs of Papuans being marginalized in their land. It is clear that Papuans are marginal groups in the cities. In the not too distant future, the Papuans will have the same fate as the one experienced by the aborigines in Australia.

The worry that sooner or later the ethnic Papuans will vanish from the surface of the earth is not exaggerated. This concern is one of the reasons which spawned the idea of independence. It is seen as the only way to save the future of the Papuans from extinction.

So as soon as the wind of political reform blew, the Papuans, also in a meeting of a 100-member delegation of Papuans with former president B.J. Habibie, immediately demanded to secede from Indonesia.

Instead of being treated as enemies of the state, it is better to leave the republic in order to save the lives and future of the Papuans. Some intellectual Papuans say, "Instead of living under one roof and always getting angry and fighting with each other while living in fear and suffering, it is better to live separately but respecting each other as good neighbors."

One intellectual says, "Instead of living in one state as enemies, it is better to live in two countries but in peace."

Behind all the problems and worries disclosed above, there are a number of things that constitute the hope of the Papuans. It is for that hope that the Papuans are fighting.

The hope of the Papuans has been finely formulated by Don Flassy, the secretary of the Irian Jaya regional development planning board. The Papuans, he said, have five hopes:

1) The Papuans hope for a guarantee of respect and protection of basic human rights. It means that the Papuans want their human dignity to be respected and appreciated, as it should.

2) The Papuans hope for a guarantee of justice and legal certainty on their land.

3) The Papuans hope that the development of their land sides with the people's interest.

4) The Papuans hope for a guarantee of economic life.

5) The Papuans hope for safety, freedom and sovereignty in the handling of their affairs and being the hosts in their country.

The writer teaches at the Fajar Timur Higher Institute of Philosophy and Theology in Abepura, Irian Jaya.

KABAR IRIAN ("Irian News") Website: http://www.irja.org/ 

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