Development Vs Indigenous People and the Environment

Over the past 50 years, the name of the region of Papua has been changed several times from Netherlands New Guinea to Irian Barat (West Irian), Irian Jaya (Victorious or Prosperous Irian), then in 2002, the name Papua was taken on; a year later followed by splitting this province into Papua and West Papua. In 2014, the population was 4.4million people; 3.5million in Papua Province and 864,000 in West Papua. While in 1961 the indigenous share of the total population was nearly 100 percent, the current distribution is about 50/50 due to the large influx of migrants from other parts of the country.

For past centuries, the name of the indigenous inhabitants of Papua has been and still is Papuans. The naming of the individual clans is, however, not as clear-cut, at least when consulting historical records. Surprisingly, many of the clan names listed in the Encyclopaedie van Nederlandsch-Indië of 1917 do not match those used today. Two clans inhabiting the southern slopes of the central mountains, for instance, are listed as the Tapiro and the Pesechem, while there is no mention of the Amungme or the Kamoro; and neither of the Asmat farther east. This can partly be explained by the fact that most of the surveys and expeditions in the 19th century were ship-based with occasional ventures into the near-interior of coastal areas. This thus clearly excludes the Dani of the Baliem Valley from the 1917 records.

As over 250 different languages are spoken in the Papua region, one wonders how these surveyors and researchers of old did communicate with the different clans and collect such a wide range of data, as the Malay lingua franca had probably reached but a few of the clans. And in the case of the Asmat, one only needs to visualise the slow approach of the research vessel, cautiously probing the depths for sunken obstacles, when out of a hidden estuary a dozen or so war canoes appear with fierce-looking, painted warriors, paddling standing-up, and aggressively chanting. A good enough reason to swing the helm round and look for a friendlier and more approachable tribe.

As for the Amungme, although not mentioned in the 1917 encyclopaedia, the first contact with European explorers was already in 1912. The next encounter was with the Carstensz expedition of 1936, when the geologist Jean Jacque Dozy discovered the ‘copper’ mountain Ertsberg. Catholic missionaries followed in the early 50s, converting the majority of the Amungme.

In 1970, a major interference with their lives did occur when the American Mining Company Freeport-McMoran started the construction of the highway from the coast to the mining site on the Carstensz plateau. The permission to start mining had been granted by the Government on 7 April 1967, thus sparking conflict between development and indigenous people.

It occurs globally: economic development measured in terms of growth of GDP and traditional lifestyles of human beings are not really compatible. In other words, we witness a clash of modernisation and traditional cultural practices. The modernising bit is the mining the natural resources of an area—a very destructive process. That is, its water, forests, minerals and fossil fuels become basic ingredients to create value added in downstream industries, often in another region. The traditional cultural practices are the ones that respect and want to preserve nature. The Amungme, for instance, strive to maintain the harmony among the three elements of life: humankind, the natural environment, and the spirit of the ancestors.

Conflict is then exacerbated when the original inhabitants are all but excluded from sharing in the profits of modernisation. This now seems to have happened in the case of the Amungme and Kamoro. Planning and preparing the mining of the enormous copper and gold deposits – first on Ertsberg, and when that site was depleted, on Grasberg where the mining operations are now concentrated – was apparently done without consulting the tribes. And the by-product of the mining operation is that the Amungme saw their sacred mountain losing its top and their tobacco fields and hunting grounds damaged, while the Kamoro had their rivers polluted as some 200,000 tonnes of waste is dumped there each day! And the pledged educational and health facilities did not materialise as promised.

Lack of transparency in the land acquisition process continued for a long time. Kamoro and Amungme leaders report that community members understood only in 1995 that they had conceded all ancestral lands in the Timika area (nearly 1m hectares) to the Government to accommodate the Freeport company town, Kuala Kencana; the town of Timika; and transmigration settlements.

This is fairly typical for extractive industries operating in indigenous areas and has contributed to the opinion that these businesses are mainly interested in maximizing their profits. To a certain extent that is undoubtedly true; short-term shareholders’ interests being the driving force. Moreover, government interests do not counterbalance these biases for reason that a goose laying golden eggs had best not be repudiated.

From 1992 to 2013, under the 1991 Contract of Work, the company has paid to the Government of Indonesia USD9.4 billion in corporate income tax, USD3 billion in other taxes, USD1.5 billion in royalties and USD1.3 billion in dividends, or a total of USD15.2 billion. Impressive figures and a highly welcome bolster for the Indonesian economy.

Most websites dealing with the operations of Freeport Indonesia cry out against the damages inflicted on the tribes, the ancestral lands and the environment. It should, however, be emphasised that the clans are not exactly the easiest and most willing and cooperative partners in negotiations to reach a mutually acceptable strategy to overcome the problems.

The Amungme and Kamoro are just two of at least 252 Papuan ethnic groups, each with its own language, traditions and culture. Inter-tribal strife further adds to the confusion and misunderstandings. This splintering is most likely due to the uncompromising terrain of their homeland – steep inaccessible mountains, deep valleys and coastal swamps – which has restricted views, and confined communication to the fellow clansmen. Agreements reached previously are often negated in a subsequent meeting. And the lack of a unified tribal voice makes reaching and accepting collective developmental goals all but impossible.

Freeport’s 2010 annual report shows that the company made USD4.2 billion in operating profit on a revenue of USD6.4 billion, and that since 1996 the company allocated USD602.2m to a partnership fund set up for the Amungme and Kamoro people—the Amungme and Kamoro People’s Development Organisation (LPMAK).

Freeport has obviously tried. But as there might be another 200 years of mining Grasberg ahead, it would be wise to try harder and make serious efforts to include the indigenous people.

The mission of LPMAK is the development and management of institutions to empower indigenous people. The basic ingredients seem therefore to be in place, but the results are not really satisfying. Why? Is the sum insufficient, or are the players, Papuans and Freeport, lacking in skills and organisational structure to generate improvements? What enhancements are needed? And where should the region be heading? Unfortunately unanswered questions remain. It is the Papuans who must find an answer, and Freeport must be more accommodating.



Hans Rooseboom is a long term resident of Jakarta. He has visited nearly all of Indonesia’s provinces and worked for many years in Ambon, Aceh, Manado and a number of smaller and larger towns on Java. He now enjoys a leisurely life, playing tennis most mornings and writing his blogs and other articles.

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