There are over 250 distinct indigenous communities who live amongst spectacular rainforests, mountains and coral ecosystems. But all is not well on the world’s second largest island — which now serves as a backdrop to one of the most severely underreported conflicts in recent history. Officially a special autonomous region of Indonesia, indigenous Papuans have been viciously fighting for independence since the 1960s, whilst big business and a ruthless Indonesian military seek to bolster their global economic standing by exploiting the territory’s immense reserve of natural resources.
Yet Amnesty International estimates that between 100,000 and 400,000 Papuans have been killed since Indonesia took control of the territory in 1969. West Papua remains a militarized zone, allowing the Indonesian army to reap enormous profits from lucrative agreements with timber, mining and palm oil companies, while ruthlessly suppressing local people. The resources flow out to markets in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia and China.
I flew over islands scarred by nickel mines, in what is the richest marine environment on the planet. I saw sediment flowing freely into coral reefs and visited communities in conflict, as nickel mining interests battle for concessions. I also witnessed firsthand the outcomes of migration, from prostitution in the industrial port of Sorong to evidence of an alarming AIDS epidemic.
West Papua is home to one of the most spectacular and abundant ecosystems on Earth. Its forests and oceans contain a bewildering variety of endemic species. The Raja Ampat archipelago, seen above, has been recently recognised as the most biodiverse stretch of ocean on the planet.
West Papua has ‘special autonomy’ — designed to placate the independence movement — but really this just creates an overlapping of authorities, with resource extraction permits being issued by Jakarta as well as the provincial government.
There is very little transparency with these companies, and therefore very little accountability. The military are thought to own large stakes in combination with foreign investors. The mine pictured above left exports nickel laterite ore to Queensland, Australia.
The government has big plans for West Papua, including the introduction of nickel mines in Raja Ampat. The mine pictured above on the right on Kawe island has been temporarily shut down due to fighting between different parties. The mine is hoping to get the go ahead to continue operating soon, but at the moment the island is patrolled by heavy security and is causing a rift amongst local villagers. Due to its incredibly remote location, these mines are able to operate with almost no environmental impact assessment.
At Go village in Maya Libit Bay, even the children’s usually relentless cheer has been choked by sediment from deforestation and mining activities. Villages affected by the mining and deforestation have also been hit by serious public health issues after eating fish that have been contaminated by waste sediment.
Traditionally the people of Raja Ampat have survived through artisanal fishing, but now there is a nickel mine across the water from them which will destroy their fishing grounds when it opens.
Now communities are divided and conflict is arising over whether or not to fight the mines and protect their waters, or to join the miners and forsake fishing for temporary monetary gain.
The trouble is that these islands contain only a finite amount of nickel making it unfeasible for companies to operate for longer than 5-10 years. Add to this the fluctuating market price of nickel and it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which, having destroyed their ancestral fishing grounds, the local people are left with nothing.
In order to facilitate the exploitation of West Papua’s natural resources, the Indonesian government is implementing a huge transmigration policy with thousands of immigrants arriving every week from islands such as Java and Sulawesi. A new economy is being built based predominantly around mining and resource extraction operations. The HIV rate is significantly higher than elsewhere in Indonesia.
On the left, you see Guru Jemat Steven Su, an elder of the Mooi people, who told me that his community sold their land for just five dollars per hectare. Big timber and palm oil companies, often with the support of the Indonesian military, are tricking indigenous people, and making them slaves in their own land.
On the right, Thomas Klasibin stands in front of what used to be the forest that supported him. Having sold his land, Thomas’ community now live in run down houses on the edge of what looks like a warzone. He must now pass security checkpoints in order to get to his village.
Having lost the forests they called home, Steven’s community now have to travel further and further to find food.
There exists in West Papua an alternative government called the traditional people’s council. They have their own police force who cite human rights and environmental issues as their top priority. Above on the right, you see a member of the traditional police patrolling by river.
Just twenty minutes from Kawe mine is a pearl farm. The Pearl farm produces 80 million dollars worth of pearls a year proving that Raja Ampat’s unique ecosystem can be used to turn a significant profit without being decimated in the process.
However, a number of local government figures are trying to shut down the Australian-run operation as the company is refusing to pay bribes in order to continue operating in the area.
Here you see members of the Papuan Independence movement in Klamono village smoking cigarettes under a painting of Jesus wearing a West Papuan Morning Star flag. Their land, their power, and their dignity have been pulled out from under their feet.
An exiled freedom fighter stands in the storied halls of Oxford University during a gathering of international lawyers who are working to present the legal case for West Papua’s independence.
More recently, West Papuan’s have placed a great deal of hope in Indonesia’s new president Joko Widowo who has reopened negotiations with the province, having visited twice already this year. But what these changes will mean, and the extent to which they are implemented, remains to be seen.
Photojournalist and film maker focused on projects that explore indigenous cosmologies and the human ecology side of the environmental movement.