Wednesday, July 8, 2009
The Destruction of Papua's Rainforests
Along with Papua New Guinea, West Papua contains the second-largest rainforest on Earth, an area second only to the Amazon in terms of its importance to climate change as well as ecological and cultural diversity. Papua's forests form the largest part of the "lungs of Asia". Yet they are disappearing at an astounding rate.
According to Papua governor Barnabas Suebu, Papuan forests cover 42 million hectares. Over half of that area has been designated by Jakarta as production forest and another 9 million hectares designated for agricultural development, such as environmentally degrading palm oil plantations.
In 2001, World Wildlife Fund-affiliate Telapak estimated that at least 1.5 million hectares is deforested each year, mostly by industrial scale clear-cutting - a controversial logging
practice in which most or all all trees in a harvest area are cut down. Since then the number of logging concessions granted in Papua has increased tenfold.
Tropical rainforests cannot be replanted once they are clear-cut, and of grave concern is an estimate by non-governmental organization Watch Indonesia! that in many areas 90% of the logging is illegal and often conducted by the Indonesian military (TNI).
The TNI has also made tens of millions of dollars per year providing security services to multinational enterprises like the world's largest gold mine, owned by Freeport McMoran, a United States mining giant that has long been accused of being a major polluter in Indonesia. Studies indicate the TNI is at least 60% self-funded through its commercial ventures.
Indonesia clearly does not want the world to notice Papua's plight. Journalists and human-rights monitors have not been allowed into West Papua since 1969. The International Red Cross was thrown out last March. Freedom of expression laws, which apply across the rest of Indonesia, have yet to be implemented in West Papua. Like most other indigenous peoples, West Papuans traditionally believed that human beings are owned by the land, and not vice versa. Prior to the Indonesian occupation, Papuan tribes lived sustainability and at relative peace with each other in one of the most culturally and ecologically diverse
places on Earth.
The tribes' myriad models of human sustainability, including their world views and ancestral knowledge of medicinal plants, have been steadily disappearing since the 1960s as the land is plundered by militarized commerce and West Papuan history is erased by a 48-year-and-counting ethnocide.
To confuse any attempts at global awareness, Indonesia has officially changed West Papua's name four times since occupying the region in 1963, right after West Papua declared its independence under United Nations authority. (Indonesia also invaded East Timor within a year after it declared independence in 1975.)
So what are the occupation forces trying to hide? We need only look back a few weeks to get a sense of what has been happening over the past 48 years. On June 24, five Australians were released after being sentenced to between two and three years in jail and held nine months in prison for entering West Papua without a visa and proper clearance. They flew in last September for a three-day visit under the impression they could obtain a visa on arriving at Merauke international airport. The pilot, according to reports, explained that "nobody realized West Papua was so sensitive that it was like flying into a military base".
On June 25, one day before the UN's International Day in Support of the Victims of Torture, Indonesia's new police regulations came into effect. The regulations support reform, but do not make the practice of torture a punishable crime. While a problem in other parts of Indonesia as well, Papuans in particular continue to suffer institutionalized human-rights abuses from Indonesia's military and police forces. These include extrajudicial executions, arbitrary imprisonment, rape, torture, environmental degradation and natural-resource exploitation on a massive scale.
Also on June 24, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, human-rights advocacy groups, issued in-depth reports on the recurring cases of torture and arbitrary arrest in West Papua. They both emphasized the need to address the systemic impunity enjoyed by Indonesia's police, military and special forces, known as Kopassus. This impunity, they argued, enabled the suppression of civil, political and human rights in West Papua.
Officers indicted for gross human-rights violations in East Timor and Aceh remain at large and active in the military, some of them have been promoted to new posts in West Papua. For example, Colonel Burhanuddin Siagian, indicted for crimes against humanity in East Timor, later became commander of Papua's Jayapura sub-regional military command.
Human Rights Watch and many others are calling on the US, United Kingdom and Australia to withhold military and counter-insurgency intelligence training until efforts are made to investigate and hold members of Indonesia's Kopassus accountable for rights violations.
Ignoring those calls, the US House of Representatives scrapped a foreign relations bill provision on June 20 highlighting the political status and human-rights conditions of West Papua, clearing the way for continued diplomatic and military support in the face of Indonesia's dismal record on human rights. Australia has also resumed regular training programs with Kopassus and the United Kingdom is planning to start.
Kopassus is currently headed by Yudhoyono's brother-in-law, Major General Pramono Edhie Wibowo. An Indonesian court indicted even Kopassus soldiers for the fatal beating of Theys Eluay in 2001, who was at that time West Papua's leader, duly elected by an inter-tribal council a short time before his death. Over 20,000 Papuans came to witness his burial.
The Kopassus soldiers responsible for Eluay's death were each given jail sentences of roughly three years - ironically, the same sentence meted out last January to 11 locals for organizing peaceful protests and the alleged crime of raising the West Papuan national flag. Though their treatment in jail will no doubt be different, and the West Papuans may never come back.
At first welcomed by the majority of Papuans, Indonesia's 2001 Special Autonomy law has never been fully implemented, dashing hopes of peaceful coexistence in West Papua. It has served only to postpone censure from other nations and create opportunities for graft, military expansion and continuing colonization. Like the presidents who came before him, Yudhoyono has so far ignored calls for tribal council dialogue with Jakarta mediated by a
neutral third party.
If re-elected, Yudhoyono will immediately face a new challenge with West Papua, a test of his willingness and his ability to gain some measure of control over military reaction and push through badly needed democratic reform. On May 14, tribal leaders announced an historic consensus by officially declaring the 1969 "Act of Free Choice" illegal.
West Papuan leaders agreed instead on a manifesto establishing their fundamental human rights and national sovereignty and which stated unequivocally that Indonesia had never had a legal right to ownership of their ancestral lands. This consensus bodes well for West Papua, as does the formation of International Parliamentarians for West Papua and International Lawyers for West Papua groups earlier this year. However, a number of Papuans are now in jail awaiting trial for expressing their support of these institutions in peaceful demonstrations.
It is important to note that West Papuans have consistently expressed willingness to let Indonesian migrants stay on their lands. Their quarrel is not with the Indonesian people; it is with rogue elements in Indonesia's military plundering their land, terrorizing their villages and fomenting conflict by funding and supporting extremist militia groups like they did in East Timor 10 years ago in a pre-independence orgy of violence and destruction. In 2005, religious leaders from all parts of West Papua, representing Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, issued a joint statement that West Papua must become a "Land of Peace". This is a notion supported widely by the local population and clearly demonstrated by a long and growing tradition of peaceful protest.
For instance, on December 1 last year, the date many Papuans consider their day of independence, 10,000 people gathered for a prayer meeting in Nabire. At least 2,000 demonstrators marched that same day through the streets of Manokwari, calling for the
return of fundamental human rights.
In January, the Jayapura High Court concluded that leading peaceful demonstrations and speaking out in support of an independent West Papua was an act of subversion and therefore justified the heaviest possible sentences. The judges also opined that if public display of cultural symbols was allowed to continue, it would "damage the consolidation of the ethnic culture of the Papuan people".
Yet peaceful protest is a right protected by international human-rights law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which Indonesia ratified in February 2006. Until this, the right to self-determination and other fundamental human rights are respected, and until military commerce is reined in, one of the most precious places on the planet will soon be destroyed forever by a blatantly hostile power.
When will the world, and just as importantly, a newly elected Yudhoyono, take notice?
Tom Benedetti is moderator of the West Papua Action Network, a network of Papuans and Canadians concerned about injustice, cultural persecution and environmental degradation in Papua.