Discrimination Is the Main Force Driving Papuan Independence
TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - PAPUANS are like the ‘invisible man’, referring to the title of Ralph Ellison’s novel about the marginalization of African-Americans in the 20th century. Sophie Chao, an Indonesianist from the University of Sydney, Australia, also uses this term when concluding that the voices of the Papuan people are continually ignored. Papuans, Sophie explained, are seemingly invisible and their voices are not heard when the government sets the policies that affect them.
While researching the Marind tribe in Merauke for about 18 months, Chao noticed that Papuans have a special relationship with land and forests. According to her, in Marind cosmology, plants and animals are like relatives. Communities view new plantations such as oil palms as colonialists because they take over their land and natural resources. The results of her anthropological research are documented in the book "In the Shadow of the Palms: More-Than-Human Becomings in West Papua" published in 2022.
In this context, the presence of oil palm plantations, food estate projects, and the introduction of rice as a substitute for sago have disrupted the life and outlook of Papuan communities. Unfortunately, living off the forest is often seen as a backward or primitive way of life, leading to discriminatory views against Papuans.
This racism began with the arrival of European explorers and colonizers and has continued until now. In an online interview with Tempo journalists, Abdul Manan and Iwan Kurniawan, on Thursday, August 10, Chao said that ongoing racial discrimination is one of the main drivers for many Papuan activists wanting independence.
In a nearly hour-long interview, Chao explained the principles of life for the Marind people, the impact of the presence of the military and oil palm plantations, as well as the dual nationalism of the Papuan people. She also underlined that the strong focus on the issue of independence has made the people there, who are actually more concerned about asserting their rights to life and economic rights, afraid to speak out for fear of being associated with the intention to separate from Indonesia.
What are the main findings from your study about the Marind tribe?
For them, the environment, the forests, is never just a resource. It is also their family. People talk about plants and animals as their kin, their relatives. When the forest is replaced with plantation, it’s not just the loss of environment or resources, it’s also the loss of kinship.
Second, there are challenges around achieving rights-based and sustainable agribusiness development in Merauke, In fact, many communities did not necessarily oppose palm oil, but they opposed the process in which the plantations were being established without prior or informed consent of the traditional landowners. So there was an issue of what we might call procedural justice. Third, the Papuans, and the Marind, have very different views on what the future looks like, and what they want for themselves and their children and grandchildren.
What impacts have oil palm plantations created?
The conversion of forests to plantations has caused really high rates of food insecurity, malnutrition, and stunting among these communities because they traditionally rely on the forest for most of their food supplies through hunting, fishing, and harvesting sago and tubers. Also, water pollution has been one other impact because the pesticides being used in the plantations flowing into the river that the Marind obtained the drinking water from and also bath in and fish in. So that gives rise to all kinds of problems, particularly for women and young children, diarrhea, gastrointestinal diseases, and so forth.
Another big impact has been both horizontal and vertical conflict. Conflicts between the communities, the government, and the companies, but also conflicts among the communities themselves. So there’s been a lot of conflicts between the Marind themselves about land, about compensation, and about participation and benefit sharing when these plantation projects arrive.
What about political issues?
Political can mean so many different things. Ultimately it’s about power. I think what’s happening in Merauke is symptomatic of a bigger problem with a political voice. And the main context that many of the communities talked about in Merauke was the fact that often, even Papuan elites who are in government or acting as spokespeople for the communities, often don’t really know what’s happening in the rural areas because they often live in the cities. So there’s a kind of dissociation between the interests and perspectives of Papuan elites and the interests and experiences of communities on the ground. The second issue is the formation of new provinces and administrative boundaries as a very critical political issue. And there’s a lot of uncertainty as to whether it will genuinely give more voice to the people on the ground, or if it’s more a kind of political maneuver to create more elites.
What is the impact of the military’s presence there?
I think the high level of military presence and militarization in Papua is a major source of fear, of intimidation for many communities. A lot of the oil palm plantations in Merauke, for instance, cooperate with the military for security patrol or something like that. (With) the military in Merauke, many women would experience military presence because of sexual abuse or harassment and that sort of thing. They don’t want to talk about it because it’s embarrassing. So I think the presence of the military is not conducive to building trust in the communities. It creates fear. It gives a sense of being occupied or colonized. And I think for many Papuans who I spoke to, the security issue is one that is also much linked to the racism issue. Many people talk about racial discrimination as another form of intimidation and subjugation.
What is your view on the armed conflict between the military and the Free Papua Organization (OPM)?
I cannot really speak to that because the OPM is not so active in Merauke, where I did my fieldwork. They are more active in the mountains.
So, what issues have the most serious impact on Papuans?
I think one of the most severe impacts is the mental and psychological sense that so many Papuan have that they are not being heard, that they are not being listened to, and that they are invisible when it comes to policymaking and administrative decisions about their lands and about their futures.