Papua New Guinea

Migration, Mining, and Insurgency in Eastern Indonesia

As we saw last Monday, a tenuous peace came to the Indonesian province of Aceh in 2005 when it was granted a special autonomous status in 2005. The same cannot be said of Papua, Indonesia’s largest province, located on the opposite side of the country. Papua was granted a measure of local autonomy in 2001, when its name was changed from “Irian Jaya.” In 2005, the Indonesian government took the further step of forming the Papuan People’s Council, composed of tribal chiefs charged with upholding local customs. Despite these measures, Papua’s long-simmering insurgency continues to generate bloodshed. In late March 2010, Papuan separatists ambushed a contingent of Indonesian soldiers in Mulia district, and in January 2010, four police officers and five civilians, including an American, were injured in a shootout in the Timika region. In July 2009, an Australian civilian was killed in Timika, a particularly restive part of Papua.

The Papuan rebellion dates back to 1965, when the OPM (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, or The Free Papua Movement) was founded to contest Indonesian control over the western half of the island of New Guinea. Indonesia gained Papua through a kind of secondary imperialism. In the late 1800s, the Dutch expanded their colonial holdings to the east of their Indonesian empire, partitioning the massive island of New Guinea with Britain and Germany. Culturally part of Melanesia, Papua had little in common with Indonesia, as the Dutch well knew. When Indonesia gained independence in 1949, the Netherlands retained western New Guinea, eventually preparing it for independence. Indonesia wanted the territory, however, and threatened to invade. The United States pressured the Netherlands to negotiate, resulting in the Indonesian military occupation of Papua in 1963, and annexation in 1969.

The Timika region is especially troubled for two reasons. First, it is the gateway to the Grasberg mine, owned mostly by Freeport McMoRan Corporation, based in Phoenix, Arizona. A massive open pit some 14,000 feet (4,500 meters) above sea level, Grasberg is the largest gold mine and third largest copper mine in the world, employing more than 19,000 people. Although Timika is situated some distance from Grasberg in the adjacent lowlands, it is the largest commercial center in the vicinity, with Papua’s largest airport (boasting a runway more than a mile long). The mine and associated businesses bring significant income to Timika, which claims the best hotel and golf course in Indonesian New Guinea. But Grasberg is also grotesquely polluting, generating 230,000 tons of tailings every day. Mine waste flows down the Aikwa River into the lowlands near Timika, where it is deposited in a broad swath of braided channels. Sedimentation and heavy metals have destroyed most of the river’s wildlife.

Timika’s second cause of strife is transmigration. The Indonesian government has long operated a huge subsidized scheme to move Javanese and Madurese peasants to the lightly populated “outer islands.” Although this official migration program was scaled back in 2000, migrants continue to pour into Papua. Roughly half of the inhabitants of the province were born in other parts of Indonesia. The city of Timika has boomed, as have the platted rural settlements in its environs (see the Google Earth images above). By 2002, Timika was large enough to host a locally infamous red-light district located ten kilometers outside town, staffed largely by Javanese immigrants. (In the pie charts in the map above, the brown areas indicated the proportions of the local populations composed of migrants.)

The indigenous people of Papua see few benefits in such developments. Many locals think that their lands and resources are being stripped away to benefit outsiders. The small measures of provincial autonomy granted by Jakarta mean little in such circumstances. As a result, the insurgency continues to simmer. The OPM is neither well funded nor well armed, however, allowing the Indonesian military to retain a firm grip on the region.

The recent violence in Timika has barely been noted in the global press. In fact, Timika itself is barely noticed by the outside world. Internet searches yield little other than information about travel arrangements, the Timika airport, and the Sheraton Hotel. Tinika does not even have a Wikipedia article of its own. Its airport does, however—a piece largely devoted to chronicling a 1996 attempt by the Indonesian military to rescue hostages held by the OPM. The operation went awry, resulting in sixteen deaths.

Tribal War and Natural Gas in Papua New Guinea

With roughly a thousand languages divided into a surprising number of linguistic families, New Guinea is noted for its extraordinary cultural diversity (see map above). The central highlands of New Guinea also form a diversity center of a different sort: that of warfare. Tribal combat remains ubiquitous, especially in the troubled Southern Highland province of Papua New Guinea (PNG). Most conflicts here are localized, short, and fought with traditional weapons, but the cumulative casualty rates can be substantial.

Few tribal wars from New Guinea reach the global media. Access is difficult when not impossible, and the stakes are regarded as low by the rest of the world. When conflicts are reported it is generally due to unusual circumstances. In February 2010, for example, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation recounted a battle between two clans in the southern highlands that was provoked by a young man sending a pornographic text message to a young woman in a different village. Her male relatives were offended enough to attack the sender’s kin with bows and arrows, knives, and homemade guns. In the ensuing fight, two people were killed, several were injured, and a number of houses were burned.

The armed struggles of New Guinea can provoke serious gender disputes. Women often complain that pervasive warfare makes it difficult for them to feed their children. According to a November 2008 report in the Daily Mail, the women of two villages in the eastern highlands decided to end the local cycle of violence in a drastic manner: over a ten-year period, they killed all male babies. “It’s because of the terrible fights that have brought death and destruction to our villages for the past 20 years that all the womenfolk have agreed to have all new-born male babies killed,” reported one local women. Women were able do so – if the reports are true – because they lead relatively sex-segregated lives; men control men’s houses, while women control their own. According to the Daily Mail article, promising efforts were being made by a local pastor of the Salvation Army to mediate between the warriors and the mothers of their children.

A few tribal wars in New Guinea have global repercussions, prompting occasional reports in the global media. The southern highlands have vast natural gas deposits – according to some reports, the largest underdeveloped fields outside of Qatar. Plans to exploit the gas have been in place for some time, but tribal violence has delayed implementation. In 2006, the PNG government declared a state of emergency in the Southern Highlands, imposing a curfew and sending in soldiers, so that development plans could proceed.

In December 2009, ExxonMobil and several partners determined that conditions were stable enough to proceed with a $15 billion liquefied natural gas project. This would be the largest foreign investment in Papua New Guinea’s history, potentially tripling its exports. On February 11, 2010, however,Radio New Zealand Internationalreported that the project was inciting tribal warfare, even among groups that had previously had peaceful relations. As a result, Exxon had to suspend operations in several areas. As Dame Carol Kidu, Papua New Guinea’s Minister for Community Development stated, “suddenly with this LNG project and all of the tensions and jealousies over the land ownership and all these things, it blew up into a tribal war, a village war; inter-village war.”

Papua New Guinea has had its share of trouble since independence in 1975. Its most serious insurgency had been on the mineral-rich island of Bougainville, physically located in the Solomon Island chain. The Bougainville rebellion was largely defused with an autonomy agreement in 1997. Meanwhile, security deteriorated in the highlands. In December 2004, a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute argued that Papua New Guinea was heading downhill and even risked becoming a failed state. In 2009, widespread anti-Chinese rioting and looting further damaged the country’s economy.

Will the development of its natural gas fields give Papua New Guinea the money that it needs to genuinely develop? Or will it form a “resource curse” that will enrich a few, further impoverish others, and provoke more tribal warfare? Either scenario is possible.