West Papua is the western half of New Guinea, the second-largest island in the world. The island is divided into two parts, West Papua, which has incorporated as a province, and Papua New Guinea. In May 1963, West Papua was occupied by Indonesia. Since that time. Indonesia has denied Indigenous Papuans a genuine opportunity for self-determination. Papuans are now facing a real threat to their survival in their own land, due to continued subjugation and suppression by the Indonesian authorities, ongoing crimes against humanity committed by the Indonesian military, and the neglect of their socio-economic and cultural rights.
For 30,000 years, West Papua's Indigenous Peoples lived a sustainable existence, but three decades of mining practices permitted by the Indonesian government have destroyed rainforests, polluted rivers, and displaced communities. The Grasberg gold mine, operated by the Freeport-MacMoran corporation, is among the worst examples, dumping at least 230,000 tons of tailings into local rivers every day, spreading deadly pollutants over vast areas.
Yosepha Alomang is perhaps the best-known person fighting these injustices. The founder of YAHAMAK, a women's organization dedicated to human rights, environmentalism, traditional culture, and collective action, Alomang received the 2001 Goldman Environmental Prize for her efforts on organizing her community to resist the Freeport mining company. She also was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and has received numerous other national and international awards. Despite not being able to read or write, she has sued the Freeport mining company in U.S. courts. She has also been jailed numerous times, in horrifying conditions, for her opposition to the mine.
Yosepha is a member of the Amungme people. She was born in Papua’s Mimika District in 1949, and stopped her schooling when she reached the fourth grade, following the death of her parents. She is physically small, but she has stood up to powerful interest groups in defense of her people’s right to their land.
“I live in a traditionally strong and strict culture,” she says. “I learned to live on the basis of what God has provided for us. We must be responsible for that. A good relationship with nature is essential. Men do not live just for money. My culture does not teach us to steal and rob the rights of others. I know what is right and wrong in defending my rights. On my land, I speak up about humanity, the truth that my rights are being taken away. They took our land. They didn’t even ask our permission.
“Since the Indonesian colonization of Papua, my land became military property. My land is maintained by weapons; my mountain is guarded with guns; my river is kept guarded; my forest is protected by soldiers; and we land owners are murdered and driven out brutally and politically by military pressure. Indonesian soldiers oppress our human rights, rape and murder anyone they please. I have been deprived of my rights, such as the right to peacefully raise children, to garden, and to hunt, just to name a few. I am an angry woman, wife, and mother. I have suffered from this for so long.”
Yosepha’s outspokenness has not faded, despite the government’s attempts to silence her. “I have been in and out of prison 18 times,” she says, “always fighting for justice, reclaiming what is rightfully ours. Even when I was jailed, I kept talking about my rights. I am not afraid of them.”
That kind of courage is all the more impressive considering the state of affairs in Papua, where it is illegal to even show the Papuan flag and no one has an accurate figure for the number of people killed by the military. Even more impressive is Yosepha’s commitment to nonviolence in that context. “Our purpose is to speak to the local and central government,” she says, “sitting together to discuss and attempt to find solutions to unresolved and unfinished problems. I have spoken to Suharto, Mega, and many others with dignity.”
Yosepha says that it’s natural that in her culture a leader should be a woman. “This land,” she says, “is like a mother who is sleeping: the mountain is the mother’s head and the river is the mother’s breast milk. Now the mother’s breast milk is being contaminated and dried, the mountain and lands are being destroyed brutally by Freeport and the government. We all know that mother’s role in the family is very important. A mother knows that she has a responsibility to raise children. If the mother dies, the children will suffer, because a father will not take care of them well. However, if the father dies, the mother is able to raise and take care of them well and with love. These struggles do not only belong to the men. We women and children also suffer from this oppression. Women are sent in to prison, raped, and killed. We cannot get used to seeing women tortured, raped, and murdered cruelly. I don’t know how many souls have been sacrificed in defending our right to live in our land.”
Much of Yosepha’s fire comes from living as an orphaned child. She was little girl when she saw outsiders take over their tribal lands without getting permission. “Before,” she says, “long ago, we all lived peacefully, but the moment outsiders came in, our lives were ruined and our future was destroyed. Why can’t we determine our own future? Why can’t we live peacefully on our own land? Why do Indonesian soldiers not treat us like human beings? I am fighting back for my rights nonviolently. Despite this, though, they are dealing with me by using military force. This is my land, my ancestor’s land, and nobody can take this away from me. These beliefs give me the strength to keep fighting.”
Agustina F Thesia is a Papuan master’s candidate at SIT Graduate Institute in Brattleboro, Vermont, and was an intern at Cultural Survival during summer 2011.
Cultural Survival helps Indigenous Peoples around the world defend their lands, languages, and cultures as they deal with issues like the one you’ve just read about.
To read about Cultural Survival’s work around the world, click here. To read more articles on the subject use our Search function and explore 40 years of information on Indigenous issues.
For ways to take action to help Indigenous communities, click here.
We take on governments and multinational corporations—and they always have more resources than we do—but with the help of people like you, we do win. Your contribution is crucial to that effort. Click here to do your part.