Papuan Gold: A Blessing or a Curse? The Case of the Amungme

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Beautiful rugged Papuan valleys and rainforests have held treasures of natural resources for their inhabitants for thousands of years. The people live off the land and in many ways have protected it in order to ensure its continued prosperity. The immense gold deposits in the mountains have brought more than miners, mining, and exploration. Layer upon layer of complex social issues have accumulated and multiplied since the opening of the Nemang Kawi(1) Copper mine in the late 1960s. To find such a rich ore body on one's land should by all rights be a blessing, but the Amungme sometimes refer to it as a curse. Accustomed to dealing with a traditional barter economy, they are now trying to compete for a place in the new market economy. Neighboring tribes, not wanting to be left out, have encroached on Amungme territory looking for jobs and depleting natural resources as they exceed the carrying capacity of the land. Migrants from other Indonesian islands are also attracted by the glitter of the gold, and Papuans, including the Amungme, have become a minority in their own land.

Mining companies in the region have hired their fill of uneducated people and are in desperate need of educated Papuans to help with more technical aspects of mining and management. Inappropriate leadership techniques, lack of education, and limited technical skills are compounded by the interference of the military and government with the distribution of money given to Papuans by the mining company. Nutrition and health problems such as STDs abound. Papuans desire freedom from Indonesia, but are not prepared to run their own country. Meanwhile, Indonesia clings fiercely to Papua as one of its greatest sources of wealth.

To improve the Papuans' skills and education, Freeport McMoran is planning a new high school and a mining university. They also plan adult education for village people who have no Indonesian language skills, and social orientation classes to help the Papuans, especially the highlanders, cope with sanitation problems. A very successful health improvement program has been underway for at least ten years. Still, we cannot help but ask: how would it be if there were no gold or copper in these magnificent mountains?

Some of the first changes in Amungme lives came in the 1950s, when foreign missionaries began teaching Amungme neighbors (the Damal) to preach the Gospel.(2) As human beings with the right to choose for themselves, almost all of the Amungme decided to accept Christian teachings, which they proceeded to layer on top of their traditional beliefs. Their desires are simple: good health, prosperity, good family and friend relationships, and the respect of others. They are curious about other cultures, but would rather welcome strangers from far away than face their neighboring tribes, with whom they have a history of war.

According to their legends, all people originated from beneath the earth in an area near Wamena (in Papua), and the Caucasians traveled the greatest distance from their place of origin. As they did so, they bade farewell to their brothers and sisters, the Amungme, and promised to return for them when they found a desirable way of life. This is where the Amungkal phrase Kem Kawiau comes from. It means the black and the white shall join again.

The 1960s were a time of even greater changes with the building of the infrastructure for the mining company and the changes from a Dutch to an Indonesian government. When an enormous and prosperous U.S. mining company came to mine copper, the Amungme at first thought their Kawime (white people) were returning with the secrets of prosperity and good health. As the wonder and excitement of the new town springing up in their midst wore off, it was replaced with disappointment and then anger. As visions of sharing the wealth of the mountains diminished, Amungme confrontation with and demands of the multinational mining company increased.

Thirty years of trial and error on the part of both the company and the Amungme passed. The Amungme aspired to be equals in all matters. They wanted to live with the people in the mining town, eat with them, and have the same jobs. The company's first mistake was its failure to provide education programs and opportunities for the local people. Since the beginning of the 1990s, Freeport has done much to rectify this omission. But the bitterness has sunk into the hearts of the people and some say it is too late.

Traditionally, the Amungme have coped with conflict by leaving the group and settling away from the source of conflict. Prior to the construction of the mining town near the valley headwaters, the Wa Valley was occupied by several Amungme clans; the Omabak Clan of Opitabak village was most powerful. In order to gain more clout, one of the opposing clans (the Natkime) decided to allow some of the Dani tribespeople to "lease" some land and live with them in the villages of Wa and Utekini. TuArek Natkime thus grew in status among the local people. His plan backfired, however, when his Dani friends invited more and more people to join them until they far outnumbered their host clan. They competed for the few jobs available for uneducated locals and began to cause severe pressure on the land's carrying capacity. Tensions mounted, resulting in a "war" between the Amungme and the Dani in 1997. After this war, the Amungme asked for assistance from the company and the government to move their enemies out of the valley. The Dani were thus given their choice of moving to a new settlement in the lowlands or returning to their homes north of the range.

Amungme traditions are still alive and well in many respects, but tradition can carry mixed blessings. The Amungme begin negotiation speeches with a discourse on how God created the heavens and the earth. They then progress through history until finally they come to the point they want to make. Timeoriented administrators often swear they have heard the same speech a thousand times; they become bored before the Amungme have a chance to make their point. Some tribal leaders have modified their traditional speech patterns in order to be heard. Still, each tribal representative has to have his say because persuasive "talk" is a necessary element of becoming a "Big Man." A meeting is unfinished until all aspiring Big Men have had a chance to speak. A few of the younger fellows then chime in, in an attempt to gain prestige among their peers. Some typical Amungme patterns of behavior during negotiations are aggressive jumping toward others, spitting, yelling, and at times brandishing bow and arrow. Things sometimes get out of control and end in rock-throwing or beatings. Mining executives and the Indonesian government have had difficulty understanding this aspect of Amungme culture and this difficulty has led to a rift between stakeholders. Perhaps the focus should be on the more positive aspects of Amungme negotiations: that each person wishing to speak is allowed to do so.

Today's decisions are far more significant than those of the past, when clan and intertribal disputes were settled. The Amungme are, at present, not equipped with institutions to help them negotiate on a multinational scale. Many decisions must be made regarding land and natural resource issues, education, health, local people's profits from the mine, and business ventures of the future. What can be done to make the negotiating process a valid instrument for settling disputes and an effective tool for the Amungme?

From the mining company's perspective, Freeport needs a way to communicate with the Amungme. Company officials need to hear clear decisions presented in one voice and they must be able to rely on these decisions. The Amungme often reopen settled disputes or demand additional payments. Making a deal with the Amungme will require patience and understanding, but in today's competitive world, executives feel that they have no time to keep renegotiating agreements.

With an eye to improving communication, a new tradition was initiated: Big Men luncheons. Top administrative officials now meet with the village Big Men and discuss issues at hand. The Amungme initially showed remarkable progress in being able to prepare an argument and have several representatives do the talking. Sessions later deteriorated as many uninvited young and aspiring Big Men disrupted the dialogue. Education and orientation on both sides about how to do business with each other is an important step toward understanding. Sad as it may seem, many Amungme traditions will have to be left behind if they choose to compete for jobs and resources in today's marketplace.

As a result of their experiences, the Amungme often regard outsiders with distrust. This wariness becomes for them an impediment to knowledge. Necessary steps to improve the Amungme situation are in both planning and operational stages. Leadership training is being given to promising individuals and plans are being made to strengthen the Traditional Governing Council of the Amungme Tribe (LEMASA(3)). Outside organizations have offered assistance in order to make it an impartial process. LEMASA wants help, but is not organized enough at this stage to invite people in to do the job.

Company management has recently put forth more effort in understanding the Amungme decision-making processes and has been taking more time to meet them half way. This progress, mainly achieved in the community relations department, needs to be strengthened and extended to outside factions dealing with the Amungme. It should never be forgotten that communication is a two-way street. Freeport and the Amungme have come a long way in understanding each other and both have made sacrifices. There are many more to be made.

(1). Nemang Kawi is the Amungkal (Amungme language) name of the mountain where the mine is located.

(2). Prior to the Protestant missionaries north of the Nemang Kawi mountain range, Dutch Catholic priests had entered the Amungme area and moved some of their converts down to the coastal areas of Agimuga and Kokonao. This took some of the population pressure off the mountain valleys.

(3). Lembaga Musyawarah Adat Suku Amungme.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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