Mind who you call primitive

The West Papuans holding a group of Europeans are fighting against extermination, says Aidan Rankin
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West Papua has been much in the news this week, because of the kidnapping of a group of Europeans. If you believe the media coverage, the kidnappers are "primitive","stone-age" tribesmen, who only recently gave up "head-hunting". There is in the use of these terms a wilful ignorance about West Papua and an implicit denial of its people's right to determine their own future.

If West Papuans are stone-age, the argument goes, surely it is inevitable that they should "catch up" with the developed world. Yet a West Papuan who stares into the huge cratergouged out of a sacred mountain by a Western corporation mining gold might have a different definition of "primitive" from our own.

"We are thrusting a spear of development into the heart of West Papua." With these words, James Moffett, chairman of the New Orleans-based mining company Freeport McMoRan, encapsulates Western attitudes to this oppressed country and its people. His mindset appeals to West Papua's Indonesian overlords, who, since the Act of Free Choice that they imposed in 1969 (West Papuans call it the Act Free of Choice) have pursued a violently ethnocentric policy known as "One Nation". This includes a policy known as "transmigration", by which large numbers of Indonesians are encouraged to settle on land seized from indigenous West Papuans.

Nobody can condone the taking of innocent civilians as hostages for a political (or any other) goal. But the kidnapping is merely the latest phase in the secret war, a cycle of oppression, resistance and survival that began with the Indonesian occupation in the mid-Sixties.

Since then, the people of West Papua have waged an isolated campaign against one of the world's most ruthless colonial powers. In West Papua torture and detention without trial are commonplace, disappearance and intimidation routine and 43,000 indigenous people have been killed. After a six-month visit in 1988, the Swiss pilot Theodore Frey said: "I never met a single family which has not lost at least one member ... the Indonesians are bringing not development, but systematic extermination."

West Papua's 1 million people are Melanesians, like their eastern neighbours in Papua New Guinea. Melanesians constitute less than 1 per cent of the world's population but speak 25 per cent of its known languages. They have been living on the island of New Guinea for at least 40,000 years.

West Papua is a land of dramatic contrasts in geography and climate. On the south coast lies the Asmat region, swampy and famous for its wood carvings, whereas the Amungme and Dani peoples live in the northern highlands. Among the revered snow-capped peaks near the Freeport site is the home of Jo-Mun Nerek, the Amungme's ancestral spirit.

Many West Papuans are Christian, but links with the spirit world remain strong. However it is as misleading to generalise about West Papuans as it is about Europeans, for the range of societies is equally diverse.

What can be said is that none of them in any way approximates to the European Stone Age, and that like all other societies they have their own dynamic of change. Accusing them of being cannibals, for example, is like accusing modern Britain of denying women the vote. They also share a profound respect for the land as the source of food and life. Some 80 per cent of their land is covered in forest, in which they practise subsistence agriculture, cultivating sago and sweet potatoes and raising large herds of pigs. But the Indonesians have a different kind of reverence for the land, because it sits on some of the richest copper and gold deposits in the world.

When it comes to Western investment, West Papua suddenly ceases to be either "remote" or "inhospitable". Freeport's massive expansion is made possible by $1,250m from London-based RTZ, the world's largest mining company. RTZ has an 11.8 per cent share in Freeport and a seat on the company's board. For Indonesia and the West, this means "development" and "growth", but an Amungme leader presents a very different version of the story: "Freeport", he says, "is digging out our mother's brain. That is why we are resisting."

The writer works for Survival International, which campaigns for tribal peoples' rights.