Is West Papua being eco-colonised?

A student writer believes greens are trying to preserve West Papua as an archaic backgarden for Westerners disillusioned by modernity.

Lee Jones

Topics World

Independence movements, once determined to win self-determination by force of arms, have increasingly come to rely on appeals for Western intervention to win freedom on their behalf. Rather than demanding our respect as self-determining peoples, independence movements have learned to depict themselves as victims, to appeal to Western prejudices and paternalism – with the result that, for instance, people in Kosovo are still not trusted to run their own affairs without our supervision (1). Now, in an effort to win backing for independence from Indonesia, West Papuans are even appealing to environmentalism.

West Papua was integrated into Indonesia in 1969 via the ‘Act of Free Choice’, a stage-managed consultation of tribal elders, stitched up in advance by Indonesia, the United States, the Netherlands and the UN to produce this outcome. Like other outlying areas of Indonesia, West Papua’s resources were pillaged by powerful Javanese interests and foreign investors like the notorious Freeport mining company, while its people were brutalised by the Indonesian military. The Papuan people have seen little benefit, mostly continuing to live in tribal settlements in grim socio-economic conditions. The Organisasi Papua Merdeka (Organisation for a Free Papua), armed with bows and arrows, was no match for Indonesian troops. Faced with armed defeat, the movement decided to focus entirely on seeking international support for its little-known struggle (2).

Benny Wenda, head of Demmak, a council of tribal leaders, and the Papuan face of the Free West Papua Campaign (FWPC), is based in Oxford, England. He says the OPM’s attempts to win outside support has meant moulding the movement into a form that the ‘international arena’ finds acceptable. Most obviously, this means stressing attachment to non-violence and parliamentary democracy (despite Wenda really favouring ‘tribal democracy’, when pressed). But in today’s political climate, it also means appealing to green sensibilities. In his talks around the Britain, Wenda, a political refugee who suffered torture by Indonesian soldiers, emphasises not merely the suffering inflicted on his people, but also on the birds-of-paradise and the world’s second-largest rainforest, arguing that a ‘genocide’ is being inflicted on nature.

This has attracted some rather strange bedfellows for the FWPC, many of whom are less motivated by a political commitment to self-determination than by a romantic vision of Papua as an arcadian idyll to be preserved at all costs. This includes an organisation called Friends of People Close to Nature (FPCN), who have produced various films promoting the West Papuan cause, which Wenda tours with. Their ‘ethos and statement of principles’ celebrates hunter-gatherers for their ‘non-exploitative relationship with the natural world’ whose ‘unique cultures’ need to be ‘preserved’ from ‘the ideologies of “progress” and “growth” and absorption in the global economy’. Tribal peoples, it argues, ‘are not looking for “equal opportunities” but the[y] just want to be left alone, to live as they always have done’.

They deride economic development for producing ‘a banal, homogenous pulp’, ‘eating at McDonalds, watching the satellite TV and listening to pop music on a Sony Walkman… Material abundance breeds iniquity and spiritual despair’. FPCN’s goal is actually ‘to reverse the process of development’, claiming ‘we should learn from [West Papuans’] reverence for nature… their ancient wisdom’. Its ‘preferential support’ is reserved for those who wish to ‘retain their traditional lifestyles’, and development aid is ‘categorically opposed’ while Western-style schooling is derided for its ‘false choices… the greed it teaches and the potential to pollute and erode distinctive cultures… We need tribal peoples far more than they need us. “They” show us how we once lived in harmony with nature and how we might live again.’ (3) This praise for archaic culture is also echoed by Survival International, which aims to ‘explain the contemporary relevance of their way of life’ (4).

The idea that modern society should be modelled upon stone-age conditions flows directly from environmentalists’ self-loathing attack on economic development. For some greens, primitive tribal peoples are much better than we destructive Westerners at living in harmony with nature in a sustainable fashion. Little wonder that the FWPC’s backers include environmental campaigns like Watch Indonesia!, Indonesian Friends of the Earth, and Down to Earth: the International Campaign for Ecological Justice in Indonesia. West Papua’s mystical aura as the ‘last place in the tropics’ even attracted the attention of arch-green George Monbiot in his book Poisoned Arrows (5).

These people do not support West Papua’s struggle for self-determination as a good in its own right. Indeed, some of them would likely withdraw their ‘preferential support’ if Papuans decided they wanted instead to dominate nature through rapid industrial development – the only way any people has successfully overcome poverty. Rather, they support the idea of man living in a primitive state of ‘harmony’ with nature, and that is what they admire about Papuans. Environmentalists frequently attack developmental projects in poor countries, because they do not think they should develop. It is far easier to hold back development in the global South than to turn the clock backwards in the North. To this end, they push notions of ‘sustainable development’ and ‘appropriate technology’ – often primitive, medieval devices like rope water pumps and ploughs.

There is a revealing similarity between Papuan mysticism, which arises directly out of their subsistence lifestyles, and environmentalists’ dogmatic refrain that there needs to be a balance between man and nature, which apparently Western audiences reject (6). ‘We know how to balance the ecosystem’, an OPM representative tells an Eco-Action activist. ‘I cannot say “this is my plant and I want to take it” – in my culture I must wait for instructions to take it’. He says that Indonesians who say ‘This is my power, I can take whatever I want’ are ‘breaking up our culture’. These ‘instructions’ come from the ‘landlords’ of the forest who are not the Papuans themselves, but ‘spirits’ (7). This sort of subservience of man to nature and spirits must be like manna from heaven for Western greens who want to see people bow down before Gaia.

However, it’s far from obvious that tribal people really reject the massive benefits of economic development and just want to live as they always have done. And yet, indigenist-environmentalists may exercise a pernicious influence on independence movements looking for Western support wherever they can find it. Independence leader Benny Wenda reveals that ‘before I thought, when I was inside [West Papua], people holding the radio, for instance, torch, for instance, car, for instance – “OK, I want that one!” When I came out, and I learned from those people, those groups. And then I compare, OK, what’s fit for my people? What’s good for my people? … Now I also give the message inside, OK, this is how the development can affect your way of life… So I always now educate my people.’

The FWPC’s Richard Samuelson implies that these efforts to (re)educate Papuans are legitimate since ‘the propaganda that Indonesia has put out over the years’ encouraging Papuans to ‘become modern’ makes it impossible to tell how much their desire for modernity ‘is a natural reaction when you see healthcare, or a car, or something that you actually, as a human being, you say, wow, I’d like to have that’, and ‘how much is the impact of that propaganda’. Indigenist ideology thus claims access to a tribal mindset unsullied by the dirty hands of modernity.

Some West Papuans are understandably wary of development, since it has historically been of a deeply exploitative form, imposed by people seen as invaders and occupiers. But Wenda carefully reserves the right for his people democratically to decide on appropriate forms of economic development after independence. The danger, though, is the way that indigenist-environmentalists’ rejection of modernity plays on West Papuans’ rejection of domination. For Wenda now, the sort of development that is desirable is one that ‘fits’ Papuan culture: ‘We need to have a balance between our nature and what kind of development… Any idea, any campaign, any movement, I can feed it into my bag, I can bring it to West Papua. “OK, this is mobile, this is computer, this is clothes,” and then people can choose, “OK, this is good for us, OK, maybe bush knife or shovel”… That is my dream one day.’

The greens’ exploitation of West Papua is a far cry from the demand of Sukarno, Indonesia’s own revolutionary independence leader, speaking at the founding Bandung conference of the Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Organisation in 1955; he called for ‘the subordination of everything to the well-being of mankind’ (8). West Papuans undoubtedly deserve the right – denied to them in the past – to determine their own political futures, free from external interference. But they also surely deserve the right to achieve a better standard of living than one limited, if indigenists get their way, to the import of bush knives and shovels.

Lee Jones researches Southeast Asian politics at Nuffield College, Oxford. See his website here.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill explained why Tibetophilia won’t set the Tibetans free. James Heartfield asked if Western powers were currently indulging in eco-imperialism. Rob Harris told Westerners to ditch their nostalgia for mud. Peter Smith criticised holier than thou eco-holidys. Or read more either at spiked issue Environment or spiked issue Asia.

(1) See Why Tibetophilia won’t set Tibet free, by Brendan O’Neill and Kosovo and the end of national liberation, by Phillip Cunliffe

(2) See

(3) See Our Ethos & Statement of Principles at the Friends of People Close to Nature website

(4) See About Us at the Survival International website

(5) Poisoned Arrows: An Investigative Journey in the Last Place in the Tropics, George Monbiot, Green Books, 2003

(6) See It’s official: the masses are not gullible, by James Woodhuysen

(7) Rumble in the Jungle: Fighting for Freedom in West Papua, Do or die 1999

(8) Quoted in The Global Cold War: Third World Intervention and the Making of Our Times, Odd Arne Westad, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p.101

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today