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The Deforesting of Irian Jaya

by Russ W. Baker

The Nation magazine, February 7, 1994


Carrying its odd trio through a valley deep in Irian Jaya, the van made excellent time. The driver, a young hipster from far off Java in jeans and reflecting sunglasses, cranked up a scratchy tape of Indonesian rock and drummed away on the dashboard. The wiry old man next to me, toothless and sporting nothing save his tribe's traditional penis gourd, grinned sweetly as we made dust fly. But his cheeriness could only momentarily transcend a sobering reality: that his culture, which dates back 10,000 years, may be wiped out in ten.

Irian Jaya is having a nervous breakdown. Change here is way too rapid for this fragile land, the western half of the island of New Guinea and the easternmost province of the 13,000 island Indonesian archipelago. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the valley town of Wamena, the van's destination.

Though naturally devoid of the luxuriant forest that is the province's life giving marrow, Wamena is the main draw for the gaggle of tourists who journey to Irian Jaya. The market in the dusty town center packs a full dose of National Geographic splendor: Bare breasted women haggle over piles of brilliantly colored vegetables, fruits and roots. Fierce looking warriors, some not long weaned from a culture of cannibalism and headhunting, stand in clusters chatting with cousins clad in slogan bearing T-shirts.

Until recent times, the Irianese lived relatively undisturbed. So, too, did the hodgepodge of endemic creatures that rival Australian fauna  including the bird of paradise, the world's most opulent and showy bird, and tree dwelling kangaroos. They flourish in Irian Jaya's rain forest, which covers the bulk of the province's 163,000 square miles, the largest remaining stand of trees in a nation that is second only to Brazil in rain forest acreage. Anthropologists, herbologists, biologists and other scientists consider Irian Jaya a treasure trove of previously undiscovered cures and an evolutionary roadmap. It is also home to much of the earth's remaining Stone Age civilization.

None of which has been able to withstand the forces of mammon. Each year, Indonesia loses 3 million acres of green--an area the size of Connecticut. Annual plywood exports have tripled since 1986; at the current rate, the country's old-growth forest will have disappeared entirely by midway through the next century. The provinces of Borneo, the largest island in the Indonesian archipelago, are already heavily denuded, and Irian Jaya is now the chief magnet for the chain saw.

Last year, the United Nations' Year of Indigenous People, would have seemed an ideal time to address such devastation. But aside from the recent bestowal of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award on Bambang Widjojanto, an Indonesian lawyer fighting to save 250 Irianese tribes, scarcely a peep was heard from abroad.

Meanwhile, "progress" waits for no one. One hundred sixty miles north of Wamena, in Jayapura, a coastal boomtown and the capital of Irian Jaya, one finds a hotel with TV movies, Fuji film shops and petty thievery and alcoholism galore. AIDS has arrived, thirty seven cases so far, probably brought in by Thai fishermen.

When I stepped from a bus, a drunk pinched me hard, with malice. Perhaps that was a message for the United States, one of the leading importers, along with Japan and Germany, of Indonesian hardwood. But in the hierarchy of colonialism, the villain is also the Malay and the Chinese, scanning timber production schedules in the highrises of distant Jakarta.

Shortly after President Suharto took power in the mid-1960s, Indonesia received a $200 million development loan from a fourteen nation consortium, and Suharto launched myriad initiatives, enough to alarm many over the mounting national deficit. But not Suharto, who responded cheerily in a 1971 speech, "We do not need to worry our heads about debts, for we still have forests to repay those debts!" Since that time, a handful of businessmen and generals have made fortunes from stripping forested provinces.

On Java, the island where half of all Indonesians live, the ancient forests are long gone. Now, the only Javanese to bear witness to the mutilation of the country's forests are the "transmigrants," the men and women at the bottom of the economic totem pole who are sent to distant provinces to relieve population pressures on Java and to harvest the natural riches.

On a wet early morning drive through the coastal jungle west of Jayapura, I passed traditional wooden houses on stilts and villagers harvesting coconuts. Soon, though, the landscape changed, to workers laying blacktop and then block upon block of one story cement buildings. The houses, and a new mosque, are for the transmigrants, who share neither a culture nor a history with the indigenous peoples of Irian Jaya. Indonesia, 90 percent Muslim, is the world's most populous Islamic country, and its ethnic makeup is primarily Malay and Chinese.

The Irianese, on the other hand, are Melanesian--black as Africans--and animists, though Christianity has a strong foothold thanks to waves of missionaries with private air forces that carry them to the most remote and inhospitable terrain

 Inherently unworkable, the government's transmigration program is already stumbling--largely because efforts to plant rice, an alien crop, failed. The government is having second thoughts about exporting people, but the resource depletion and the logging continue.

Our four-wheel-drive emerged from the jungle into the sun at the coastal town of Demta, a former fishing hamlet turned lumberyard and port. At a roadblock, we debarked so a light-skinned soldier could examine my surat jalan, a travel pass that is mandatory in most parts of Irian. Then, like a lot of soldiers looking to cash in, he pointed to a purportedly rare parrot he had chained nearby, and suggested I purchase it.

Although the Irianese, almost to a person, believe the Indonesian presence is an occupation akin to that in East Timor, the only active, armed resistance is sparse, geographically limited, and bottled up by the army's superior numbers and firepower. Rifle toting troops are everywhere in the province, functioning as a virtual private security force for Suharto's lumber cronies.

I made my way up the road to the dispirited dwellings of fishermen and farmers who tenaciously cling to a fading way of life. There I met Daniel, a village elder sporting a canary yellow T-shirt promoting Golkar, the government party that wins every election despite its lack of popularity. Daniel is no convert; it's just that the T-shirt was free.

The shirt was also the only thing the government actually delivered. Advance men had offered a veritable catalogue of benefits: schools, clean water supply, more food, money and jobs for locals. The first four items never materialized, and what jobs there were didn't go to indigenous people. An army of skilled laborers from previous chopping grounds, supervised by Korean and Filipino managers, usually end up with most of the paychecks. In Demta, villagers hired to help cut timber were replaced before the first year's harvest was out.

"Now we live as before," Daniel said with a sigh, "but our forest has been cut." Often, logging is done by bulldozer, compacting the soil and causing disruptive runoff. Another casualty is the game on which residents depend for food, and which clear out at the first whine of the saw. Tribe members find they can no longer ceremonially affirm their chief's sovereignty by presenting him with a bird of paradise. "The bird moves away, and we have no more pride," Daniel said.

In a zero sum equation, vanishing species get replaced by television and its sunny version of reality. The moment electricity comes to the larger towns, so does Papa Suharto, a mainstay of nighttime entertainment. The great one, now in his sixth unchallenged five year term, is seen touring factories and villages and praising the benefits of development. As citizens prepare for bed, the broadcast day concludes with the solemnly intoned government creed, the five principles of his political philosophy, known as pancasila: belief in God, humanitarianism, nationalism, democracy and social justice. Pancasila is the artificial glue that holds together a country of 900 populated islands and scores of ethnic and language groups, many of whom have nothing in common.

A sixth Orwellian unprinciple could be added: economic justice. Suharto has tirelessly added roads, schools and industrial capacity during his twenty five years in power. But most of the benefits have accrued to a handful of billionaire cronies, and to Suharto's avaricious family, which is often likened to the Marcos clan. His wife and children pop up at the helm of state run and private firms reaping enormous benefits from resource depletion enterprises, including mining, oil drilling and logging.

One Indonesian press photographer discovered the official links when he tried to take pictures of a logging operation in Irian Jaya. Soldiers grabbed his camera and threw it in the river. "This is Mrs. Tien Suharto's company," an officer snarled. "You make trouble, we'll kill you--no problem." Suharto reportedly assures the loyalty of the armed forces by providing some generals with their own logging franchises.

Among the foreign operations that have presumably paid their dues for operating in Irian is the American firm Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold, which plans to double the production of its already vast mining operation in a remote and beautiful area. Mobil Oil and Conoco, too, are firing up their engines.

The grand capitalistic venture reaches beyond the New Guinea landmass. Biak, an island to the north, once looked like Irian from the air: a carpet of deep green. Today, it resembles a balding man with a bad haircut. That ill considered pluck job left Biak's residents waiting, like everybody else, for promised riches that never came.

The locals buckled under heavy government pressure, selling access to their communally owned forest for a paltry $14,000. Barito Pacific, the world's largest plywood and hardwood export company, owned by a close friend of Suharto, also agreed to pay $2 per tree (worth perhaps 250 times that on the world market). But at the beach, where villagers carved dugout canoes from the few remaining trees, they told me they were never compensated.

In a sardonic tribute to "progress," natives have named the entire gutted region "Barito" after the perpetrator. "They put in the road, they cut down the trees. They ran everything," explained John, a 20-year-old who earned a dollar a day as a surveyor for the company.

Today, Biak is exhausted, the loggers long gone. It is common to see a resident with a chain saw cutting one of the few remaining trees, like a man so degraded he thinks nothing of selling a lung for a week's food. Meanwhile, villagers are being forcibly resettled in the interior to make way for a five star hotel and golf course, which Suharto is expected to dedicate.

On Yapen, a cigar shaped island to the south of Biak, the timber companies continue the devastation. Near the small village of Wooi, a Jakarta based company cleared a 120 foot wide swath for a logging road, obliterating more than half the communal fields of cassava, sweet potatoes and beans. Again, the same story: The company never paid the villagers for the land, despite angry insistence that the property was theirs--by tradition, by law and by verbal contract.

Instead, the company chose to dole out a token payment for each fruit bearing tree it leveled. The amount was appallingly low for a source of continuing sustenance: one fifth the value of one year's fruit crop. Then, fulfilling a promise to employ local workers, the logging company hired natives to fell trees at 2,500 rupiah, or about $1.25, a day. (Indonesia has among the lowest average wage rates in Asia; although the government sets a minimum wage for each province, rates often dip far below that.)

After three months, though, nobody had seen a single rupiah. Company foremen claimed they were having trouble getting the funds from Jakarta, and warned that wages would now be contingent on good production. So desperate were workers that, after going months without pay, they broke into a company storehouse and stole food.

In June 1992, 40 percent of the Wooi electorate sent a message to Jakarta by brazenly voting against the parliamentary candidates of Indonesia's ruling party. Jakarta sent one back: Officials canceled construction of a primary school planned for the village. So far no one has been paid.

Elsewhere on Yapen, interlopers are crushing other precious habitats. Near the town of Serui, mountain villagers took me to a clearing where the ornately plumed bird of paradise daily performs a balletic spectacle. Though a feathered orchestra surrounded us in the lush forest, no birds of paradise emerged that day. Even fewer are likely to be spotted on the lavish golf course planned for Japanese tourists in this most remote of spots.

A golf course will look pretty good compared with the dusty devastation on Java, more than 1,500 miles to the west. Traveling across that vast island in a sweltering bus, I found myself wedged among packages and too many people. Observing my sweaty discomfort during the fifteen hour ride, an Indonesian man sitting near me offered a sympathetic excuse for the stifling heat: "The trees..." he said, shrugging. "Without them, it is hot. Unfortunately, they cut them all down."


Russ W. Baker, an investigative reporter, is a contributing writer at The Village Voice.

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