Highland communities in Papua are demanding access to services, but there is a limit to what can be offered in the most remote settlements
To many an outsider, the indigenous population of Papua constitutes one people of uniform identity and culture. The opposite is true: Papua’s continuous fragmentation along tribal and clan lines has resulted in 312 tribes (according to official figures), thousands of clans, and a minimum of 269 indigenous languages. The area is one of the most linguistically diverse in the world. It is also riven with internal conflicts, many of which take a violent form and which result in the constant formation of new clans - the primary marker of identity in the region.
The product of these contentious collective relationships, and a history of both constant war between clans and shifting and unpredictable allegiances within clans, is small, isolated populations spread across rugged topography, settled in defensible areas that are distant from other settlements. Such wars have lessened over time, but the isolation remains.
Now, in a new era of more democratic government, many of the isolated and remote communities that have arisen as a result of this historical pattern of settlement in Papua are demanding health, education, and other services. In many of the more isolated areas, however, local governments are not able to respond to these demands. This is especially true in new districts created under decentralisation, which lack the capacity to maintain health and education services in district capitals, much less peripheral areas. One product of the new demands is a fury of runway construction in remote communities, whose people often unrealistically hope that runways will bring in the services they crave. The isolation that used to be a blessing an in era of inter-clan conflict has become a curse in an era of state-building and service delivery.
Education and health in a remote valley
The village of Sinokla, in Soloikma subdistrict, is illustrative of these isolated areas. It is one of the most remote, and poorest, parts of Indonesia. Sinokla lies in the new district of Yahukimo, in the Papuan highlands. Its only fast connection to the outside world is its airstrip, which is half overgrown with weeds and barely usable. Travel by foot to Dekai or Wamena takes five days to the former and seven days to the latter: trails do not exist, and navigation occurs by one’s knowledge of the peaks and valleys surrounding Sinokla. The Seng River, which flows south to the lowlands and Dekai, and eventually, the Arafura Sea, is too wild to be navigable.
The far-flung settlements of the Sinokla area are located far from the river due to erosion and avalanches that have undermined past settlements and killed villagers. Unlike most other human settlements in the highlands, which are situated in more defensible areas high in the Jayawijaya and Sudirman mountain ranges (usually at over 2,000 metres), Sinokla’s settlements lie so deep in a narrow valley that pilots cannot attempt landings too early in the morning, as the valley is still dark when the rest of the area is light.
Unlike Lolat (profiled in my earlier Inside Indonesia article, 'Living without a state', where rudimentary health and education services are available, Sinokla has never had health services: no health centre (Puskesmas), no cadres or maternal and child health services (Posyandu). The nearest place where Sinokla’s people can access health care is in Lolat, where Yasumat, a local NGO, provides services. Lolat is two days’ walk from Sinokla. Planes are not an option for medical emergencies: they land once a month on average. Medical emergencies result in recovery, handicap, or death, unaffected by treatment.
Sinokla has a school, built of stone, where one teacher instructs primary school children for free. That teacher is not fully literate; he teaches what he remembers. He is not a state employee; he has never been paid. Everyone possesses one set of clothing, all of it in varying stages of decomposition. Children’s bellies are so distended as to look painfully pregnant, the result of Kwashiorkor as well as intestinal parasites: their arms and legs are just as spindly as their bellies are stretched. Even the church—usually the grandest building in a settlement—is made of bamboo, with no walls and no floor. There is not a single zinc roof or pane of glass (or even plastic sheeting) in the area. Nor, when I last visited, was there a single bar of soap or toothbrush or anything related to hygiene. And the lack of assets, usually kept in the highlands in the form of livestock, is shocking. On a recent visit to Sinokla, I saw only one young pig, and one dog.
The villagers of Sinokla have plenty of requests that they express to rare visitors, and plenty of ideas about how to develop the area. They ask for the airstrip to be graded, for a health centre to be built, and for a house for a teacher that they would then secure from Dekai. They ask for water systems for their villages: living far from the Seng River lets them sleep easier but their women still must walk every day to it for water. They even ask for mosquito foggers.
The curse of remoteness
But what Sinokla’s people want, right now, is not feasible. The isolation of Sinokla is simply not compatible with the provision of services there: it is too remote and its population is too small. Exile and distance between settlements once served an important role in an older Papua, a place that was riven by continuous local wars fuelled by the aspirations of emerging leaders, where education was only how to care for pigs or maintain a garden, and where one’s health was controlled by one’s interaction with an otherworldly domain of ancestors and spirits. These remote settlements were self-sufficient, even autarchic.
Sinokla existed because of such conflicts: one local mentioned that Sinokla’s people were originally from a higher altitude, near Lolat, but left a few generations before. Whether they were on the losing side of a clan war or some other conflict that led to displacement is not known. But the poor soil and threat from the Seng River and the hills it disintegrates all point to the conclusion that Sinokla’s people are not there by choice. And this isolation is now an impediment to the things that people desire from modernity.
To simply say that Papua has a rugged topography is to under-represent the challenge, not just of service delivery, but of movement in the highlands and in much of the coast. Papua and the neighbouring province of Papua Barat cover an area the size of California, and yet were hardly penetrated by outsiders until the last century. When the Dutch sought to create a presence in order to more robustly stake a claim to the territory, they established a bare-bones presence in Manokwari, Hollandia (Jayapura), and Merauke, and even that was largely through proxies from Maluku. Papua’s interior remained a place of legend to within living memory, with the exception of incursions to places like Boven Digoel, which served only as a place of exile for political prisoners.
Papua’s coast is distinguished by swamps and alluvial plains that transform into the foothills of a mountain range that bisects the territory and essentially cuts off the north from the south in the same way that the Hindu Kush leaves Afghanistan as two entities. The highlands are not simply a geographic line in this bisection: they are the interior in its entirety. The swamps and jungles that separate them from the coast served to deter all penetration by foot, while the sight of the mountains from the coast deterred later attempts by plane: the highlands include roughly ten peaks that stand higher than 4,000 metres, of which Puncak Jaya, Mandala, and Trikora are the most famous.
The rivers running from these mountains create deltas hundreds of miles across and they saturate the lowlands. These mountains host small glaciers and snow and the lower peaks are subject to frost regularly. To the north and west, the peaks range between 1,000 and 3,000 metres. Those mountains were an effective psychological deterrent until a lost pilot crested the northern peaks of the Baliem Valley in 1938 and, where maps indicated peaks, he saw human settlements. That valley hosted an organised civilization compared to the settlements concealed within the folds of the massifs surrounding it. What once had appeared to be an endless mass of rocks and trees was also a mass of clans and extended families. As often as not they were at war with one another, forming a human landscape just as volatile and subject to erosion and tension as the mountains themselves.
A history of contact
It was not until the 1950s that foreign missionaries penetrated the highlands. The 1970s and 1980s were marked by numerous instances of first contact with clans throughout those mountains. Even today, the challenges of the area remain. This is a landscape of gorges, slim valleys, high peaks, and foot trails. There is no ordinary Indonesian concept of seasons in the mountains: there is the rainy season, and then there is the more rainy season. No roads connect the coast to the highlands, everything goes in by plane, to Wamena, Mulia, Oxibil, and a few other gritty little frontier towns that host large paved airstrips. And those are just the towns that are easy to reach: there are hundreds of other settlements, some with airstrips, most without. Questions of service delivery in these areas, therefore, are questions of logistics.
This isolation has had an impact upon highland physiology. When highlanders or lowland forest dwellers report that it takes a day to walk somewhere, the pace that is the basis of their estimation is a Papuan base. I am an avid hiker, but I find that these estimates have to be increased by an average factor of three for a non-Papuan walker. Highland women and children walk for days without a second thought across areas that many a soldier would find impenetrable (this stamina among highland populations is one of the reasons why Papuan recruits are so in demand in Kopassus and other Indonesian elite military units). Highlanders in transit live off the land for days, moving at a light jog for 12 hours or more on bare feet, on trails that untrained eyes can barely discern, eating sugarcane stalks and sleeping rough. Such distances beg the question: where is there room for services, outside the airstrips, across terrain such as this? And what happens when there is a complication to a pregnancy or some other medical emergency in an area with no airstrip?
Sinokla, then, is hardly unique in its isolation. It is lucky in that it has an airstrip. In Yahukimo district, outside of handful of larger population centres and more frequented airstrips, there exist hundreds of places like Sinokla, but with no connections to the outside other than by foot. Yahukimo’s settlements also exist in economic bubbles where little, if any, trade occurs between settlements. Money is not exchanged for local goods and services, and areas do not specialise in the production of particular products. That these areas remain habitually autarchic is a result of their isolation, and also, their past wars between clans, when the trails between villages of different clans were purposefully destroyed and every man went about armed.
This pattern of conflict continues: in 2011 when I visited Nalca, another village in Yahukimo, a war between villages had resulted in a freezing of movement and the destruction of trails. Every boy and man was armed. In another clan war in Tolikara in 2011, the death of a girl was blamed on witchcraft by another clan and nearly two dozen people were killed (including a priest who tried to mediate) before the matter was settled by an exchange of pigs, mediated by TNI soldiers from a nearby post.
In such volatile environments, communities typically consume only what they produce, except for a few recently-adopted products like rice, fuel, cooking oil, clothing, and refined sugar that are manufactured outside and flown in. The further one travels from frequently used airstrips, the less one encounters such products: in Sinokla, there are no outside products for sale or trade. The only products flowing out of these areas as trade goods are such items as black orchids and rare birds killed for their feathers. Even Dekai, the district capital is in a rudimentary economic state: it does not even have permanent banking services.
An absent state
In Yahukimo’s larger settlements, government health and education do not function. The abovementioned NGO, Yasumat, provides some services in these areas. Critics who would seek to blame the central government or the province for the lack of services should note that, since decentralisation was first implemented about a decade ago, the real authority for such services lies at the district level. But Yahukimo has so many contending political allegiances that the civil servant rolls are filled with political appointees from the clans that the district head (bupati) requires the support of for other initiatives. Services take second place to these appointments, and the Yahukimo government is not managing to provide services outside of Dekai. The services available in Dekai itself are often poor.
This political shelf-stocking of civil servants in order to maintain allegiances is also connected to a collective misinterpretation of the affirmative action policies articulated in the special autonomy legislation under which Papua is now governed. Many civil servants do not interpret their positions as the positions of persons who play a role in service delivery for their own people. Rather, the perception is that the position, and the salary, is what is owed to them by the government as an individual benefit from the proceeds of Papua’s mineral wealth.
Service mapping conducted in Nalca, Lolat, Holowan and Soba subdistricts reveals nothing but YASUMAT services. In Sinokla, there is nothing to map. The churches are the one institution that exist in through the area and that possess a bureaucratic structure and offers regular services, and these only concern themselves with ecclesiastical matters.
Sinokla’s people say they want to bring their area up to the level of Lolat or Ninia, which have benefitted from much more infrastructural (but not human resources) development from the district government. This is why Sinokla’s airstrip, long neglected, is being maintained again.
This airstrip construction is part of a much larger trend in the highlands: within the last five years close to 80 new airstrips have been built in Yahukimo alone. These airstrips are constructed by community labour, by people who want more services and greater access to the outside world. One could say it is a building boom fuelled by hope. However, the main airline that can service small airstrips in the highlands, Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF), does not have a fleet large enough to service more than a very small number of these airstrips. Other airlines with the ability to land on short runways, such as Tariku, AMA, and Yajasi, cannot fly to areas where the service is not economically viable.
This building trend is also emblematic of clan rivalries. Clans with airstrips on ‘their’ land either exclude members of enemy clans from using those airstrips, or they levy exorbitant fees on them.
However, providing modern services by necessity requires any government to prioritise some areas over others. If and when health and education services in Yahukimo improve, it inevitably will be the main population centres that reap the benefit. Dekai will grow first, partly as a result of an increasing migrant population entering that town in anticipation of a future building boom, fuelled by coal discoveries in the foothills. Ninia will follow; shortly after will come Lolat, Holowan, Soba, and others. Luckily for these places, YASUMAT is working on service provision there, and the Yahukimo government is preparing to put the NGO’s teachers on the government payroll, effectively acknowledging the government’s own limitations and the quality of YASUMAT’s services.
Sinokla and similarly tiny, remote settlements will be last in line. The isolation of Sinokla’s people makes the provision of quality services to them all but impossible for a society with such rudimentary government structures. The citizens of Sinokla seem to know this. The people with ambition have all left. Even the village head is undertaking a law degree in the University of Cenderawasih in the provincial capital, paid by the Yahukimo district government. The population will continue to decline, and eventually, the place will be a memory.
Bobby Anderson (firstname.lastname@example.org) works on health, education, and governance projects in Eastern Indonesia, and he travels frequently in Papua province.