Dec 08, 2023 Last Updated 10:51 AM, Dec 7, 2023

A cultural carnival?

Observing social change in Papua

Stuart Upton

It’s carnival time — the costumes are bright, the dancers gyrating, the music lively. But this is not Rio, or even the Notting Hill Carnival in London (which has ‘Unity and Diversity’ as this year’s theme). It’s the Wamena Carnival in Papua.

This town in the highlands of Indonesia’s eastern-most province is celebrating its diversity with a parade through the town. The marchers are wearing traditional dress from the different ethnic groups that make up the populace — local Dani, Javanese, Bugis, Torajan, even a lone girl from Timor. The dancers include two Papuan boys dressed only in penis gourds doing Inul-style sexy gyrations to blaring dang dut (a popular Indonesian music style). Is this an exhibition of the cultural exchange occurring in this distant outpost, the multicultural nation in action?

This is actually the second parade of the carnival. The first was rather less celebratory, but perhaps more significant. While we all waited for the indeterminate start time, the police pushed everyone back from the road. And just as well, for moments later a long line of trucks, vans and cars screamed past at speed, full of soldiers and police. Hardly a subtle reminder of who is in charge here.

Migrants monopolise jobs

The parade over, I decide to eat. The nearby cheap restaurant is run by a migrant from Sulawesi. I make a quick stop at the internet café (owned by a Sundanese), before going back to my hotel (Sulawesi again). The next day I take a pedicab to the terminal (Papuan driver) and bus along the valley (West Sumatran driver). Out of these workers, the only jobs not taken by a migrant are those that are poorly paid, low status and hard work. The social divide between migrants and indigenous people in the province is hard to miss, both on the ground and in the statistics. So what have been the main effects of the movement of people into Papua? Has this mixing of people created the unity in diversity, the national identification despite ethnic difference, that the carnival suggests?

Six years ago in 2000, migrants made up roughly one third of the population according to official figures. But they held nearly nine out of ten jobs in the more lucrative trade sector and two thirds of service jobs. In contrast, most Papuans are yet to enter the modern economy, with nearly nine out of ten of them in agriculture. The great majority of these grow crops for their own consumption. Disregarding agriculture, more than two out of every three jobs is held by a migrant.

Local people are also disadvantaged in the job market by factors unrelated to migration. One is that most Papuans still live in rural areas; regions that have few jobs other than traditional farming. Of course, if you have no friends or relations in the urban area to stay with, moving to the city is a difficult step.

Another cause suggested by some migrants in Papua is the racial one: that Papuans are too lazy, they live for the day with no planning for the future, and are ignorant of the modern world. Knowledge of the modern world is dependent on education, a major issue for the indigenous people of the province.

Access to education

Education is vital for employment, and indigenous Papuans are losing out to migrants here too. When the former Dutch colony was handed over to Indonesia, the new administration set about improving the education system. It increased funding to the primary school system and created the first university, Universitas Cenderawasih in Jayapura, in 1963. But while these may seem positive steps, for the indigenous population the benefits have been slight. The isolated nature of many villages means that indigenous children in much of the rural interior have only limited access to education. And the access they have is of variable quality. Many have to travel hours or days to the nearest school to be taught by an unqualified teacher. The qualified teachers on the payroll are absent from the school for years on end. Even in urban areas where standards are better, indigenous people are twice as likely as migrants to have little or no education, a figure that remains almost unchanged since the early 1970s.

A few years after the opening of Universitas Cendrawasih, only seven per cent of tertiary students were indigenous. The university mainly bene fited the civil servants who came into Papua from other parts of the archi pelago and their children. In the decades since, little has changed. In 2000, migrants were still five times more likely to have tertiary education than indigenous people. The effects of this educational imbalance are evident in the public sector, a major source of employment for Papuans.

Since the fall of Suharto, two factors have combined to increase the number of educated Papuans needed in the bureaucracy. Firstly, with local autonomy has come a doubling of the number of districts in the province. Secondly, local political pressure has ensured that the majority of higher level positions in the government and the administration are now filled by Papuans. With few qualified to fill these positions, there are claims that many of the incumbents are people with little relevant education or experience. If elementary teachers with no office experience are running agriculture departments as is claimed, it is small wonder that the administration of the province is not up to scratch.

The other group of migrants that feature prominently in Papua are the Christian missionaries. While many missionaries are from Papua or from other parts of the archipelago, there are also a significant number from abroad. Foreign church bodies provide most of the expertise and funding for missionary activities in the province.


Missions have enormous importance in providing basic services in Papua —more than 40 per cent of education is at private institutions, most of these church schools. They also provide transport. Papua has a challenging terrain for road builders, with mountains, rivers, swamps and lots of rain. Mission aircraft are the main form of transport away from the coast, with mission planes flying to remote villages that are otherwise unconnected to the outside world. These flights are also the only way in which medical services and supplies reach isolated communities.

Looking for positives

It’s easy to see all the negatives in Papua, but what about the positives? I guess it depends where you look. Papuans are better off than some of their neighbours. Life expectancy in the province is much higher than in Papua New Guinea (PNG). In 2003 Papuans could expect to live for 65 years, compared to only 58 years in PNG. There is also a lower infant mortality rate in Papua. Another area in which Papua appears to have the advantage over the eastern half of the island is in matters of law and order. The statistics don’t represent the crime situation — they suggest that PNG is far safer than Japan. These rates are partly indicative of the public’s perception of the police rather than the number of crimes actually committed. Port Moresby is often rated as one of the most dangerous cities in the world, with theft and violent crime in epidemic proportions. While there are many reports on the human rights abuses in Papua, it appears that the general crime rate is low. Perhaps there is a silver lining in the military cloud?

But the positives are only relative. Life expectancy in Papua is better than in PNG, but it’s risen much more slowly than other Indonesian provinces in the last few decades. The crime rates do not include the endemic corruption that affects the lives of all in the province, much of which is fueled by the military. Finally, the extent of infrastructure provided by missionaries in the province simply highlights the failure of the government to provide basic services.

Many of the problems in Papua are not specific to the province. They are faced by poor people across the archipelago. It’s important, too, to remember that most migrants to Papua are just people trying to make a living and support their families as well as they can. But unless indigenous people are assisted by government programs to improve their education and employment levels, the disadvantage Papuans experience in comparison to migrants will lead to even more envy, frustration and ethnic violence.

Stuart Upton ( has worked in Indonesia and is currently writing a thesis on the effects of migration to Papua.

Inside Indonesia 86: Apr-Jun 2006

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