Nov 30, 2023 Last Updated 8:29 PM, Nov 27, 2023

'We've lived here thousands of years'.

Published: Sep 30, 2007

Inspired by student discussions, John Rumbiak became a spokesman for disempowered indigenous peoples in Irian Jaya

I was born in Biak in 1962. In 1982 I went to study English at Cenderawasih University in Abepura. Actually I was interested in politics but the university did not offer it. I lived with other students in the hostel. We talked about development in Irian, and we thought the people had no idea about what was best for them.

But I did see one NGO that had a different vision. There was the mainstream from the government, and this NGO with its own local vision. That was YPMD, at that time led by George Aditjondro. George and the friends from Java had a very contrasting vision to that mainstream. It was interesting, but also very suitable.

So I began to think perhaps I would be no longer an observer but a worker. We began by developing our talent for music. We formed a folk singing group called Mansinam. It was in the same spirit as the late Arnold Ap's Mambesak. We sang church songs, but it started from there, adapting local dances.

I then entered YPMD in 1989, and travelled to various kampongs around Jayapura. It was a great experience. I then went to the Baliem Valley with the Dani people, and to the Asmats. These people all had potential, but it was stifled by the presence of big projects.


In Asmat they had a logging company in which Mrs Tien Suharto also had a share. I saw that the Asmat had a myth of origin in which they came from the trees. But they were forced to exploit their own mother, the trees they had to chop down for that company. They got very low wages for working from six in the morning to six in the evening. They didn't even get that amount in full, because they bought coffee, sugar, cigarettes on credit from the company. So sometimes they got nothing at all.

The exploitation was cruel in a society already domesticated by the gospel brought by the missionaries. They no longer had the fight in them of an earlier generation.

Initially, YPMD made studies of various areas. George Aditjondro started this off. The results were spread around through seminars and the mass media. Most government officials live in the city and they didn't know. So YPMD acted as a catalyst, and as a bridge between society and the government.

Now you have been six years at YPMD. Do you see any general patterns in the social issues around Irian Jaya?

Above all, I see a strong security approach everywhere in the big projects that bring in so much income for the government. This is true particularly of Freeport, but also of the oil and gas fields in Sorong. Freeport has these exclusion zones. The presence of these big concerns with their security apparatus is a major threat to the ability of the local communities to stay in touch with one another or even with their gardens.

The law makes little reference to local land rights, and the law on mining contains no concessions at all to the idea that the original inhabitants might own resources below the surface. The same is true of the law on forestry. This is a weapon of the civil and military authorities. They all work together hand in hand to pressure the local inhabitants.


The conflict between Freeport and the original inhabitants is due to the fact that, however innocent the inhabitants may be from a modern point of view, they have a traditional system built up over thousands of years. They have their own system of government. Their own belief system teaches them how to interact with nature. Natural resources have a religious value. Then when outsiders come in and make surveys in sacred areas, the original inhabitants become afraid of a disaster. They might get into trouble with their ancestors for the trespassing. So they have to fight.

The new system makes no accommodation with the existing system. When there are protests, people do not inquire why. The newcomers should ask why the locals put border markers all the way around the Ertzberg mountain of ore, as the Amungme elders did in 1967 during the exploration phase. Because that was a sacred area. But the company felt it had already discharged its responsibilities, and they looked to the government and to the military. That was where the cozy relation, hand in hand with the government and the military, became visible. The elders' protest was seen as a threat, as subversive.

One percent

We have lived thousands of years in this area. When did the government come, with all its laws on land ownership? Perhaps the recent offer by Freeport to set aside 1% of annual revenue for the local community is part of the recognition. But we should not look at a solution before we have a process in place.

For instance, we doubt the independence of the environmental audit done recently by Dames and Moore. There must be an investigation to see whether Freeport was involved in human rights violations. And then there must be discussion of the losses carried by the local people for all these years. We cannot just leap straight to a 1% solution.

What happened to the past? That's the big question. So if we are enticed, we will not answer immediately. No way! We do not want those 30 years to be forgotten just like that. The January 1974 agreement between the Amungme people, the government and Freeport, needs to be reviewed. That agreement contained a social responsibility clause that has not been fulfilled to the satisfaction of the people. Only when that is all cleared up can we start talking about the 1%. We need a negotiating atmosphere that is democratic and free of pressure, mediated by an independent body. The people must be accompanied by a lawyer.

If there is no process such as this, Freeport creates a new problem for itself. They have shown a concern for the biophysical world in their position papers, but they ignored completely the question of the indigenous ownership of land. I have argued that this would cause a big problem. Now that is exactly what happened.

Indonesian law considers the deep jungle to be empty, to have no owners. This is a very wrong perception. I want to stress that in Irian, there is not a single piece of empty land. Every tree has an owner.

John Rumbiak is the coordinator for studies and advocacy at the Rural Community Development Foundation (Yayaysan Pengembangan Desa Masyarakat, YPMD) in Abepure, near Jayapura, Irian Jaya.

Inside Indonesia 47: Jul-Sep 1996

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A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar

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