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Inside Indonesia: West Papua Highland Communities: The Middle of Nowhere

February 18, 2013

Inside Indonesia: West Papua Highland Communities: The Middle of Nowhere

February 18, 2013
Inside Indonesia
No. 111: Jan-Mar 2013
Sunday, February 17, 2013

Highland communities in Papua are demanding access to services, but
there is a limit to what can be offered in the most remote settlements

Bobby Anderson

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

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

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. anderson4Kids outside school at Sinolka, Bobby

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 (rubashov) works on health, education, and
governance projects in Eastern Indonesia, and he travels frequently in
Papua province.

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