West Papua marks the eastern extremity of the Indonesian Archipelago. As the western half of Papua, the world’s second biggest island, it’s a sizable chunk of land with only a relatively small population of less than 880,000. It’s a land of contrasts – an exceptionally beautiful province boasting vast tracts of impenetrable jungle, cool grassy meadows framed by snow-capped mountain peaks, powerful rivers spilling into massive lowland deltas, coastal mangrove forests interspersed with white sandy palm fringed beaches and hundreds of offshore islands including the famous karst peaks of Raja Ampat. And within this montage of landscapes, an amazing array of endemic and exotic flora and fauna such as the Bird-of-Paradise, cassowary, tree kangaroos and the cuscus, a woolly tree-dwelling marsupial.
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Few places in the world boast such a rich and fascinating tribal culture as West Papua. More than 250 tribal sub-groups have been identified, each having their own language, traditions and customs. The coastal tribes were visited by Sriwijava traders from as early as the 7th century. By the 16th century, European traders were on the scene in search of spices and bestowing names such as Bougainville, Cape d’Urville and the Torres Straits.
Contact with the inland tribes came much later after the Dutch claimed the entire island of Papua in 1828. Various administrators, traders and explorers made sporadic forays into the interior and they were quickly followed by missionaries and settlers. During WWII the Japanese occupied the north for two years until Allied forces drove them out in 1944. Subsequently, the United States established over twenty bases in the region and in excess of half a million troops moved through the area. It was in Yos Sudarso Bay (then called Humboldt Bay) below the provincial capital of Jayapura that General MacArthur assembled his fleet for the invasion of the Philippines in 1945.
Despite the gradual push inland, some tribes remained completely isolated and unknown until as recently as 1970 when the tree-house dwelling Korowai tribe was discovered in the south-east. As intriguing as it is to imagine more undiscovered tribes living deep in the jungles of Papua this is not the case, despite some less than scrupulous tour companies promoting “First Contact” expeditions. It is true though, that there are still tribes living without any significant or regular contact with the modern world.
West Papua has been mired in bitter dispute ever since Indonesia won independence in 1945 and claimed all of the territory of the former Dutch East Indies. Arguing that the Papuan’s were ethnically different and vowing to maintain control over the province until the locals were capable of self-determination, the Dutch clung stubbornly to their Papua holdings. By 1961 the Indonesian’s forced the issue by invading the territory. The UN quickly stepped in and by September 1962, convinced the Dutch to relinquish the territory to a temporary United Nations administration, which would in turn transfer to Indonesia on the proviso that a plebiscite, the so-called “Act of Free Choice” would be held before 1969 to enable the local population to determine their own future.
The subsequent plebiscite has been widely criticised as anything but an “Act of Free Choice.” Voting was restricted to 1,025 musyawarah, a consensus of elders carefully selected by the Indonesian military and coerced into unanimously voting for integration with Indonesia. Pro-independence activists immediately began campaigning through diplomatic and peaceful protest for a re-vote on a one man, one vote basis. Their calls fell on deaf ears. By 1976 the Free Papua Movement (OPM) stepped up their campaign by sabotaging the massive Freeport gold and copper mine in the central highlands. It was the beginning of a guerrilla warfare campaign that has continued ever since, particularly around the Freeport Mine region. Allegations of swift and violent retribution by the Indonesian security forces against OPM supporters, and anyone viewed as sympathetic to the separatist movement, have been widespread.
Throughout much of this period, the Indonesian government actively promoted the migration of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians from other parts of the archipelago, particularly overpopulated Java. It’s a strategy critics have decried as an attempt to “Indonesianise” the province. And whilst the indigenous culture remains distinctly and proudly Melanesian, the Indonesian influence is evident. Bahasa Indonesia is now widely spoken across the province, the distinctive Indonesian architecture is evident everywhere, traditional staples such as taro and yam have been substituted with rice, and whilst the population remains predominantly Christian, Islam is becoming more prevalent.
Perhaps this is why the Indonesian government has relaxed its stance against foreign tourists in recent years. It is now quite easy for intrepid travellers to venture to most parts of the province. For adventure seekers, the region is oozing with possibilities; trekking, mountain climbing, dirt biking, village homestays, river journeys or simply losing oneself in tropical splendour for a week or two. Those with deep enough pockets can sail the Raja Ampat in liveaboard luxury, dive some of the world’s best coral reefs or make flying visits to highlands tribes. So whilst West Papua may be well off the beaten track it’s definitely beeping louder on the tourist radar.
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Entry & exit points and transport options
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