Indigenous Women Showing Us How to Imagine Another World

by Morentalisa Hutapea and Galuh Wandita, Asia Justice and Rights

A foreword for our short documentary Indigenous Women of Mpur Swor — The Land, Water, and Forest Belong to Us

As Indonesia’s economic growth plunges towards rock-bottom — its worst performance in two decades — we must give pause to the model we have pursued relentlessly. The pandemic has shown us that the planet (and our islands) can no longer sustain our consumerist model of development. Where short-term monetary gain trumps locally-driven, sustainable and circular economic systems. Indonesia’s addiction to economic growth has led to the destruction of our natural resources and has pushed indigenous communities to the brink of extinction.

Documentary of Indigenous Women of Mpur Swor — The Land, Water, and Forest Belong to Us (Perempuan Adat Mpur Swor — Tanah, Air, dan Hutan Milik Kami)

Such is the case raised by the indigenous women of Mpur, Kebar Valley, West Papua Province. Ten of thousands of hectares of land and forest have been forcibly taken by a palm oil company, PT. BAPP. Dressed in their traditional clothes, they declared:

“We, the women of Mpur, feel lost and without hope when our forest, where we plant our gardens, gather and hunt for food, is taken away. Our land and forest are our precious treasure. Without the (palm oil) company, we can live. But we cannot live without our land and forest — our mother.

“We, the women of Mpur, depend on forests and land, as our source of food and drink for the survival of the Mpur indigenous people.

“We, the women of Mpur, hope that the government will protect our rights and property- not the other way around. The government has given our rights and property to the Company without considering our relationship to the forests and land. We, the women of Mpur, demand that the Tambrauw Regency Government restore the forest and the environment that has been damaged by the BAPP company.”

Unfortunately, the plight of these women is not uncommon. Based on records of Pusaka, an NGO working on environmental rights in Papua, between 1997–2017 more than 1.5 million hectares of customary forests in Papua have been transferred to 62 companies.

The environmental impact of large-scale land acquisition has been severe: frequent floods, water shortages and pollution, food insecurity, the loss of flora, fauna and livelihood, as well as the erosion of knowledge and cultural meaning.

Indigenous women in Papua are the protectors and the keepers of the forest. It is their task to bring food and water to the table, they know about the medicinal properties of plants and the significant cultural sites for their communities. In many cases, they are left out of negotiations around natural resources — their voices left unheard.

Together with the Papuan Women’s Working Group (PWG), AJAR has conducted participatory research to capture the perspectives of indigenous women on natural resource conflict, focusing on 5 key areas.

We have documented time and time again how development projects, given permits by the central government and facilitated by local authorities, have threatened a way of life that is balanced, sustainable, and with very little waste.

The company, PT. BAPP, began clearing land in 2015. One woman described:

“From the beginning they came with the desire to build oil palm plantations, but we are the owners of customary rights, from Amawsi, Wasabiti, Arumi, Kebar, Ariks, we did not agree to this. We don’t want an oil palm company here. If we give our land to the palm oil companies, where will we live? Where can we plant our garden? There will be nowhere to go.”

Another woman added:

“The forest is where we seek (life). We live here, ourselves and our descendants. If our forest is not destroyed by this company, we will never want for anything. But if the company comes in and destroys our forest, then the fish in our rivers will be extinct. In my village, a company is coming in. They have tricked us by planting corn. I have no idea about the future.”

As we commemorate the International Day of Indigenous People, we must listen to the voices of indigenous women. They are asking us — why destroy a way of life that is balanced, when the model that is being forced on them is clearly broken?

A regional NGO working to strengthen accountability & human rights in Asia-Pacific | Confronting mass violations & combatting impunity

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