When you cross over the Wamena Mountain Ranges of West Papua you feel like you’re entering another place in time. As the plane makes a sharp bank to the left you feel the need to press one’s face to the window to gaze out at the stunning beauty beneath you. There’s very few places where we’ve traveled to in the world that have left us in utter awe at the simple beauty all around us. The Baliem Valley of the West Papuan Highlands is such a place.
At an altitude of 1600-1700 meters above sea level, the Baliem Valley stretches itself in between steep, jutting limestone mountains to the north and gradual slopes to the south dotted with a patchwork of farms and fields growing an infinite number of organic strawberries, sweet potatoes, corn, taro, and a host of other vegetative items.
The valley with a dimension of roughly 80 kilometers in length and about 20 kilometers in width is home to 200,000 inhabitants of a number of various Papuan tribes. The majority population of the Dani tribe share the valley with peoples of the Yani, Lani and other tribes. The vast majority of the population identify themselves as Christian with an innumerable number of churches from Protestant, Catholic, and a whole host of other denominations.
The climate lends itself to being perfect for farming and has been that way for the past 9,000 years according to the latest archaeological research*. The local farmers leverage very efficient means of irrigation to mitigate erosion and leverage the daily rains to create a diverse array of items for sales in the many farm markets of Wamena.
Money Beneath Your Feet
In such a bucolic place one would imagine that the outside world has largely ignored this picturesque valley and its inhabitants. Unfortunately, West Papua and much of the rest of Papua New Guinea sits atop some of the richest gold veins in all of the world.
The American mining firm Freeport-McMoRan has the largest gold mine in the world in Western Papua. Along with gold, silver and copper are also mined by largely foreign subsidiaries with backing by the Indonesian government.
Mining in West Papua and other parts of the island of Papua New Guinea has had devastating consequences to the environment and people. Entire mountains are obliterated with open pit mining as the search for gold and other precious metals continues on. The level of tailings, or mine dump, slime, refuse, basically the leftover material after the process of extracting out the value elements is dumped into the local river system and eventually washes out to the Arafura Sea. Many native fish populations have disappeared in the now turbid rivers**.
With the value of the minerals beneath the Papuan’s feet, the Indonesian government has little to no interest in seeing them realize their longtime dream of becoming a free and independent state like the nation of Papua New Guinea.
It’s pretty evident to anyone after a day exploring the city of Wamena that all the businesses, restaurants, markets, and banks are run by non-Papuans brought in over the years by the Indonesian government’s transmigration or resettlement program. It’s the same thing that’s happening to the Tibetans and Uyghur populations in China as the local people are displaced by new immigrants or the pedatang (the arrived in Bahasa Indonesia) coming and supplanting them. The United States did this to many if not all Native American tribes to the point where many of those tribes are mere shadows of their former selves.
The Silent Killer
If the aforementioned problems weren’t enough another more recent development has forced the Papuans to reconsider aspects of their being apart of the modern world: HIV. The spread of the disease in West Papua is nearing epidemic proportions as it ravages villages and the lives of everyone it touches.
Having talked with a number of people involved with HIV/AIDS education there’s a number of factors influencing the spread of the virus. The largest issue is of cultural views on how to acknowledge to both oneself and then your loved ones you have the disease. The shame of acknowledgment and the social stigma associated with it has helped spread the disease to spouses and other people in the village.
Many people wait until it’s too late before seeking medical attention. Latest statistics quote the rate of infection amongst the Papuan population at roughly 13,000 or more individuals.*** That’s a significant volume of people infected with a very serious disease. We met several people both foreign and Papuan working at HIV/AIDS clinics dedicated to educating and changing the mindset to stop the spread of this deadly disease.
Even with all the doom and gloom that I’ve mentioned, there are bright spots and reasons to hope for change in the future. Having met one Papuan family and their emphasis on education along with farmers in the valley there grows opportunities for change just as strong as the mature crops harvested for sale in the Wamena markets.
In the next blog post I’ll go into more detail about such a family and their desire to see positive and long lasting change in God’s country.
** Below a Mountain of Wealth, a River of Waste (It’s pretty embarrassing to read about how another American company is laying waste to another place. The article is quite long, but well worth the read.)