The new Trans-Papua Highway in Wamena, Papua. (Antara Photo/Indrianto Eko Suwarso)

Can Cultural Approach Be the Answer for Papua?


NOVEMBER 26, 2019

Jakarta. Members of Indonesia's Regional Representative Council and researchers say the government should prioritize a "cultural approach" to end decades of conflicts in Indonesian Papua.

A special committee on Papua has been set up by the council (DPD) to formulate feasible solutions to bring stability to the resource-rich region.

The committee's chairman Filep Wamafma has now said one of the reasons for the continued conflicts in Papua is the lack of a cultural approach from the government.

He said government programs to accelerate development in Papua are not what the people of Papua really want.

"A cultural approach is necessary. Papua does not need Monas [the National Monument] or malls because we rely more on our natural resources," Filep said during a forum group discussion organized by the Suara Pembaruan daily in Jakarta on Tuesday.

Filep said ignoring the wishes of the indigenous people of Papua had caused the government to miss its development targets in the region.

"Physical and non-physical violence will ruin all good intentions in a very short time. They will create distrust. We should use cultural, social, religious and traditional approaches. The political approach is no longer effective," Filep said.

He said the government should understand that historically in Papua the church used to govern the people, and that prior to church rule local customs and traditions had dominated. 

A similar view was expressed by Bambang Shergi Laksmono, a researcher from the University of Indonesia's Papua Center. He said it is the central government's responsibility to convince the Papuans that modernization is what they need. 

"At the moment, the sentiment is more, 'We don't need development, we need better livelihood,'" Bambang said.

He said the government had failed to make Papua's abundant natural resources — an integral part of the Papuans' culture — the basis of development.

"It makes people question whether or not improving livelihood is included as part of development," Bambang said.

Bambang also criticized the school curriculum used in Papua. "The curriculum in our vocational high schools is focused on preparing students for the automotive and construction industries. It's not suited to natural resource-based development that we want in Papua. The current curriculum is more suitable for students in large cities in Java," Bambang said.

Even the agricultural curriculum teaches students in Papua how to plant fruits for export, like watermelon, using imported seeds.

"The government wants us to grow export commodities, not commodities for the local market. Why don't we teach them to plant sago, an endemic plant in Papua?" Bambang said.

"If part of the special autonomy [Otsus] budget was set aside for education, then let's use it to help Papuans be the owners of their own land," he said.

In the past decade, Papua has seen many cases of human rights violations and racial conflicts. The latest was the widespread unrest in Jayapura and Wamena in September, triggered by reports of racial abuse against Papuan students in East Java.

Infrastructure development initiated by the government under President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo has been roundly criticized for not meeting the need of Papuans, and the region, which comprises two provinces, Papua and West Papua, remains one of the poorest in the country.