Transmigration Is the Last Thing That Papua and Its People Need

(JG Graphics/Modina Rimolfa)

By : Bobby Anderson | on 9:30 PM November 10, 2014
Category : Opinion, Commentary

(JG Graphics/Modina Rimolfa) (JG Graphics/Modina Rimolfa)

Marwan Jafar, President Joko Widodo’s new minister for village development, disadvantaged regions and transmigration, announced on Oct. 31 that he would make Papua more attractive to Javanese migrants by working with the police and military to provide security there. Marwan, from the National Awakening Party (PKB), one of the smaller parties in Jokowi’s cabinet, might have been seeking to impress his boss with his can-do attitude. Instead, his statement reveals a complete ignorance of the volatility in Indonesia’s easternmost province, of which tension between migrants and Papuans is a part.

Papuans are utterly marginalized by the Indonesian government, from the ministerial level on downwards. They have the lowest life expectancies in Indonesia, the highest maternal and child mortality rates, the lowest educational levels, and the lowest incomes. In the hinterlands where most indigenous Papuans live, the presence of the state is found in shuttered schools and empty clinics. The area hosts the last active insurgency in Indonesia, and the majority of Papuans support independence because the state has no relevance in their lives. Special Autonomy has provided nothing beneficial to ordinary Papuans: returns from Papua’s mineral wealth are soaked up by a constipated bureaucracy or otherwise misused.

And then there’s migration. Migrants from other parts of Indonesia now constitute over half the population of Papua province. In 2010, the ratio of non-Papuans to Papuans was 52-48. The indigenous Papuan population grows at 1.84 percent a year; the migrant population, 10.82 percent. The 2014 ratio may be 60 migrants to every 40 Papuans.

In Papua’s towns, where the most of the functioning schools and health clinics are found, and where migrant populations are concentrated, the ratio is even more extreme. Jim Elmslie at the University of Sydney predicts that indigenous Papuans will be only 29 percent of the provincial population by 2020. If mines, palm plantations, and other extractive enclave investments continue to expand, unregulated migration will increase in tandem, and Elmslie’s prediction will prove to be conservative.

Migrants absolutely dominate Papua’s markets. Papua’s towns are characterized by migrant businesses operating in fixed and permanent abodes, while Papuan businesses are out on the sidewalks, with goods laid out on blankets: vegetables from garden plots, betel nut, shoe repair, and so on. Most Papuans engage in subsistence-level agriculture, petty trades, and day labor. The service industry favors hiring migrants, as do construction contractors. Papuans are generally found in either the civil service or in subsistence.

Papuans cannot compete for a few important reasons.

Firstly, education: migrants have benefitted from schools in their areas of origin: second- and third- generation migrants are concentrated in towns where their kids attend working schools. But rural areas where the majority of Papuans live have never benefitted from a systematic and functioning educational system. Papuans aren’t getting the educations that are required for market transactions, because most of the teaching positions are no-show jobs. Markets are not understood instinctively: we learn them theoretically in school and practically in business. Capitalist markets are themselves alien to Melanesian societies were exchanges are meant to form reciprocal bonds, not generate profit (this is why bargaining in indigenous markets doesn’t work).

Second, discrimination: most migrants do business within ethnic and extended family-based networks that have no place for Papuans except at the bottom rung.

Third, affirmative action: this aspect of Papua’s special autonomy dissolved into the awarding of no-show civil service jobs rather than the building of an effective workforce and managerial class.

The majority of ordinary Papuans are left behind in Indonesia: they have been cheated out of educations, healthy lives, and meaningful work. The migrants who surround them in the cities are emblematic of their marginalization. This is not the fault of individual migrants, who are only seeking to better their lives: the average Papuan and average migrant have more in common with one another than they have with their own predatory elites. But current migration is viewed as nothing but a continuation of the previous transmigration program, with new arrivals resembling an undifferentiated mass of invaders who are taking jobs and economic opportunities. Papuans see migration as different points on the same continuum that ultimately leads to their extinction.

Under transmigration, the poor from densely populated islands like Java, Bali, and Madura were shipped to lesser-populated parts of the archipelago — Maluku, Sumatra, Kalimantan and Papua. It relocated as many as 20 million people, with the greatest numbers settled in Kalimantan and Sumatra. Javanese were primary transmigration targets because Java is one of the most densely populated areas on earth, and this was transmigration’s primary concern. It was also a social engineering experiment: officials in the Suharto era were never shy about their intention to blur ethnic boundaries in the interest of solidifying an ‘Indonesian’ identity. Transmigration didn’t succeed in alleviating poverty; instead, it distributed it, and the preponderance of transmigrants that now work as airport porters and ojek drivers in Papua attests to this.

Between 750,000 and one million transmigrants were sent to Papua: low indigenous population density ensured that they would create huge sociological and demographic impacts. They were given incentives to relocate, including grants, land and homes. Papuans were provided no such things. Health and education services were provided in migrant areas: Papuan areas did not receive the same services. Traditional land ownership was not recognized and compensation was not given for land seized to make way for these new settlements. When Papuans tried to assert their rights over the land, they were answered with violence. This also reveals the depths of the minister’s ignorance about this issue: every square meter of Tanah Papua is claimed by a clan or extended family that derives sustenance from it, worships the ancestors that dwell in it, or simply has used it in the past and plans to use it in the future. Many of these borders were fought hard for, drawn in blood in the time before Indonesia. None of this land is “empty.”

Transmigration was drastically reduced after Suharto’s fall. At present, such population transfers are generally based upon provincial requests, of which none will be forthcoming from either Papua or West Papua. Governments there have rejected the program.

Papuans need what other Indonesians need: the rule of law and protection from the predations of their own elites. They need health care; a functioning educational system; controls on migration; a legitimate affirmative action program, not just in Papua, but nationally; and an equitable distribution of the wealth that their land produces, not simply an allowance for elites to siphon funds. Papuans need a special autonomy law guided by legislation and with limited discretionary funds: the “special autonomy plus” draft created by the government of West Papua contained many of these provisions but they were not incorporated in the flawed final draft which was ultimately rejected by Jakarta. That rejection is an opportunity under Jokowi’s administration.

The last thing that Papuans need is transmigration. By asserting that Javanese transmigration will be re-started in Papua, either the minister has no clue what he’s talking about, or, more frightening, he knows exactly what he’s talking about. I’m betting on the former. He should do a little research before he speaks: Papua is not a stage for a new minister’s fatuous utterances to the press.

This underlies the need for the Jokowi administration to rapidly design an innovative policy on Papua that transcends failed past approaches that were founded in the belief that every problem can be solved with either cash or guns. The new administration’s diverse ministries must speak on Papua with one voice, and be reprimanded when they speak otherwise.

Bobby Anderson (rubashov@yahoo.com) works on health, education and governance projects in eastern Indonesia, and travels frequently in Papua and West Papua.

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