Papuan environmental activists are voicing their call for the government to should intervene to protect forests in Papua, one of the last jungle-covered regions of Indonesia, and ensure their continuing existence.
Program Associate of the Sustainable Archipelago Ecosystem (ECONUSA) foundation Aloysius Numberi told a virtual seminar called Festival Cerita Dari Hutan: Cerita Dari Hutan Papua on September 13, 2020, that government assistance was a crucial in helping Papua’s forests as well as the lives of the indigenious people.
“We have been dependent on our forests for generations, so assistance from the government to protect them is really needed. Assistance such as delaying land and peat clearing permits, restoring peatlands, and increasing the use of renewable energy power plants,” said Numberi.
Numberi cited sago trees as an example of this dependence. He said that indigenous people depended on sago trees for food and other needs.
“Our dependence on the forest is mainly on sago trees. Our staple food is sago and besides that, we can use the trunk, the leaves and other parts for other things, such as using sagu leaves as roofing for our houses,” said Numberi
Dezius Woloin, a Knasaimos youth and Bentara Papua Volunteers added at the same occasion that apart from the government, urban communities also had an important role in helping assure the sustainability of forests, including in Papua.
He gave examples of activities that he thought could help the sustainability of forests, such as supporting forest protection campaigns and donating to forest protection, direct visits to Papuan community forests, and also buying products from indigenous forest people (sago flour, cakes sago, plait, noken woven bags, and others).
Woloin added that it was also the indigenious communities living in around forests in Papua which were helping maintain the sustainability of their forests, including by using local laws and traditions.
According to him, villagers living in and around forests have been trying to prevent the destruction of the forests in Papua by the activities of companies holding Forest Concession Rights (HPH) which began to mushroom in the region in the 90s, and also damage inflicted by schemes implemented Community Participation Cooperative (KOPERMAS) in the 2000s..
“In the 90s, HPH companies mushroomed across almost all of Papua. In the 2000s, the Community Participation Cooperative (KOPERMAS) scheme destroyed our forests, undermining our source of livelihoods,” Woloin explained.
These cases prompted village communities jointly commit to protect their forest by declaring that they would no longer accept companies that wanted to carry out activities in their forests.
“The bad experience felt by our people and the Knasaimos made villagers remain committed to the protection of their forest from destructive activities. Thus, in 2008 we declared we could no longer accept companies wanting to carry out activities in our forests,” added Woloin.
To prevent further destruction of their forests, local communities took recourse on their traditions, requiring that anyone wishing to carry out activities on their land, to first hold a Sinara ritual. This, he said, limited the number of companies wishing to seek license to operate there.
“No one could conduct activities in our land before conducting a Sinara ritual first. If there are foreigners who immediately hold activities without performing the ritual, they will be punished by our ancestors,” Numberi said, explaining local beliefs.
The Sinara ritual, usually accompanied by offerings of betel, areca nut, rice, cigarettes, and coins, are addressed to tribal ancestors as a form of prayer and expression of gratitude. Sinara is also a symbol of the community seeking permission from their ancestors before doing anything related to their natural environment.
Numberi added that for forest communities in Papua, their ancestral customary heritage was also believed to have a major influence on the sustainability of forests.
He gave the example of a forbidden areas, areas that are prohibited for humans to enter according to ancestral customs. It turned out that those areas were habitat of the Bird of Paradise, a threatened species that is protected by law. Thus, local communities believed that ancestral traditions and customs carried their own implicit messages that could help protect forests.
“For example, there is a place where Cendrawasih birds (Birds of Paradise) live. No one had known that these birds lived there, but our ancestors forbade us to enter that area. So, in our opinion, the prohibitions from the ancestors contain messages that can be used to preserve nature,” added Numberi.
Papua and West Papua have a combined land area of 41,870,768 hectares and according to a report issued by Econusa Indonesia based on 2017 data, the total forest area in the two provinces stood at 33,710,523.22 hectares, about 25 million hectares of which were in Papua province.