This week, activists across the world celebrated as the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would not grant the permit for the Dakota Access pipeline to drill under the Missouri river. This followed campaigning efforts from local Standing Rock Sioux tribe and thousands of Native American supporters from across North America and further afield, who argued that if the pipeline was approved, their spiritual lands would be compromised and local waters would be contaminated, threatening their livelihood. With a message that resonated with indigenous rights activists and environmentalists everywhere, campaigners were successful in forcing officials to back down.
The announcement was, however, met with scepticism from some first-nation Americans. With a heavy awareness that the DAPL would appeal the decision, many tribe members were cautious about celebrating too soon. After all, exploitation of indigenous groups, particularly in excavation projects, is common place: in Australia, historically aboriginal lands have been named as the preferred site for a nuclear waste dump, and in Nigeria, the indigenous Ogoni people have, according to numerous reports, been subjected to ethnic cleansing in the course of mishandled oil extraction projects.
It’s clear then that the exploitation of indigenous peoples is commonplace. So what set Standing Rock aside from the cases of groups in Australia, Nigeria and so many more? The answer is clear: a global coalition of activists. And no case study demonstrates more clearly the importance of activism in the struggle for indigenous rights than the situation in West Papua.
West Papua forms half of the Papua island, to the west of Papua New Guinea in South-East Asia. The island itself is split in half. The indigenous people of West Papua have Melanesian roots, and culturally and ethnically enjoy many similarities to the people of Papua New Guinea. However, the region’s fraught history and decades of political turmoil have left it without international recognition. It was formally colonised by the Dutch in 1898, and while the Netherlands began a process of decolonising the region following the Second World War, this was co-opted when Indonesia asserted a claim over the territory. Papuans fought back, declaring independence in 1961, but Indonesia soon retaliated by invading, backed by the Soviet Union. The situation was exacerbated when the US, prompted by fears of spreading Communist influence, interfered, brokering a deal with Indonesia to grant her control over West Papua. This was in theory meant to be followed by a referendum with the end goal of self-determination, but this never happened.
Since then, the military occupation of West Papua has resulted in over 500,000 deaths. The occupation has devastated indigenous people and scarred West Papuan communities: the Biak massacre of 1998 is a particularly haunting example of this. On the anniversary of the unsuccessful Papuan declaration of independence, over 200 independence demonstrators were forced by the army into two Indonesian naval vessels and taken to two different locations to be thrown into the ocean. In the following days, the protesters’ bodies washed up on Biak’s shores, or were snarled in fishing nets.
The Biak tragedy is just the tip of the iceberg. Aside from the scores of unlawful deaths, there are widespread reports of violence, including sexual violence, against civilians. In a public report to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in 1999, the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women concluded that the Indonesian security forces used rape “as an instrument of torture and intimidation” in West Papua, and “torture of women detained by the Indonesian security forces was widespread”. Political prisoners engaged in peaceful demonstration are routinely convicted in unfair trials, and large numbers have yet to be released. The depth of suffering in West Papua is such that, in 2004, a groundbreaking report from Yale Law School referred to the Indonesian policy in West Papua as “genocide”- a label which was, apparently, taken lightly by the international communiyu.
It has been clear for a while now that the situation in West Papua has reached, and remained at, crisis point. So how do we explain the lack of public awareness and concerted policy responses? The problem is that most campaigns and activist movements are catalysed by news stories that shock us and compel us to take action, but there is a distinct lack of reporting on the West Papua situation. West Papua is effectively off limits to international journalists, and the penalties for flouting the region’s restrictive laws are severe: if discovered without permission they are arrested and deported by the Indonesian authorities. Some have even been attacked and imprisoned. Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced earlier this year that Papua would be open to foreign journalists, but this does not reflect the reality on the ground.
This is worsened by the fact that Indonesian authorities have made it near impossible for many NGOs to operate in West Papua: organisations such as the International Red Cross, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have all been denied access, and their vital services denied along with it.
West Papua represents one of the most atrocious systems of repression of indigenous peoples that we see in the world today. But the Standing Rock victory shows us that the will, manpower and resources do exist to mount an effective opposition tothreats to indigenous peoples’ rights. Even if it isn’t possible to go to West Papua and prevent these atrocities from happening directly, there is still a lot that each of us can do: you can support the fundraising efforts of the few NGOs that are allowed to operate in West Papua, you can write to your Member of Parliament, you can share resources and information with friends, family and colleagues, and you can help increase the public awareness that is so sorely needed to effect change.
Standing Rock taught us that persistent efforts can succeed- this lesson must not be forgotten, especially when it comes to groups that need protection the most.