Ecocide or development success story? The political ecology of forestry, mining and transmigration in West Papua: a literature review and summary.

By Tony Goodfellow


Using a political ecology framework how has the environment been located in the recent conflicts in West Papua? With mention of access, traditional land use practices, land degradation and indigenous rights. Is independence the answer?



This paper seeks to understand ecological conflicts and changes in West Papua. Conceptually this paper uses political ecology as a framework to analyze scholarly and grey literature on environmental conflict and change in the region. The location of power is analysed using elements of marginalization, land degradation, land use and access with concepts of hegemony and control. These concepts will be looked at with different actors at different scales both geographically and temporally looking at the case study of three issues mining, forestry and transmigration. I argue that the significant environment effects and ecological process was initiated during the so called ‘Act of Free Choice’ in the 1960’s. I will explain the geopolitical context for this to show the important interplay and dialectical relationship between politics, economy, people and ecology. This paper will begin by briefly explaining the conceptual framework and methodology, then I will outline the historical and legal context of West Papua followed by the case studies and discussion for possible solutions for the environmental conflicts and changes that are occurring.

Political Ecology

Political Ecology is a broad field so I will just sketch a framework from the literature which informs a critical political ecology deployed in this paper.

This paper draws on Newell (2012) and Escobar (2006) who both look at the concept of power and access. Newell’s (2012) concept of political ecology that conceives environmental changes by social and economic forces which operate in a global context and is “placed within the historical context”. Environmental issues are explained as a function of social relations [being indigenous] that “structure issues of access, property, entitlement and justice”. Newell (2012:18) notes that conflict over access to a nature can be enlarged to include the complexity of multiple sites and the “drivers and impacts of global environmental change” to capture the true complexity. Escobar (2006: 8) introduces the concept of access and control over the environment and that different groups conceive of nature in different ways. This could be expressed in the emergent view from a traditional understating made through long term interaction or a commercial view seeing nature as resource to exhaust.

Bill Derman and Anne Ferguson (2003) also highlight the differences in time and space from cause and effect and highlight the need to look at “legislative changes or political battles ecological changes of concern.” Paulson (2003: 207) introduces the elements coming from critical political ecology that include “concepts of control and access to resources, marginalization, surplus appropriation, and relations of production and power” she continues: 

Politics, in turn, is understood as the practices and processes through which power, in its multiple forms, is wielded and negotiated.

Paulson points out that researches have expanded beyond local causes of environment problems to include colonialism and capitalism in their analysis. As Anderson (2015) explains that a strength of locating the political in political ecology is that the complexity of systems can be assessed while also addressing issues of power. 

A critique of political ecology and studies regarding environment by Cameron (2012) highlights the need to include colonization in any discussion otherwise the solutions themselves can entrench and justify colonization. Refrew (2011: 589) shows the of entrenching colonization of indigenous lands through the process of commercialization and conservation. 

Political Ecology can locate power over time and make sense of the messy reality that has incremental change. The methodology of this paper is a review of the literature including legal, academic and grey literature. I also draw on interviews that have taken place in West Papua by journalists and activists. 

West Papua

West Papua (also known as West New Guinea and West Irian) is a resource rich island in the East of Republic of Indonesia, it has the 3rd biggest rainforest in the world. The indigenous people of West Papua are culturally and ethnically distinct to other parts of Indonesia having Melanesian decent, there are 312 designated tribes that have linguistic and cultural diversity between them (Anderson, 2015: 6). The population is around 3.5 million people with just under half Indigenous Melanesians and a majority from outside the province arriving by transmigrations schemes (hence a 1.6% growth rate for Papuans vs 10% growth rate for non-Papuans (Anderson, 2015: 5) and by 2020 Papuans will make up only 29% of the population (Schulman 2016).

Papua has many resource extractive industries with mining (including the worlds largest gold mine – The mine is the largest source of of tax for the Indonesian government which is also provides 50% of GDP for Papua province), oil and gas extraction, logging and fisheries (Mangubhai  et al. 2012, 2291). Another industry is forest management for conservation and emissions. 

The island was part of the Dutch colony but was ceded through a process (with its legitimacy questioned) to Indonesia through a process called the Act of Free Choice in 1969 (Anderson K 2015: 12). This Act of Free Choice was the culmination of the New York Agreement which was signed in 1962 by Indonesia and the Netherlands (with no representation of West Papuans) a process that was facilitated by the United States. There was no fact finding mission and Culley (2016: 91) notes that the Papuans were regarded with distain by the United States and Indonesia seen as “stone age savages” and were excluded from any process of consultation or decision making. The Netherlands who was the only party to have knowledge of the Papuans self-determination for the Papuans, Indonesia wanted ownership of the province and the United States, needing to placate both because of security reasons, compromised. It begun a process that was a fait accompli for ownership by Indonesia. Greg Poulgrain (2015) argues that the process was undermined by the prospect of mining West Papua’s vast mineral wealth (which will be looked at later). There were strategic and corporate reasons for he United States to want Indonesian control of West Papua, firstly the Kennedy administration wanted to placate Indonesia as a gift to prevent “Indonesia from going Communist”. West Papuan’s environment and self determination was sacrificed for the democratization and liberalization of Indonesia. A United States Department of State summary written by Henry Kissinger said it “would simply trade white for brown colonialism” (U.S. Department of State 2006, original written 1962) He later served on the board of Freeport. Even though the Dutch wanted self determination for Papua, Dutch companies operating in Indonesia supported the the Indonesian claims to West Papua, they feared that their company assets would be taken by Indonesia if there was a violent take over (Poulgrain 2015: 121). This is why the New York Agreement is so significant, the effects are felt today in continued colonialism and capital hegemony and successive policies that entrenched colonial rule and resource exploitation. These events are central to arguments in this paper and will be revisited in the analysis of Grasberg mine at Nemangkawi/Mt Carstensz.

There has been brutal conflict in West Papua with up to an estimated 500,000 killed (Elmslie and Webb-Gannon 2013: 149):

….consequence of Indonesian military and government policies and practices, many have also simply been murders in the form of massacres, assassinations and killing rampages. throughout 1977, the Indonesian military strafed and bombed the highlands Akimuga people, ostensibly in retaliation for flag raisings and an attack on a pipeline and other infrastructure at the Freeport McMoRan gold and copper mine by local people, many of whom were victims of the mining operation. Reports emerged that thousands were killed or forced from their homes and left to starve. The Baliem River brimmed with corpses.

Massacres are not only historical but also occurring contemporaneously as documented in the Biak Massacre Citizen’s Tribunal which took place at the Centre for Peace Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney. The tribunal documented a massacre that took place at Biak in 1998 where “100 civilians were raped, tortured, mutilated and murdered” for demonstrating for independence (Peacock  2013). No security persons were held accountable (Elmslie 2014). There is also a militant insurgency that runs in parallel to a political non-violent movement based on the notion of Merdeka meaning freedom (Webb-Gannon 2014).

As a response from international pressure Indonesia enacted a “special autonomy” bill in 2001 for West Papua, which has not resulted in any substantive changes except a transfer of the policy burden of public services to local elites in West Papua (Anderson 2015: 3).

Since Indonesian ownership/occupation the West Papuans have largely been treated as a minor inconvenience disrupting resource extraction and profit making bonanza (Crocombe 2007: 125). There have been complete and successive policy failures and Papuans receiving little benefits from the state (Anderson 2015: 2). Ironically, the same regime that successfully fought the Dutch occupation in Indonesia now practices occupation in West Papua.

Another key actor in West Papua is the military. There is a strong military presence in West Papua and it only receives about a 3rd of running costs from state so the military is dependent on corporation’s and entrepreneurialism (International Crisis Group, 2006).

This context of the history and key actors is necessarily brief and lacks nuance that requires an extended discussion. Another actor omitted above are transnational corporations which are described below in relation to the case studies.

Mining Nemangkawi

In 1936 on the Mt. Nemangkawi or otherwise known as Mt Carstensz Jean Jacques Dozy found a large outcrop of ore and took samples. The samples were tested and it was found to include the highest concentration of gold anywhere in the world and also high levels of copper, Dozy wrote a report but nothing happened until the 1960’s. In 1966 – three years before the conclusion of the New York Agreement, a company called Freeport, begun preparing to mine. Thus began a transformation of a mountain in a remote part of West Papua creating the Grasberg mine (Schulman, 2016). 

The mine has had devastating impacts on the environment and society effecting directly the Amungme whose traditional land the mine is on and downstream the Kamoro. The mines waste flows down the the Otomina and Ajkwa Rivers into the Arafura Sea. There is upwards of 125,000 tonnes/day of mine tailings a day (Mangubhai et al 2012, 2294). In a report of the mine waste dumping by Earthworks and MiningWatch (2012: 16) the mine is singled out as “one of the world’s most egregious examples of tailings dumping”, they note that the tailing have high levels of heavy metals such as “copper, arsenic, cadmium, and selenium” they continue:

“The tailings have buried over 166 square kilometers of formerly productive forest and wetlands, and fish have largely disappeared. The tailings have also contaminated the coastal estuary and Arafura Sea and possibly the Lorentz National Park, a World Heritage site….The mine has also caused acid rock drainage from its waste rock dumps, destruction of lakes and forests, and destruction of livelihoods, food sources, and areas of spiritual significance for the Amungme and Kamoro Indigenous Peoples. 

The scale of the mine and its effects are large, the quantity of waste the mine will generate is twice the amount of earth excavated for the Panama Canal (Jane Perlez and Raymond Bonner 2005). Currently the environmental impact analysis required by the state regulator is a year late and they have shown no willingness to enforce the law (Irfany, 2017) “Freeport always answers that it’s not ready yet. What could we do then?”.

The mine company has paid the military and individual officers for protection and there are cases of human rights abuses carried out by security – although payment and abuses are both against the law (Jane Perlez and Raymond Bonner 2005). The mine has also been attacked by armed separatist guerillas from the National Liberation Army which has been fighting since 1964 (International Crisis Group, 2006: 4). 

In response to the environmental damage and loss of livelihood two representatives of the Amungme people, Tom Beanal and Yosefa Alomang, initiated court proceedings courts in the United States against the company. They argued that there was environmental and human rights abuses culminating in cultural genocide from the mine however the court found they had no standing (Business & Human Rights Resource Centre 2017). Yosefa Alomang spoke (2001 Goldman Environmental Prize Ceremony: Yosepha 2001) about the effect of the mining operations and how the mountain itself was considered sacred: 

We used to be living closely to our nature but when Freeport came in 1967 to our land we the Amungme living in the mountain and the Kamoro living in the lowland area. When they came in the begun to destroy our mountains which we consider a scared site, they begun to dump tailing which destroyed the rivers, they dumped rocks in the alpine lakes and destroyed the lakes and today our total enticement is devastated.

There is a workforce of Papuans at the mine but they received in 2011 as little as $1.50 per hour (Wenda 2011) today the mine has stopped while Indonesian Government demands more revenue (50% of profits) from the mine (Reuters 2011).

The environmental and social effects of the mine is not just a result of a mines operations but is also a result of state governance failure to enforce environmental regulations, a poorly funded military that is open to corruption, the ongoing marginalization of Papuan people all underpinned by the decisions in 1962 that maintained colonial control. The mine has been a central narrative in the story so far of West Papua and is central to solutions to environmental change and conflict.


Land clearing through logging and conversion to palm oil plantations and timber is another environment change in West Papua that is accelerating. For example, there were five oil palm plantations in 2005 by 2016 that had increased to 85 (Franky Samperante in Palm oil and land grabs in West Papua 2016). Indonesia has the highest rate of rainforest clearing in the world and if the planned plantations were devolved in West Papua then 2.6 Million hectares of mostly rainforest would-be lost (Pusaka awasMIFEE 2015). Observers have shown that local West Papuans have been marginalized from decision making and have conversely lost ability to survive off traditional measures and practice unsustainable practices such as sand mining (Engagemedia, 2012). In order to show the extent of forestry see Fig 1. which has West Papua forest use. Indonesia’s richest business owners have interests with palm oil and timber in West Papua, there are also businesses from Hong Kong, Korea, Sri Lanka and others such as Malaysia (Pusaka awasMIFEE 2015: 7). The products go all over the world including Asia, Europe, Australia and America.


Fig 1. Land use in West Papua from Global Forest Watch (Jacobson 2015)

To show how compniaes operate I will look at the one example of the Moi people traditional lands. The Moi people were pressured to sign contracts that gave them US$0.65 per hectare and the company can keep the land for 30 years. A report by the Environmental investigation Agency (2012: 2) shows how this happened:

…exploitative practices by PT HIP and PT IKS during land acquisition. Highly one-sided negotiations were characterised by persuasion and pressure from company staff backed by local government officials and, at times, intimidation from military and police.

Guru Jemaat Steven Su who is a representing the Moi describes the environmental effects of the companies in the film Resource Extraction in West Papua (2013):

…the Tears are falling from our eyes because our world is being destroyed, the birds have no where to fly and the fish are dying in the rivers. The animals are dying and we, the Mooi people, are dying on the land. Ok So we Moi people will just die? Because we don’t have our own place anymore. This is what I need to tell you. We want to conserve this place but how? It is all being destroyed. Totally. Because we are powerless to prevent it.  

This case shows broader trends where local rights are abused and forest operations that are a major threat to biodiversity and traditional life has occurred through lawlessness and corruption (Manurung and Lash: 2002). Once again these activities have been underpinned by the history of colonialism and marganilsation of West Papuans. 

Septer Manufandu from the Papua People Network (Everything Can be Burnt  2016) talks about how this effects Papuan people:

When government claims the land and then gives it to a company for exploitation like logging, mining, transmigration area then Papua people are angry about that. Land is like mother, when they lose land you may as well kill them, people can’t find food, clean water, find food in the forest.

The loss of access and quality of traditional land also includes REDD+ programs, Franky Samperante (2011) outlines how logging and conservation are linked to loss of land:

These communities have experienced conflict, and continue to do so today, because the government  –  without the agreement of communities  –  has been quietly handing out their customary land and forests to companies, for conversion to plantations, logging and timber estates, REDD projects and transmigration programmes.

Mining and logging have been explored in this paper but transmigration is another major issue effecting West Papuans. 


Transmigration is another source of environmental conflict in West Papua that has led to loss of access to land, marginalization and land degradation. Transmigration has meant that West Papuans are now a minority in their land (Elmslie and Webb-Gannon 2013: 160).

The colonial and capital hegemony of West Papua is maintained by political and corporate interests that are far removed from the province. If West Papuans are considered the lowest class of Indonesia, then just above them are the landless peasants from Sumatra, yet these are the people who come to West Papua as the face of colonialism. Indonesia has been aggressively pursuing an Indonesian Economic Development Masterplan that has targeted West Papua for large-scale economic development. Part of this process has been the creation of a 1.2 million hectare Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE). MIFEE has resulted in transmigration to provide labor for the businesses. This has been another process displacing and marginalizing West Papuans and causing rapid environmental changes and destruction (Weatherley-Singh, J., & Gupta, A. 2015). Leo Imbiri, the Secretary General, Papua Customary Council argues that “It is not because of West Papuans but it is because of the attitude of colonialism. Neo-colonialism and imperialism, they are still practices in this land” (Everything Can be Burnt 2016). 

This case shows policy decisions made at a distant from the effect is having in West Papua once again underpinned by a hegemony that is maintained by companies and government. 

Discussion and Recommendation’s 

I have looked at three cases in West Papua forestry, mining, transmigration that show environmental degradation, marginalization and loss of access to land. In each case power has been exercised by actors (government, business and military) to undermine West Papuans agency. The environment has had rapid and extensive changes and degradation undermining the “cultural, political, and economic bases of Papuan society” which Anderson (2015: 14) argues has been a direct result of policy:

“The environmental destruction in West Papua is a direct consequence of Indonesian development policies such as transmigration and the exploitation of natural resources.” 

This policy has been underpinned by colonialism, the business actors and military actors have all been enabled by colonialism which are recreating West Papua without the West Papuans having a real say. Kjell Anderson (2015: 11) argues that “Colonialism seeks to exert total power over the environment of which indigenous peoples are a part” and it looks that this is the case in West Papua. The framework of critical political ecology as described by Newell’s (2012) and Escobar (2006) goes beyond proximate descriptions of events and seeks to explain complex causes involving power and access. Using political ecology, it was shown that the legal actions in 1962 have underpinned the events described above and what is occurring in West Papua today where Papuans are treated as an inconvenience to profits.

The solutions to the environmental conflict in West Papua is complex however and the following is offered as cautiously sanguine. Firstly, to make sure West Papuan people are empowered to be able to make informed decisions about their own future, if Indonesian rule is a stumbling block to this then the answer is self determination, and a return to a process that is fair and open. Secondly, the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) and other binding treaties that facilitate better environmental and social outcomes for West Papuans. Implementing the SDG’s would help address the inequality, corruption and environmental degradation. An intervention is needed because it currently looks like an ecocide.

This paper has shown the complexity that critical political ecology can capture and how focusing only on discrete ecological events can misplace the complex causes. The cases above have been necessarily brief but in order to have a clearer picture of the complexities then further research with comprehensive local data is required.


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