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  • Denisa Mayari and Rumaisha Ghina

All Eyes on Papua: Land Back for Indigenous Tribes

Updated: Jun 6

(Image courtesy of Jurnasyanto Sukarno / Greenpeace)

You’ve seen the Instagram stories: a compelling image of an eye marked by the phrase "All Eyes on Papua" has captured the nation's attention. First shared by Instagram user @sultankhmw and now boasting nearly 3 million shares, this viral image highlights a critical issue—the plight of the indigenous tribes in Papua, Indonesia, facing devastating deforestation.

(Image courtesy of Nanang Sujana)

Imagine a massive stretch of pristine rainforest in Papua, spanning 36,000 hectares—an area more than half the size of Jakarta—teeming with ancient trees, vibrant wildlife, and the sounds of nature that have echoed through the ages. This forest is more than just a landscape; it is the lifeblood of the Awyu tribe from Boven Digoel and the Moi tribe from Sorong. These tribes have lived here for generations, relying on its rich resources for food, water, and cultural sustenance. Now, imagine bulldozers and chainsaws tearing through this serene sanctuary, reducing it to a barren wasteland. PT Indo Asiana Lestari plans to clear this entire area to make way for a palm oil plantation, an operation that will not only destroy the ecosystem but also release 25 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, contributing significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions. The stakes are high, and the impact devastating—not just for the tribes who call this land home, but for the planet as a whole.

On May 27, 2024, the Awyu and Moi tribes took their protest to the Supreme Court in Jakarta, demanding the revocation of the plantation permit. Supported by legal counsel from Yayasan Pusaka Bentala Rakyat, these indigenous representatives traveled far to fight for their rights. The peaceful protest commenced with traditional dances and rituals, during which representatives of the Awyu and Moi tribes presented land from the three disputed areas. This land was incorporated into the dances and rituals, with participants inscribing it on their bodies and faces. Body painting, a significant cultural and traditional practice of the Papuan people, symbolizes their connection and struggle with nature. Their message was loud and clear: the Supreme Court must consider the severe environmental and human rights implications of this deforestation plan. Both cases have now reached the ‘cassation stage’ - the final stage of the appeal - at the Supreme Court.

(Image courtesy of Jurnasyanto Sukarno / Greenpeace)

So how does this concern us and why should we care? The Global Forest Watch, run by the World Resources Institute, reported that since 1950, more than 74 million hectares (183 million acres) of Indonesian rainforest have been destroyed. To visualize, this area is twice the size of Germany. This damage is due to the expansion of palm oil (in which Indonesia is the world's largest producer and exporter of the commodity), paper, and rubber plantations, as well as nickel mining and other industries.

These forests store enormous amounts of carbon and provide essential habitat for endemic New Guinean species of plants and animals. Thus, the forests should be safeguarded, conserved, and maintained by utilizing scientific and technological advancements.

“We have been tormented for years by the threat of our traditional forests being replaced by palm oil plantations. We want to raise our children with the help of nature, and the food and materials we harvest from the forest. Palm oil will destroy our forests, we reject it,” said Rikarda Maa, a woman from the Awyu tribe to Greenpeace.

This conflict in Papua is part of a broader pattern in Indonesia, where the recognition of indigenous and local religions remains a significant issue. Another recent example involves the new capital city, Nusantara. The Nusantara Capital Authority (Otorita IKN) has issued eviction notices to residents to comply with spatial planning regulations. The affected area includes the ancient village of Sabut, home to the Balik tribe long before the IKN project was conceived. The Balik tribe, settled in the area since the Japanese occupation, relies on the forest and river for their livelihood. As their land transitions to become the core of the new capital, they hope for the preservation of their cultural heritage through the construction of cultural centers. Although local regulations aim to protect these traditions, development pressures continue to threaten their way of life.

(Images courtesy of Jatam Kaltim)

Unfortunately, these cases are not the first and are unlikely to be the last. Indonesia prides itself on the principle of "Bhinneka Tunggal Ika" (Unity in Diversity), with indigenous tribes contributing significantly to the country's cultural identity. Indonesia markets itself as a prime destination for cultural enrichment and diverse experiences. However, the question arises: when will Bhinneka Tunggal Ika evolve from merely an ideology or marketing slogan into a fundamental principle upheld by law?

The struggle of the Awyu and Moi tribes is emblematic of a challenge faced by indigenous peoples everywhere: balancing development with the preservation of traditional lands and cultures. The world stands at a crossroads where economic interests often clash with environmental sustainability and human rights. The deforestation in Papua is a miniature of this larger struggle, highlighting the need for a shift in how societies value and protect indigenous lands.

Indonesia's identity is intertwined with its diverse cultures and rich heritage. To honor this, we must stand alongside indigenous communities in their fight against exploitation and environmental degradation. True unity in diversity requires actionable policies that protect indigenous rights and Indonesia’s nature. Only then can Bhinneka Tunggal Ika become a living reality, guiding national policy and safeguarding the unique identities that make Indonesia truly special. The time has come to turn words into deeds, ensuring that the country's celebrated diversity is genuinely protected.

A petition has been launched to support the indigenous communities in their fight to protect their forests,

and it has already garnered over 200,000 signatures.

Sign the petition to help them achieve their next goal of 300,000 signatures.

Link to petition


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