Most outside observers see only one dimension of conflict in Papua - the Indonesian government vs. the independence movement - but it is much more complex. Tensions among tribal groups and between indigenous Papuans and non-Papuan settlers, as well as competition over political power and access to spoils at the district and sub-district levels, are also important. The issues vary substantially from one region to another. National and international attention has tended to focus on the northern coast and the central highlands, with relatively little on the districts in the south, which have long felt excluded from politics in the Papuan capital, Jayapura.
Boven Digoel, a district carved out of Merauke district in December 2002, is neither the centre of the provincial government nor home to any large Western investor or active pro-independence group. The key local concerns are land rights and ethnic politics. Balancing Papuans' customary land rights with forestry and oil palm investment and managing the social tensions associated with the influx of non-Papuans are critical issues. Another local concern, though notably less of a problem after the 2005 district election, is the competition between local Muyu and Mandobo tribal elites for political power, and how that competition intersects with the politics of neighbouring Merauke, where an effort is underway to establish a new South Papua Province.
The Korean-owned firm Korindo and its Indonesian subsidiaries have been operating in the area since 1993, felling timber for plywood and, from 1997 onwards, moving into oil palm plantations for biofuel production. Although no major violence has broken out, conflicts between the company and Papuan customary land owners over access and compensation, between clans over land boundaries and within clans over compensation sharing are widespread.
Local dissatisfaction with Korindo has intersected with the independence movement in the past, including the January 2001 kidnapping of company employees by the Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, OPM). Since the local OPM commander, Willem Onde, was killed in September 2001, however, his small band of followers has essentially been inactive.
Despite the lack of any serious security threats in the district, there is a strong military and police presence, particularly since Boven Digoel split from Merauke in late 2002. Villagers, visitors and even local politicians and officials are closely monitored. The security forces do not play a significant role in protecting investors in the district; Korindo and its subsidiaries have private civilian security guards. But when problems between locals and the company emerge, it is the army and paramilitary police (Brimob), both of which have posts dotted throughout the forest concessions and plantations, that are usually called in.
Since military operations ended in the late 1990s, there have been few serious human rights violations by the security forces, though low-level harassment and intimidation are widespread. The problems that do occur tend to stem from personal and property disputes and the military's involvement in small-scale, illegal business rather than political issues.
Some 3,700 kilometres from the national capital, with no local independent media and very few non-governmental organisations, this remote corner of Papua is paid precious little attention. But Boven Digoel merits closer examination. It shows how politics at the district level tend to pit Papuan tribal elites against each other rather than bringing them together in opposition to Jakarta. Moreover, it highlights the dangers of ethnic politics often triggered by pemekaran (administrative decentralisation) and the potential pitfalls of large-scale natural resource investment, as well as the anxiety both these generate among indigenous Papuans over the influx of non-Papuan Indonesian settlers.
This briefing is based on in-depth interviews with a wide range of Boven Digoel government and civil society representatives, local police, villagers in Tanah Merah, Getentiri and Mindipdana sub-districts, company representatives in Asiki and Jakarta and journalists and non-governmental organisations in Merauke who cover the entire southern region.
Jakarta/Brussels, 19 July 2007