Magazine article The Nation

The Deforesting of Irian Jaya

Magazine article The Nation

The Deforesting of Irian Jaya

Article excerpt

Carrying its odd trio through a valley deep in Irian Jaya, the van made excellent time. The driver, a young hipster from for-off Java in jeans and reflecting sunglasses, cranked up a scratchy tape of Indonesian rock and drummed away on the dashboard. The wiry old man next to me, toothless and sporting nothing save his tribe's traditional penis gourd, grinned sweetly as we made dust fly. But his cherriness could only momentarily transcend a sobering reality: that his culture, which dates back 10,000 years, may be wiped out in ten.

Irian Jaya is having a nervous breakdown. Change here is way too rapid for this fragile land, the western half of the island of New Guinea and the easternmost province of the 13,000-island Indonesian archipelago. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the valley town of Wamena, the van's destination.

Though naturally devoid of the luxuriant forest that is the province's life-giving marrow, Wamena is the main draw for the gagled of tourists who jouney to irian Jaya. The market int he dusty town center packs a full dose of National Geographic splendor: Bare-breasted women haggle over piles of brilliantly colored vegetables, fruits and roots. Fierce-looking warriors, some not long weaned from a culture of cannibalism and headhunting, stand in clusters chatting with cousins clad in slogan-bearing T-shirts.

Until recent times, the Irianese lived relatively undisturbed. So, too, did the hodgepodge of endemic creatues that rival Australian fauna--including the bird of paradise, the world's most opulent and showy bird, and tree-dwelling kangaroos. They flourish in Irian Jaya's rain forest, which covers the bulk of the province's 163,000 square miles, the largest remaining stand of trees in a nation that is second only to Brazil in rain forest acreage. Anthropologists, herbologists, biologists and other scientists consider Irian Jaya a tre ature trove of previously undiscovered cures and an evolutionary roadmap. It is also home to much of the earth's remaining Stone Age civilization.

None of which has been able to withstand the forces of mammon. Each year, Indonesia loses 3 million acres of green--an area the size of Connecticut. Annual plywood exports have tripled since 1986; at the current rate, the country's old-growth forest will have disppeared entirely by midway through the next century. The provides of Borneo, the largest island in the Indonesian archipelago, are already heavily denuded, and Irian Jaya is now the chief magnet for the chain saw.

Last year, the United Nations' Year of Indigenous People, would have seemed an ideal time to address such devastation. But aside from the recnt bestowl of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award on Bambang Widjojanto, an Indonesian lawyer fighting to save 250 Irianese tribes, scar cely a peep was heard from abroad.

Meanwhile, "progress" waits for no one. One hundred sixty miles north of Wamena, in Jayapura, a costal boomtown and the capital of Irian Jaya, one finds a hotel with TV movies, Fuji film shops and petty thievery and alcoholism galore. AIDS has arrived, thirty-seven cases so far, probably brought in by Thai fishermen.

When I stepped from a bus, a drunk pinched me hard, with malice. Perhaps that was a message for the United States, one of the leading importers, along with Japan and Germany, of Indonesian hardwood. But in the hierarchy of colonialism, the villain is also the Malay and the Chinese, scanning timber production schedules in the highrises of distant Jakarta.

Shortly after President Suharto took power in the mid-1960s, Indonesia received a $200 million development loan from a fourteen-nation consortium, and Suharto launched myriad initiatives, enough to alarm many over the mounting national deficit. But no Suharto, who responded cheerily in a 1971 speech, "We do not need to worry our heads about debts, for we still have forests to repay those debts! …

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