In the Forest We Believe

Albertus Vembrianto

“First time we heard there was Corona (virus), we ran to the forest,”

said Mikael, a Kamoro man stay in southern coast of Papua.

Maria (58), left after fishing from the Freeport McMoran tailings disposal area in Mimika Regency, Papua.

During the early period of the pandemic in March 2020, at least 50 families left their homes. The forest area near the Yamaima River in Mimika Regency is their destination area to avoid the virus and be close to food sources. Gradually other families from the Kamoro Tribe community moved in. Mimika is one of the regencies with the highest number of Covid-19 case in Papua Province. Initially, the pandemic emerged in coastal cities, such as Jayapura and Merauke.

Most of the indigenous communities choose to go out of town, back to their original hamlets, and stay there. Dusun is a term for food areas such as sago growing areas, hunting and fishing grounds. The hamlet area of the Kamoro Tribe community has been partially dammed by the embankment. This embankment is related to the tailings sewer system engineering of Freeport-McMoRan (waste from mining operations). When going to the hamlet, indigenous communities access it using a bus provided by Freeport-McMoRan, or via river route that is connected to the Pomako seaport. The bus operates four times a week, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. For the purpose of gathering forest products and selling them to the market, the indigenous community adjusts this bus schedule.

The embankment, apart from being a barrier to the tailings area, is also used as a road by the company, from mountainous areas to lowlands. The embankment blocks the flow of the Otomona River to other rivers, such as the Ayuka (Ajkwa), Yamaima, Tawaiwau, Ayuiwa, Tafua, Ayuka, and so on.

The embankment on the west side, adjacent to the town of Timika. This tailings disposal flow into the sea has become a landmark for Timika, commonly known as the city of Dollars.

A number of young people prepare the place to celebrate end of the year, during the pandemic they live in bivouacs.

Patrisius (53) and his daughter, Yesika (26), set up a fishing net in a puddle of water in the tailing disposal area.

They choose to run into the forest to avoid disease or other calamities even before the pandemic. In 2011 a shooting occurred in the embankment area near Nayaro Village, Mimika Regency, which caused three indigenous people got shot. Although the incident did not cause death, Kampung Nayaro was abandoned for about six years. They believe forest is a comfort zone, a shelter as well as food source.

“If there really is a disease, we have medicine from our ancestors,” said Mikael. Even though the forest has undergone drastic changes, indigenous Papuans still believe in the power of the forest. They believe that bathing in the estuary when low tide will bring away various diseases and calamities.

The fish caught by the indigenous people are now easily die and rot after the tailings flow into the river.

A number of young people prepare the place to celebrate end of the year, during the pandemic they live in bivouacs.

Mikael and his son in their bivouac.

The feasibility of health services, the availability of equipment and medical personnel in the provinces of Papua and West Papua, actually raises anxiety about the worst possibility of a pandemic. In normal times, health problems that result in mass deaths are repeated again and again by the indigenous Papuan community. At the end of 2015, about 30 babies under the age of 3 died in Nduga Regency, Papua. In mid-2017, around 40 babies in Deiyai Regency, Papua, died of measles. In early 2018, the problem of malnutrition caused at least 60 babies to die in Asmat Regency, Papua

Click on images to enlarge

Alida is rowing her wooden boat in a puddle of water in the tailing disposal area.

The company bears compensation for tailings impacts. One of them is to provide buses for communities with customary rights to access forests. The bus operates four times a week, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. For the purpose of gathering forest products and selling them to the market, the indigenous community adjusts this bus schedule. Searching in Papuan terms is working, collecting forest products that can be consumed or sold.

A number of people of indigenous community carried their gathering from the forest onto the bus.

Indigenous communities were escorted by bus back to their homes after selling forest products at the market.

In handling the pandemic, the provincial and district governments in Papua and West Papua, have indeed initiated the policy of closing access. Airports and ports throughout Papua were briefly stopped operating to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus from outside Papua. This policy was followed by the establishment of new protocols, the creation of hand washing facilities in a number of crowded locations and the preparation of a referral hospital for COVID-19 sufferers.


However, based on the government’s response to health problems in the past, it has further strengthened the distrust of indigenous people in handling and threats of Covid-19. In fact, most of the indigenous Papuans doubt the pandemic and consider it a manipulation.

Patrisius (53) and his daughter, Yesika (26), set up a fishing net in a puddle of water in the tailing disposal area.

The generator that Mikael had bought from his savings for four months.

Most of the indigenous Papuans doubt the pandemic and consider it a manipulation.

About Albertus Vembrianto

A freelance photojournalist and visual storyteller who was born in Sumatra. He believes that the practice of sustainable photography is an effort to explore the complexity and diversity of problems, to ignite the fact that humans live together, and to remind people of collective responsibility for what has been damaged. His photo story "Fragments of Papua" was awarded as the best work at the 2018 Permata Photojournalist Grant. He was selected as one of the emerging photographers from Southeast Asia and Oceania by 6x6 Global Talent, a program of World Press Photo, in 2019.

All photography and text above by Albertus Vembrianto

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