Despite Extractivism

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


The Extracting Us exhibition and conversation series is co-curated by Siti Maimunah, Elona Hoover, Dian Ekowati, Alice Owen and Rebecca Elmhirst with critical insight and support from independent curator Celina Loh. Online exhibition designed and developed by Celina Loh with the Extracting Us Collective.

This project is made possible by support from 
ONCA Gallery, the Centre for Spatial, Environmental and Cultural Politics at the University of Brighton, the Wellbeing, Ecology, Gender and cOmmunity research network funded by the European Union Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 764908), and collaboration with the Women in Action on Mining in Asia (WAMA) collaborative network and the ‘Sustainable’ Development and Atmospheres of Violence: Experiences of Environmental Defenders project funded by The British Academy.


WEGO-ITN (Wellbeing, Ecology, Gender and cOmmuny International Training Network) is an EU-funded research network contributing to the political ecology, feminist studies, human geography, anthropology, and development studies’ understanding of extractivism, commoning, care, communities, livelihoods, embodied subjectivities and resistance to development. WEGO-ITN is made up of scholar-activists working on feminist political ecology from ten institutions in six European Union countries: Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain, The Netherlands, and the United Kingdom and ten institutions from eight countries for training and secondments: Australia, India, Indonesia, Italy, New Zealand, Portugal, Uruguay and USA.

The Centre for Spatial, Environmental and Cultural Politics (SECP), based at the University of Brighton, undertakes interdisciplinary research to address global and planetary challenges such as climate change, human migration, social inequalities and resource access or depletion. SECP explores the environmental, spatial and cultural dimensions of ecological and social challenges in specific places, to offer new knowledge and practice for the creation of more sustainable and socially just societies.

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ONCA is a Brighton based arts charity that bridges social and environmental justice issues with creativity. ONCA promotes positive change by facilitating inclusive spaces for creative learning, artist support, story-sharing and community solidarity. ONCA Gallery works with artists, educators and organisations to co-deliver exhibitions, events and workshops that explore social and environmental issues.

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About Despite Extractivism

As with the Extracting Us exhibition, we invited the Despite Extractivism contributors to consider how their work can follow our guiding principles:

• The online exhibition brings together artistic and creative contributions that explore everyday community experiences of and responses to extractivism, and/or engage in ongoing conversations around extractivism, communities and care, in its various forms and registers.

• It includes three core aims:
– to challenge ‘north-south’ and ‘producer-consumer’ narratives on extractivism
– to listen to perspectives from those most affected, and develop actions of solidarity and resistance across countries and continents
– to challenge the viewer to make (sometimes unexpected) connections and develop solidarity (e.g, inviting the viewer to take specific actions or connect with the community

• The exhibition thinks about extractivism and care in terms of materials from (and of) the earth, and considers the experiences of humans and the rest of the natural world.

• The exhibition will include narratives of resistance where possible/relevant; and avoid relying on pathos that might develop an ‘us/them’ feeling

• The exhibition will work with quality materials while also challenging ‘professional’ or ‘distanced’ kinds of aesthetics

Despite Extractivism assembles expressions of care, creativity and community from diverse sites of extraction and geographical contexts. Extractivism is characterised by the violent accumulation of resources, which often devastates and disrupts affected communities and the natural world. Collectively, the works in this exhibition illuminate and explore ways of questioning, subverting and resisting the logics and impacts of extractivism.

Despite Extractivism
is part of the ongoing ‘Extracting Us’ collective journey exploring the  diverse, uneven but sometimes connected ways in which resource extraction also extracts from communities. It is an invitation to explore questions around extractivism and its logics, but also to explore the already-existing alternatives.  How do communities and creatives (struggle to) cultivate care for nature and for each other despite extractivism? Can sites of extraction be a fertile ground for alternatives?  Can artistic interventions help foster new sensibilities and solidarities with distanced extractive contexts?

Like weeds growing through the cracks in concrete, and in their flourishing slowly forcing the cracks to widen, the contributors to
Despite Extractivism scatter here their seeds of ways of thinking or being in extractive contexts. 

There are stories of artists who are involved with communities inhabiting landscapes threatened by destructive projects, imagining and practising ways of being which subvert and resist extractivism:  V’Cenza Cirefe’s
Counter-mapping in the Sperrins (resisting gold mining in Northern Ireland), Chesney’s Down The Line (resisting the HS2 railway in England)  and Federico Pardo’s forthcoming contribution (resisting gold mining in Cajamarca, Columbia).

There are illuminations of other tactics of resistance, from the creativity of the Kartini Kendeng women ecological defenders and their portrayals by Dewi Candraningrum (resisting cement mining in Java, Indonesia), to the counter-mapping initiative by the Pari Island community, JKPP and collectives to stop extractive tourism (Seribu Islands, Indonesia).

There are explorations of the uneven geographies of extractivism, with Karin Edstedt’s (Title) embroidery depicting the disproportionate environmental injustices of mining on indigenous communities (copper extraction conflict in Laver, Sápmi; coal mining in Kalimantan, Indonesia), and Sandro Simon’s audiovisual work Bidonmondes drawing attention to the omnipresence of extractivism through the everyday repurposing of imported palm oil canisters in the Sine-Saloum Delta, Senegal (originating from extractive palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia).

There are intimate accounts of uprooting due to extractive projects, accompanied by the persistent determination to build or rebuild lives in Between Rivers by Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik (Intergenerational care and multidimensional extractivism, Russian Urals), This is my Home by Maria Rosa Pessoa Piedade & Marilene Ribeiro (dispossession caused by the Belo Monte dam, Brazil) and In the Forest We Believe by Albertus Vembrianto (Covid-19) exacerbates migration from a coastal area affected by gold mining waste, Papua, Indonesia).

Finally, there are invitations to engage with practises and performances which inspire embodied reflection on the destruction and destabilising effects of extractivism in distanced contexts: Arabel Lebrusen’s Toxic Waves II (in response to deadly failure of a dam at the Córrego do Feijão iron ore mine in Minas Gerais, Brazil ) and Choules+Roisner’s
REGOLITHIC (in response to global extraction).

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