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Indigenous Interactions in Papua: Reflections and Insights

Indonesia is renowned for its rich cultural diversity, with over 1,340 recognized ethnic groups. This diversity often leads to encounters between groups, resulting in both acculturation and conflict. The transmigration policy of the New Order, which relocated Javanese populations, has further complicated the dynamics between ethnic groups, leading to ongoing tensions over economic resources.

The work “From Bizarre Encounters to Native Strangeness: Indigenous Otherness and Insider-Outsider Interactions in Indonesia” by Geger Riyanto, an associate professor at The University of Indonesia, delves into the complexities of cross-ethnic interactions. Riyanto’s research highlights the concept of “domestic native strangeness,” where immigrant groups, such as Javanese and Butonese, view the customs and behaviors of indigenous groups in a dismissive and/or derogatory manner. For instance, Butonese settlers perceive the indigenous dwellers of Seram Island as “head-hunters”.

Riyanto’s findings also emphasize how these persistent social ‘sterotypes’ challenge traditional territories and tenurial rights between migrants and indigenous people. In some cases, stigmatization is used as a tool to exclude others from economic resources, often with political motivations.

In Papua, similar migrant-indigenous stigmatization exists, where established stereotypes ignore the richness of Papuan tribes and cultural diversity, while simultaneously dismissing the relevance and importance of Papuan culture in natural resource management. This stereotyping has significant implications for Papuan tenurial rights, where business as usual practices result in companies acquiring land using seemingly ‘large’ cash transfers, but which actually significantly underestimate the true value of the land. Once such transactions are completed, often in the absence of other members of the community, and the ‘money is spent’, those impacted by the transaction are left landless with no means of implementing a traditional livelihood.

In reality, cultural stereotypes develop due to the common human believe that one’s own culture and way of life is the only way things can and/or should be done, and that our cultural values are more important than those of others, including those of indigenous peoples. For example, outsiders often fail to value the fact that traditional indigenous culture typically does not involve capital accumulation or material currency, but instead values the shared distribution of “nature’s wealth.” Riyanto’s studies underscore the importance of understanding such issues to support peaceful mutual coexistence.

Based on GHG Actions’ preliminary visit to Papua, it is clear that community members are highly skilled and adapted to their way of life, with their daily lives focussed on subsistence practices, fishing, hunting and ecosystem management. This includes the harvesting of sago and various other plants, maintaining the well-being of their sago hamlets, and otherwise utilizing nature’s bounty to meet their daily needs.

On reflection Riyanto’s work serves as a valuable lesson in understanding the social dynamics we encounter on a daily basis. Armed with an appreciation of societal cultural bias, and understanding the importance of working within the local cultural context, GHG Actions aims to support its clients to foster mutual appreciation and trust with local people. Such efforts include staffing projects with highly skilled Papuan employees, developing collaborative forest management to maintain local livelihoods and protect forests, building on the strengths of local people, while ensuring equitable distribution of benefits and community driven development.

Roxanna R Silalahi
Roxanna R Silalahi

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