It is not known for sure where the Irianese originated. There are two basic ethnicities native to Irian - the Negroid peoples and those of Melanesian stock. It is thought that the Negritos settled on the island first, probably some 30,000 years ago, followed by those of Melanesian stock. One theory is that the bulk of Irianese came from East Africa and were pushed interior by successive migrations.
Irian Jaya first finds its way (in any significant manner) into Western History books in 1545 when the Spaniard Ynigo Ortiz de Retes stumbled upon it. Prior to his sighting, Irian was already known to various Indonesian Empires. Indeed, the Majapahit empire and the Tidore empire) raided the West Coast - What is now called Biak and the Birds head - for slaves. However, those people were not above slave trading themselves and in turn often raided westwards into East Timor and as far as Java.
In 1883 the island of New Guinea was partitioned by three Western powers, the Dutch claiming the western half, while the Germans and British divided the eastern half into German New Guinea in the north and British Papua in the south. When he Republic of Indonesia was created in 1949 the Netherlands granted independence to the colonized peoples of the former Dutch East Indies. West New Guinea however, due to its distinct Melanesian population and cultural characteristics, was retained as a colony by the Dutch and during the 1950s the Dutch government prepared the territory for independence. President Sukarno meanwhile consistently maintained Indonesia's claim to all former territory of the Dutch, and when his demands were not met armed conflict ensued from 1962.
Under pressure from the United States to come to terms with Indonesia, the Dutch agreed to secret negotiations. In August 1962 an agreement was concluded in New York between the Netherlands and Indonesia, under which the Dutch were to leave West New Guinea and transfer sovereignty to UNTEA (the United Nations Temporary Executive Authority), for a period of six years until a national vote was to be conducted to determine Papuan preference for independence, or integration with Indonesia. Almost immediately however, Indonesia took over the administration from UNTEA. A referendum was held in 1969, and the UN sanctioned a vote by 1025 handpicked electors, who allegedly chose to "remain with Indonesia".
The UN Representative sent to observe the election process produced a report which outlined various and serious violations of the New York Agreement. In spite of the "duly noted" report and in spite also of testimonials from the press, the opposition of fifteen countries and the cries of help and justice from the Papuans themselves, West Irian was handed over to Indonesia in November 1969. The inhabitants of Papua New Guinea, across the border, achieved full independence in 1975.
Today and tomorrow
Irian had for many years produced significant amounts of oil for Anglo/Dutch firm Shell amongst others. However it was not until 1967 that the massive reserve of copper at Mt Carstenz was first exploited by the Freeport McMoRan company of Louisiana, which had been granted mining rights by General Suharto shortly after coming to office. The huge Freeport mine holds copper and gold reserves worth at least US $40 billion. Yet with political control and a twenty per cent share held in Jakarta, and USA-based Freeport and the giant RTZ company of the UK owning the dominant eighty per cent share in the mine, very little of the mineral revenue returns to West Papua and only a small proportion directly benefits the native Papuans.
There appears to be little planning given to long term sustainable economic development, with a rapid increase more recently in new mining and logging projects. Of the 41.5 million hectares of forest in Papua, over 27.6 million hectares have been designated as production forest. Indonesian law enables the Government to act virtually as it pleases with respect to the resource rights of the West Papuan tribal people. Transmigration, commercial logging, mining and other government-sponsored programs are considered to be in the interests of the nation, and take priority over any local land claims.
The forcible removal from traditional lands, coupled with the inherent differences between traditional and industrial culture, often causes indigenous communities to react with open hostility. "Enclave" type developments in the timber, mineral and oil sector, provide the Indonesian Government with the bulk of its foreign exchange earnings in eastern Indonesia. There is a close association of military personnel with such projects.
The population of West Papua is estimated at approximately 1,800,000. There is estimated to be 770,000 migrants now living in the province, mainly landless Javanese, sponsored and unsponsored, encouraged moving to West Papua under the government's Transmigration program. Under this national program of population resettlement, the province of West Papua is now the largest recipient of migrants transported from other islands such as Java, Bali and Sulawesi.
The most extensive migration program in history, the Indonesian government's Trans-migration program has contributed to West Papua having one of the country's highest provincial population growth rates. There is also considerably greater pressure on the natural environment due to land clearance, legal and illegal, poaching and encroachment by settlers into nature reserves. West Papua's population was 85 per cent Christian before the annexation. This number has declined in the past few years.
The province has the poorest health standards of all twenty seven Indonesian provinces, including the highest infant mortality and maternal mortality rates. The average yearly provincial health department budget is only AUD $1.3 million. According to a 1995 United Nations index, of all the ASEAN countries Indonesia has the lowest quality of life, yet the statistics for Papua are by far the lowest in the country. This index includes longevity, measured by life expectancy, knowledge, measured by years of schooling, and standard of living, measured by purchasing power.
The people of West Papua are composed of various language groups, such as the Dani of the Baliem Valley in the central highlands, the Asmat of the southern, coastal region and the Ekari of the Wissel Lakes region. There are at least 250 main languages spoken by the indigenous people, reflecting the isolation and small numbers of many of the tribes.
However, the long term policy of the Indonesian government is the universal use of Bahasa Indonesia, the national language of Indonesia. This is taught in West Papua's schools from grade one onwards, whereas in other provinces of Indonesia the first three years of instruction at primary level are given in the local vernacular. The percentage of illiteracy for West Papua is nearly double the national average and quoted as 30.5 with a rate of 81.5 in the highlands district.
The destruction of West Papua's culture and environment is taking place with the full knowledge of the governments of the Western nations, protecting the business interests of numerous large multi-national corporations active in West Papua. Throughout the period of Indonesian government rule, President Suharto and his associates have exploited the resources of West Papua in the worst tradition of military-based, authoritarian governments, and have sought to keep the issue hidden from the outside world. With a highly controlled Indonesian press and restrictions on movement within the province, geographical remoteness and difficulties of access have combined to make West Papua the silent genocide of modern times.