Savage Moderns: Avatar-Style Ecocide in the Real World
Avatar, the most financially successful movie of all time, takes as its subject matter the plight of an indigenous race who find themselves on the wrong side of our voracious appetite for natural resources. But we don't have to look towards an extraterrestrial future or colonial past for examples of this type of conflict -- the tribal people of West Papua have been living on the knife-edge of modern capitalism for over thirty years.
I first met Sem Karoba in Ireland in 2002. Sem is of the Lani tribe; their home is in the Baliem valley of West Papua. During his adolescence Sem had been selected by the tribal elders to be an emissary of the people. His training as a warrior ceased, and he left the forest to begin studying English. This was unprecedented amongst his people, and born of an ominous necessity. The Lani needed somebody to speak for them in the world, to tell the story of what was happening to their land and culture, and to ask for help.
And so one day he arrived at Heathrow airport in London, staring with trepidation at an escalator. An old lady helped this man, who grew up wearing only a koteka or penis gourd, to overcome his fear of the alien device. By the time he came to the west coast of Ireland a couple of years later, Sem was carrying a laptop which he used to assist in telling the story of his homeland.
West Papua is the western half of the island of New Guinea, situated to the north of Australia. It is one of the most biologically diverse areas of Earth, home of the bird of paradise and believed to contain countless undiscovered species. West Papua's indigenous population consists of over 300 tribes, some of which have never been contacted by outsiders. The island is considered to be the most linguistically diverse region in the world.
Until 1962 Western New Guinea was a colony of the Netherlands. The Dutch had intended to leave an independent state on their departure; elections were held and the New Guinea Council took office in 1961. But Indonesia recognized the potential value of this land to their eastern border, and threatened to invade with help from the Soviet Union. A potential alliance between these two did not appeal to the US, who pressured the Dutch into handing the territory over to Indonesia.
Part of the agreement was that a democratic referendum would take place, allowing all adult Papuans to vote on their future self-determination. But it came as little surprise in 1969 when Indonesia annexed the country, which they now call Irian Jaya, through the UN sponsored 'Act of Free Choice'. Roughly a thousand local officials were rounded up to vote. With guns trained on them, they were told to choose Indonesian rule or die. Thus began a reign of murder, rape, detention and torture that continues today. Estimates of the number of Papuans killed by the Indonesian army over the last forty years vary from 100,000 to 300,000.
The Papuans certainly haven't taken it lying down though. A widely supported independence movement known as Organisasi Papua Merdeka (the OPM, or Free Papua Movement) was founded in 1965. Its military wing has united tribes, some formerly each other's enemies, against their invaders. They fight a guerrilla war, using spears and bows against the army's guns and helicopters. But they know the forest and the mountains -- away from the roads, they're unbeatable. So the army began burning and bombing villages.
Following the assassination of prominent advocate of Papuan independence Theys Eluay in 2001, death threats were made against Sem and his second trip to Ireland was hurriedly organized by supporters. He felt that he had found solidarity in Ireland as a nation that had known foreign occupation, calling it his second homeland.
In the mourning tradition of his ancestors, Sem wears his deceased uncle's finger on a necklace. He once told me about a day when he was 7 years old. Indonesian soldiers lifted him down from his uncle's shoulders before hacking the man to death and then mutilating him. During his presentations and concerts in our city he described the arbitrary slaughter of innocent people and immense cultural repression.
He spoke of how he and his friends in Papua would hide musical instruments under the roots of trees in the forest and play them in secret, far from the ears of the soldiers. Many activities viewed by Indonesia as cultural expression are harshly punished. Under their law, it's considered treason and punishable by death to fly the West Papuan flag, known as the Morning Star.
But what has this got to do with us? How are these massive human rights abuses and cultural genocide connected to the West? Simple: natural resources.
Grasberg gold and copper mine in West Papua is the largest open-cut mine in the world, a gaping hole visible from space. It lies where the sacred mountain of the Amungme tribe used to be. US mining corporation Freeport-McMoRan, having struck a deal in 1967 with Suharto (the Indonesian dictator infamous for massacres in East Timor), have already dumped roughly a billion tons of toxic mine waste into the mountains and surrounding rivers.
All of the aquatic life in the area has died. A geologist employed by the company told the New York Times in 2005 that acid from the mine tailings is causing springs in a World Heritage site several miles away to run bright-green.
Sem tried to explain to us how it feels inside when the trees and mountains are torn down. It's something that goes way beyond concern for the community's material livelihood. To these people, who perceive the natural world as their extended body, it is like watching your own mother being murdered. It would be an understatement to say that the local people do not look favorably on the destruction of their forests, their hunting grounds, their villages, their way of life. In 1996 some corporate personnel were taken hostage by the OPM, two were killed. Prior to this, Freeport had already forged tight bonds with the military who manage the local security situation, issues of gross human rights abuses notwithstanding. They have given army officials huge sums of money -- nearly $20 million between 1998 and 2004 according to their own figures. In the NY Times article cited above, the company said, "our relationships with the Indonesian government and its security institutions are ordinary business activities."
Indeed, this appears to be ordinary business activity. From Potosi in Bolivia, to Ogoniland in Nigeria, to Iraq, to Botswana, to Chiapas, to Siberia. If you're unfortunate enough to live in the vicinity of something that's valuable to industrial society, better watch out.
The Grasberg mine is just one example of the operations of a Western corporation in West Papua. Other companies in the region include British Petroleum, Rio Tinto, Amoco, Union Oil, Shell, Texaco, Mobil, Esso, Phillips, and various other Canadian, French, South African, American, British, and Australian businesses. The UK has also sold large quantities of arms to Indonesia.
Where does the gold and copper from Grasberg end up? Possibly in the chips of the computer I'm typing on right now. Possibly in the one you're using to read these words.
This article isn't going to go too deep into the technology/ecology debate. And neither is it intended to be another "Dear god, so many awful things are happening." piece.
But we need to be asking ourselves questions -- most of us already are -- about how our lifestyles impact the Earth and its inhabitants. About what 'sustainable' means.
The world's major powers appear to be locked into a spiral of increasing economic growth and consumption -- China and America propping each other's economies up, with the rest of the planet dependent on that alliance for either supply or demand. Significant voluntary change in industrialism isn't looking likely at present. And one suspects that many proponents of the neoliberal globalization ideology share Charles Dickens's belief that "the world will be all the better when this place knows [the 'savage'] no more." Not without reason, some profess that civilization (i.e., society based on cities) is inherently unsustainable and violent.
Derrick Jensen writes in Endgame: "How would this understanding -- that this culture will not voluntarily stop destroying the natural world, eliminating indigenous cultures, exploiting the poor, and killing those who resist -- shift our strategy and tactics? The answer? Nobody knows, because we never talk about it: we're too busy pretending the culture will undergo a magical transformation."
Now this raises an issue or two for those of us who are open to the idea that some kind of evolution of human consciousness holds the key to survival of our species. We cannot forget that change won't come easy and won't come by itself. We are required to act, ongoingly, if any part of civilization is to move in a less destructive direction.
I don't think, as some primitivists do, that a mass return to the trees is a viable solution to modern society's problems. But for an economic system based on endless growth, which treats the Earth as "an infinite source and an infinite sink," collapse seems inevitable. Depending on how badly the shit hits the fan in the coming decades, we could find ourselves forming post-ecopocalyptic tribal cultures. We might ask ourselves what will happen to inclusiveness, compassion, and nonviolence in the face of scarcity?
Another relevant point is the tendency among proponents of the evolving consciousness paradigm to see preindustrial people as a relic of the evolutionary chain -- one that we have now surpassed. But, given the destructive behavior of us 'savage moderns', what does that imply us to be evolving towards? The work of integral developmental theorists such as Jean Gebser and Ken Wilber suggests a multifaceted, non-linear process at play.
In a collective sense, indigenous peoples could be seen as the shaman of the human community -- preserving our link with the rhythms of the Earth's unseen heart. I hope that the modern shamanic resurgence can help to keep our lines of communication with Nature open. I hope that we learn to integrate both the transcendent unity of Emptiness and the immanent diversity of Form.
Is there room in our modern world for the First Peoples of the Earth, or will their wisdom be squeezed and choked out of existence, consumed by the juggernaut?
There may be hope. Survival International have had several successes in protecting the rights of indigenous groups worldwide. The Church of England has just withdrawn investment from a mining company in India due to its treatment of the Dongria Kondh people. And the UN have published a report arguing that indigenous groups have unique knowledge of how to cope with climate change at the local level. By compiling hundreds of case studies, the report highlights policy changes that could be made based on indigenous experiences.
Recently, during the closing ceremony of a trance festival, I heard an Australian Aboriginal elder say, "For a long time, people have looked down on us blackfellas. Because we didn't build high-rises, and we didn't drive cars, and we didn't invent things. Like nuclear bombs. And it's funny how now -- with the climate the way it is, with mental health the way it is, with all the violence going on -- people are starting to think that maybe us blackfellas might have some ideas worth listenin' to."
I don't know where Sem is now. The last time I heard from him was maybe in 2004, all of my recent attempts to contact him have failed so far. An Australian activist has assured me that he's still alive. In the last few years he has written a number of books on tribal democracy (which he loosely defines as "A System of Governance that promotes a Society of communities of Beings to life in peace and harmony") and appears to have a Twitter account, which was updated last year. But the jungles of Papua don't have wi-fi. Yet. I pray that he is well. To all who read this, in the traditional Lani greeting and farewell - "Wa wa wa".
Hiri Moale Festival image (teaser and lead) by jurvetson, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet