Sunday, June 27, 2010

Papua: Western New Guinea

Indonesia's unwilling easternmost region, Papua occupies the western half of New Guinea, the World's second largest island. Along with its independent eastern neighbour Papua New Guinea, Papua is home to an incredible diversity of flora, fauna and cultures. The rugged terrain and the relatively late coming of the outside world to the island has helped to preserve the unique biological and cultural diversity here better than probably anywhere else in the tropics, though for better or worse, change is accelerating.

Papua only became part of Indonesia in 1969, after a highly controversial 'popular consultation', that was nevertheless endorsed by the UN. Since then the island has seen drastic changes: hundreds of thousands of Javanese transmigrants have been settled here, logging companies have been pushing ever deeper into the interior, mining interests have been surveying the land, and Indonesian culture has been agressively propagated among the native Papuans. Unsurprisingly, many are unhappy about this state of affairs, and many dream of independence. There has been a low-key guerrilla movement operating in the interior and along the PNG border ever since the Indonesian takeover, and demonstrations or ethnic violence do hit even the coastal cities from time to time.

The above is probably the main reason why tourism in Papua has never really kicked off, despite the outstanding attractions. Many foreign governments warn their citizens against travel to this province, and once here, a travel permit is required to visit the interior. High prices are another factor that deter many of the more adventurous travellers. Most of those few who do visit, only get to the area around the province's capital Jayapura, and the readily accessible Baliem Valley in the central highlands, which is the main drawing card of Papua. Exploring the rest of this vast region will require plenty of time, often lots of cash, and preferably a knowledge of the Indonesian language. Those who possess all these and decide to devote enough time to getting off the beaten track will probably be rewarded with the adventure of a lifetime.


New Guinea is home to the largest tracts of remaining rainforest outside the Amazon basin, and much of the varied fauna found here is unique to the island. Mammals include several species of tree kangaroos and cuscuses, but the birdlife is even more fascinating: colourful cockatoos and parrots share the forests with such unique species as cassowaries, crowned pigeons and the most famous and spectacular of all feathered beings: birds of paradise. High above the jungle-clad lowlands, the central highlands are home to alpine landscapes and even snow-capped peaks, plus the closest glaciers to the equator. More accessibly, the coastal areas, especially around the off-shore islands, boost some of the finest coral reefs in the world.


The long history of human settlement and the isolation brought about by the rugged geography and frequent warfare, have combined to make New Guinea the most ethnically diverse part of the planet: nearly 1000 languages, about a fifth of the World's total, are spoken here - about a third of them in Papua. While the coastal areas have been much influenced by outside culture, the tribal groups of the interior have preserved ancient traditions to a greater extent than anywhere else, and the chance to catch a glimpse of their archaic way of life is what brings most visitors here. While most tourists stick to camera-based encounters with "traditional tribes", those who speak Indonesian and make an effort to get to know the Papuans more deeply, will also find insight into a culture that is a unique blend of old and new influences.


The tribal art of New Guinea is among the best in the World, though it must be admitted that the very best of it is to be found in PNG, not in Papua. In Papua itself, most famous is the woodcarving of the Asmat people of the southern coast, but the Kamoro, the Biakese, and the Sentani people all have fine traditions of woodcarving, as do many other, less famous groups. Traditional woodcarving may decorate functional items like these shields, drums, or even canoes and paddles. Among the ethnic groups of the central highlands there is very little woodcarving done, and these people mostly express their artistic talent in body decoration.


Though traditional dress was common right until the late 1990es, these days most Papuans wear modern dress, even in the interior. Most photos you see showing a majority of people in traditional costume, here on my site or elsewhere, are either from before the recent changes, or are (like the one above) staged - though few photographers will admit the latter! ;-) This doesn't mean that "traditional culture has disappeared". The way of life has changed very little in recent years - only dress has, causing much disappointment for tourists looking for "primitive" photos.

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