Research shows that when indigenous people have proper control of forests, biodiversity is much better protected. Danny Chivers speaks to Raki Ap about the case for supporting West Papuan statehood.
Unfortunately, West Papua does not have a seat at the table in the UN climate talks currently taking place in Glasgow, Scotland. That’s because it’s a country whose people are still struggling to gain recognition as an independent state.
This week, I spoke to a Raki Ap, a government representative of West Papua who had bold, inspiring things to say about the climate crisis. He outlined to me a vision for the future that was in line with the demands of climate science, and also put the needs of people and nature over the drive for corporate profits.
West Papua makes up one half of the island of New Guinea – home to the world’s third largest rainforest. The indigenous peoples of West Papua have been under brutal military occupation by Indonesia since the 1960s, thanks to a series of shameful Cold War political manoeuvres by countries including the UK and the US. Under Indonesian control, extractive industries – from Rio Tinto’s gold mine, to BP’s gas drilling and new palm oil plantations – have accelerated in West Papua, providing funds to the occupiers, while bringing deforestation, pollution and allegations of serious human rights abuses to the local people. A 2017 petition calling for an independence referendum – a petition banned by the Indonesian state but circulated secretly – was signed by 71 per cent of the West Papuan population.
In 2020, the indigenous peoples of West Papua formed their own united government-in-waiting, headed up by exiled independence leader – and now Interim President – Benny Wenda. Today, at the COP26 climate summit, they have released a Green Vision for a new West Papuan state based on indigenous rights, forest protection and a rapid transition to a zero-carbon world. An independent West Papua would make ecocide a crime, provide free education and healthcare to its citizens while serving notice to extractive industries on its lands. It presents an inspiring blueprint for the kinds of climate action that a government might take, in stark contrast to the inadequate plans presented by so many sitting governments at CoP26.
I went over the details with Raki Ap, the official West Papuan spokesperson for the Green State Vision.
What is the Green State Vision?
It’s a vision that the interim government is ready to roll out as soon as they have control of the land that belongs to the indigenous peoples of West Papua. In line with international laws and best practices, we’ve outlined how we’re going to give power back to the tribes who have lived there for more than 40,000 years.
Once the West Papuan people have control of the land, the deforestation will stop. The pollution and the human rights violations will stop, and we will be able to take care of the land again as we did for thousands of years before.
The current extractive industries – mining, gas drilling, palm oil – that are being forced on us by the Indonesian occupation will be halted and downsized, in line with the wishes of the local people. The tribes will be involved in all decision-making that happens on their lands, and nothing will happen there without their consent.
This is a vision for a state run in the interests of the people, the plants and the animals, not in the interests of profit.
Why are you launching this vision now, at the UN climate talks?
The world is coming together at this most important climate summit. Movements, organizations and governments are looking for solutions, and this is something we are offering to them: a vision for preserving our half of the world’s largest tropical island, with some of the planet’s most unique biodiversity, as a vital part of the solution to the climate crisis. All the rest of the world has to do is support us and make sure we do get control of our land, so we can protect it for the benefit of all.
Around 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity is on land that rightfully belongs to indigenous peoples, and scientific research has shown that where indigenous people have proper control of that land, the forests and biodiversity are much better protected. So, a first step out of this crisis is to give back control of that land to the indigenous people.
An independent West Papua would make ecocide a crime, provide free education and healthcare to its citizens, while serving notice to extractive industries on its lands
How would this be different from how West Papua is currently governed?
In the hands of Indonesia, we’ve had a historic increase in deforestation. If you look at other parts of Indonesia: in Borneo, in Kalimantan, the forests have gone. West Papua is the next frontier. If West Papua stays part of Indonesia, this deforestation will continue, with the destruction of the world’s third-largest lung, the third-largest rainforest in the world. That is what is at stake. Right now, the Indonesian government is talking about building a West Papua transnational highway, which will accelerate the deforestation. We have seen what these roads have done in the Amazon.
If you listen to the UN scientists, they tell us we need innovation and new energy sources to reduce emissions, but we also need every tree to absorb the carbon from the air. West Papuans self-determination is vital to making sure that these forests stay standing.
Under an indigenous government, what will happen with companies like BP and Rio Tinto who are currently operating in West Papua?
We will immediately sit down at the negotiating table with these companies and talk about how to downsize their operations. If they cannot operate in a way that respects the welfare and livelihoods of people and the environment, then they should not be operating in West Papua.
Looking at our comrades in the Pacific small island states, who are threatened as we speak by rising sea levels – they are our biggest international supporters, and we call them our family. Our position will be to listen to their voices and support their call for an end to fossil fuels, in line with the demands of climate science. We need to scale down fossil fuel production and defend our forests. That will be the bottom line for any future decision-making around companies operating in West Papua.
How will you respond to the climate change that’s already happening?
We hope that it will not be necessary, but we are ready to support other Pacific island nations that are losing their lands to the rising seas, to take climate refugees from the region and do all in our power to facilitate a future for them.
If West Papua stays part of Indonesia, this deforestation will continue, with the destruction of the world’s third-largest lung, the third-largest rainforest in the world. That is what is at stake
How does this compare with the proposals from other governments at CoP26?
Many of the governments who’ve been sitting round the table at previous climate summits haven’t taken the science very seriously. We haven’t seen the right attitude or urgency. Respecting some of the most significant stakeholders – the world’s indigenous peoples – and ensuring their seat at the table would be a first logical step. Most of the world’s biodiversity and forests is on indigenous land, and UN scientists themselves have concluded that we are the best protectors of that land, so we must have a say.
What are you hoping to achieve at CoP26?
Our focus will be on the grassroots groups and environmental organizations who should be our first allies, but aren’t all yet on our side. Many big environmental groups talk about biodiversity and climate justice, but haven’t yet embedded it in their organizations.
So, at COP we’ll be working to find more allies, to make sure that this fundamental perspective – the so-called indigenous perspective on climate change – is brought to the centre of political decision making. I don’t have any expectations of the world’s governments taking this on board at COP26, but I hope that we can create our own momentum from the grassroots.
What can people do to support your work?
To make this mainstream, we will need everybody’s help. If you’re part of an organization you can ask them to sign the open letter in support of the Green State Vision. And everyone can take action as a citizen, sign up to support the campaign and use your voice – talk to people about the importance of the Green State Vision and also the rights of indigenous peoples in general in the climate change debate.
Even without freedom and with very few resources we have created a lot of momentum, including in the UN where 80 countries now support a human rights investigation into West Papua. So, we have shown that change is possible, and if we can do it then people in the Global North can certainly do it. We can inspire each other, work together and end this climate crisis – and West Papua’s Green State Vision is one example of how we can do that.
Photo on front page: Campaigners congregate in La Pago, West Papua in support of the Green State vision. Source: Free West Papua Campaign. Photo on this page: A rally in Domberay, West Papua in support of the Green State vision. Source: Free West Papua Campaign