WelCom September 2017: On a pastoral visit to Indonesia’s Papua region in July, Bishop Charles Drennan together with Cathy Bi-Riley and Taneora Ryall from Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand learned first-hand about social, political and environmental issues affecting local and indigenous peoples.
They met with a range of representatives from the Catholic and ecumenical community including Jayapura Bishop Leo Laba Ladjar ofm, Catholic human-rights defenders, non-government-organisations (NGOs), and indigenous students and groups.
Asked what impressed him most from the visit, Bishop Charles responded: ‘I was reminded again of the power of place within the dynamic of listening. In three very diverse situations we were told this is the first time a Bishop has been here. It was very humbling. Also we were reminded once again how good governance is essential to the development of peoples and society. The indigenous people – and not just them – are crushed when state institutions such as the army or police and some elements within local authorities collude with big business and political groupings to trample on the rights and customs of peoples. Thankfully, faith-inspired groups are very active in pursuing dialogue to dispel tensions and in advocating for fair and sustainable development.’
Bishop Leo shared his concerns about poor health and educational outcomes for indigenous people in rural areas. According to Indonesian Bureau of Statistics in 2016 the adult illiteracy rate in Papua was 28 per cent compared with only one per cent for Indonesia overall. Bishop Leo said, ‘in remote areas, the lack of teachers and medicine is a significant challenge’.
In the Merauke Archdiocese, NGOs and Catholic groups spoke about the environmental impact of palm-oil plantations, a government programme called Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE) and coastal erosion. These issues are closely connected with concerns for the wellbeing of indigenous communities who have lost parts of the lands they have traditionally lived on but now no longer have access to traditional food sources.
Merauke Archbishop Nicolaus Adi Seputra said, ‘With the forest gone, and people not being given proper compensation, everything has been taken without anything offered in return. People are fighting for survival. For a long time, the people struggle, but the government or company doesn’t understand, they close their ears, hearts and mind. Then the people say, “it is better that we fight for freedom”, but the struggle is not about freedom, it is about survival.’
Fr Neles Tebay from Papua Peace Network said in Papua and West Papua, the desire for peace is not abstract. ‘Peace requires addressing of historical and present human-rights issues and responding to issues of education, health and environment. It is through open and honest dialogue between people and government that Papua can truly become a land of peace.’
Bishop Charles noted that Caritas ‒ both local and international partners ‒ is held in very high regard in the area and so the Church becomes a positive force for justice. ‘It’s heartening to see time and time again how faith becomes a beacon of hope in contexts that are difficult or even unjust.’