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Papuan clan leader laments influx of migrants to sacred Cyclops Mountains

The Victoria crowned pigeon (Goura victoria) is one animal that inhabits the forests of the Cyclops Mountains. Photo by Mark Dumont via Flickr.

  • Highlanders from remote parts of Papua are migrating to urban centers in the province.
  • The Cyclops Mountains near the provincial capital Jayapura has seen a major influx of migrants.
  • Local indigenous groups see the mountains as sacred and call on the government to do a better job of protecting them.

JAYAPURA, Indonesia — When Amos Ondikeleuw became a clan leader, he vowed to never give up his community’s land at the foot of the Cyclops Mountains to the migrants flooding in from elsewhere in Papua, whom he saw as callous toward the environment.

Migration has long been an issue in the archipelago country’s easternmost province. As part of its now-defunct transmigration program, the government for decades moved landless people from crowded islands such as Java — home to 145 million people — to less inhabited ones on the nation’s periphery. Indonesia’s portion of New Guinea — divided into Papua and West Papua provinces — was a top destination, to the extent that outsiders are now thought to compose about half of its population of 2.7 million, according to the International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs.

Indonesia’s easternmost Papua province. Image by Bwmodular via Wikimedia Commons.

The program fueled social conflict, and President Joko Widodo ended it in 2015. But while migration to Papua from outside has subsided, rapid growth in the province’s urban centers — from its capital of Jayapura to university towns Weana and Abepura — has attracted highlanders from a neighboring mountain range seeking financial improvement.

The city of Jayapura, for instance, reported in 2015 alone that 132,687 individuals, or about 47 percent of its population, were permanent migrants from elsewhere in Papua, according the Central Bureau of Statistics.  

For Ondikeleuw, the internal migration is the biggest threat facing the Cyclops Mountains, a coastal range designated as a nature reserve. He said outsiders were logging the forest and using fire to clear land for agriculture, encroaching on terrain his community considers sacred.

“For the indigenous groups, the Cyclops Mountains are like our mother. She deserves respect,” said the 75-year-old Ondikeleuw, who worked for 23 years for state conservation agencies until his retirement in 2005.

Amos Ondikeleuw lives in Sereh village in Jayapura district of Indonesia’s easternmost Papua province. Photo by Christopel Paino/Mongabay.

These communities know the mountains as “Robhong Holo,” a name inspired by a folk tale about a couple who got lost in its forests and turned into its two highest peaks.

Covering some 31,400 hectares in northeastern Papua, the Cyclops Mountains encompass primary and secondary dryland forests and provide water to inhabitants of the surrounding region.

“[But] it’s deteriorating now, so we need to protect and take a good care of it,” said Ondikeleuw, who received in 2008 an award for his environmental works in the reserve from the provincial government.

He said he once confiscated logs of the sowang variety (Xanthostemon novoguineensis valet) from an outsider who subsequently became angry and reported him to a police officer who happened to come from the same hometown.

“I was shot at three times by that cop from a distance of three meters,” Ondikeleuw said. “Fortunately I got out fine.”

Deforested slopes in the Cyclops Nature Reserve are prone to landslides. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

The extent of critically damaged lands in the reserve reached 7.2 percent in 2012 and was expected to increase in the coming years, according to the Jayapura district forestry office. It also received reports of rivers running dry attributing to the annual decrease of freshwater discharge in the district.

“I’m very disappointed,” Ondikeleuw said commenting on how the local government has fared in protecting the reserve that is home to the critically endangered Sir David’s long-beaked echidna (Zaglossus attenborough).

“Why hasn’t the government found any solution for Cyclops? They’ve got the authority. If it’s about funding, then how come they can spend billions [of rupiah] for sports, but they’re so stingy when it comes to the future of Cyclops?” he asked. 

In 2010, the Jayapura district administration received $1.2 million (16 billion rupiah) from the Norwegian government for a three-year program to beef up security in the natural reserve.

During a visit to the landscape in 2013, then Norwegian ambassador Stig Traavik expressed his disappointment after knowing that the aid had not been properly managed, and witnessing an ongoing sand mining operation near the area. 

“Law enforcement in Cyclops range has not been maximum because [the problem] are tied with the area’s social and culture aspect,” said I Ketut Diatra Putra, head of the information department at the Papua Natural Resources Conservation Agency. He was referring to interethnic clashes that are common in Papua and often turn deadly.

Homes on stilts on Lake Sentani near Jayapura and the Cyclops Mountains. The lake is home to several species of fish that live nowhere else. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

In addition, the Jayapura district office has since 2013 been drawing up a provincial regulation to conserve the Cyclops Mountains territory that will include indigenous communities in managing ecological zones in the reserve.

For Ondikeleuw, he has vowed that he will not sell his group’s communal land, which stretches from the waterfalls in Cyclops Mountains all the way to Lake Sentani, to anyone even though a number of other indigenous community leaders have given up theirs.

“I don’t need money. I was not elected as tribe leader to sell our lands,” he said, adding that he had rejected multiple offers from outsiders who would pay for his land.

“I have gotten the chance to enjoy the reserve’s beauty. But, I’m worried that the next generation will only be able to see forest, birds, and other wildlife in pictures. For that, they will blame us for being irresponsible.”

Banner image: The Victoria crowned pigeon (Goura victoria) is one animal that inhabits the forests of the Cyclops Mountains. Photo by Mark Dumont via Flickr.

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*A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the size of the Cyclops Mountains.