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Papua: Opportunity in diversity

Last week The Jakarta Post editorial stated, “To build Papua anew, Jakarta needs to listen to voices that have so far been left unheard” (Sept. 28). My question is, what does “anew” look like? A recent Zoom seminar organized by the Indonesian Embassy in Canberra in cooperation with the Indonesian Academics and Researcher Network (IARNA) may provide an achievable starting point for this national conversion.

The online seminar was organized to discuss several questions, one of which “How can cultural valves accelerate the development of Papua”.  The keynote speaker was Papuan Gracia Billy Mambrasar, special advisor to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. One of Mambrasar’s discussion points was that respect for local values builds trust, and that in turn, this trust creates opportunities in education and entrepreneurship.

The second speaker, Dr. Rob Goodfellow, one of Australia’s most experienced cross-cultural specialists, complimented this argument by suggesting three concepts.

The first was to accept the notion that embracing human diversity inevitably challenges status quo thinking. The second that, when non-Papuan Indonesians adapt to respecting Papuan values, exciting human possibilities will emerge.

The third was for Indonesian society to consider adopting some Papuan ways of doing things as they have done with the tapestry of ideals that now make up an evolving national character. This includes the Javanese with their reputation for etiquette, politeness and reserve, the Sundanese with their respect for family, brotherhood and tradition, and the Bataks with their admiration for education, entrepreneurism and loyalty.

Significantly, and after more than 200 years of European occupation, Australians are finally pursuing an “accept, adapt, adopt” process themselves, with the Morrison federal government committing over US$100 million to support 840 full-time indigenous rangers to conserve cultural resources, protect biodiversity and practice traditional land conservation (including fire management and the control of invasive plants and animals in national parks and state forests, www.countryneedspeople.org.au).

So, how do we know what Papuan values are? In what way has culture contributed to the resilience of the Papuan people? And finally, how can Papua’s myriad of cultures enrich the experience of all Indonesians as the Republic celebrates 75 years of nationhood?  

When researching beliefs and values, ideals and principles, the first challenge is to ask the right questions and, in turn, to give subjects the opportunity to explain how their cultures have not only defined them as people but also how their values have inspired and sustained them.

One suggestion is for the Indonesian government to fund a major social research project looking at Papuan values. This could potentially provide the sort of quality data that reveals and explains Papuan values and then, in turn, recommends how these same values can better inform progressive policy.

A cursory example of these values can be drawn from Papua’s three largest demographic groups – the Dani, the Yali and the Asmat. The Dani, for instance, differentiate only two basic colors, mili for cool shades and mola for warm colors. The definition of “other” in terms of an “opposite” is a very sophisticated way of interpreting and understanding the world. For example, there is only “white” because there is “black”. There is only “East” because there is “West”.

“An opposite” as a concept, in fact, assists children (and adults too for that matter) to better understand themselves because they have a point of reference and comparison. How can this kind of analysis be incorporated into the Indonesian national education curriculum?

In another example, the Asmat have traditionally placed great emphasis on the veneration of ancestors. What role does education play in this process and what can be learned from this? In what way do Asmat values parallel cutting edge intergenerational and transnational learning models where aged-care homes in Japan, the United Kingdom and Australia are being integrated with kindergarten pre-schools to provide a unique win-win care experience for children and respectful purpose for the elderly.

Finally, the Yali are a rainforest subsistence people. How do Yali traditional educators impart knowledge about sustaining the natural environment? The example mentioned previously of Australian Indigenous rangers is a guide to what Indonesia may also consider based on Yali values, not just in Papua, but in other rainforest provinces such as Lampung, Bengkulu, Jambi, Bangka Belitung, West, South and North Sumatra Riau, Riau Islands and Aceh not to mention North, South, East, West and Central Kalimantan.

The slowdown in economic activity brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic may in fact offer Indonesia a range of opportunities for community-inspired and culturally based solutions with Papua as a reference point. The urgency underlining the global response to the pandemic has seen practical solutions emerging throughout the world from the most unexpected quarters. The cultural values of the Dani, Asmat and Yali potentially represent such actionable options. And while Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity) has characterized the Indonesian Republic for 75 years, Papua (and West Papua for that matter) presents Indonesia with a new prospect – in fact a new beginning – namely, “Opportunity in Diversity” (Peluang Dalam Keberagaman.) The question is not then, “How can Indonesia build Papua anew”, rather, “How can Papuan culture build Indonesia anew?”  

*** The writer is senior Australian museum professional and special consultant to the landmark Jogja Gallery in Yogyakarta, who in 2006 was recognized with an Order of Australia for service to the community through the arts and for his contribution to the Australia-Indonesia relationship.

This article was published in thejakartapost.com with the title “Papua: Opportunity in diversity”. Click to read: https://www.thejakartapost.com/paper/2020/10/07/papua-opportunity-in-diversity.html.