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Islanders' welfare sidelined amid Papua land issue

Jakarta Globe - December 19, 2010

Nurfika Osman, Jayapura – While Papua has long had a reputation among many Indonesians for being inhospitable to outsiders, a small island there is proving naysayers wrong.

Kosong, or Empty, Island is just a 10-minute boat ride from Jayapura, the provincial capital, and has since 1968 been home to a small fishing community from Southeast Sulawesi.

Muhammad Angga, originally from Buton Island in South Sulawesi, says Kosong Island used to belong to the Papuan clans of Jouwe, Sibi, Hai and Soro.

"Our ancestors made a deal with them years ago [to buy the island]," he says. "There have been times when the government has wanted to move us to other areas, most recently two years ago, but this is our ancestral land now."

He adds this claim to the land has been strengthened by intermarriages between the fishing community and members of the Serui tribe, one of the many indigenous Papuan groups living on the island.

However, the community's claim to the land is not officially recognized by the government, hence the welfare of the island dwellers has largely been overlooked by public officials.

"We don't have any schools here for our children," Angga says. "All the schools are on the mainland."

The children have to take the boat ride to the mainland every school day. "Once they reach the shore, the students then have to take public transportation to get to their schools."

He adds each student must pay Rp 2,000 for a single crossing, while adults must pay Rp 5,000. Angga says it would save the students and their parents a lot of money if the government provided them with a boat.

"We want our children to keep going to school to continue their education because we want them to have a better future than us."

Laode Arifin, head of a community learning center, agrees that the government should provide special transportation to take the children to school. "We're going to propose to the government that they provide one or two boats to take the students to the mainland for free," he says.

Angga says another hardship for the islanders is obtaining diesel for their fishing boats.

"Fuel for boats is very expensive in Papua," he says. "Each fisherman needs Rp 200,000 [$22] worth of fuel each day to go out fishing."

The National Commission for Human Rights (Komnas HAM) said the government needs to address the problem of reclaiming ancestral land.

"It's a tough job because there needs to be intense dialogue with the people if the government wants to take over their land," says Nurkholis, deputy chairman of the organization.

He adds the private sector and the government tend to ignore ancestral claims to such land, "which is not correct." He points out that land disputes account for 30 percent of human rights violations in the country, just behind police and military brutality at 35 percent.

Back on Kosong Island, Angga says that while the community does not possess any title deed to their land, "Papua has long been part of us". "We hope the government can understand what this land means to the Buton people and to the Papuans," he says.