New statistics show indigenous Melanesians are not yet the minority they were thought to be in West Papua.
Indonesia's Statistics Office has produced an ethnic breakdown of Papua region, based on the last census in 2010 which established an overall population of 3.6 million.
While the proportion of Papuan people as a percentage of the population continues to decline, this process varies widely between different regencies.
The percentage of Papuans has fallen catastrophically in some regions, particularly in urban centres, but Papuans still make up the vast majority in the Highlands.
Using the new data, Jim Elmslie of Sydney University's West Papua Project has produced a new paper updating his previous work on Papua's demographic transition.
He talks to Johnny Blades.
Jim Elmslie: You've got to handle the figures with some degree of care and you've got to sort of doubt the accuracy to some extent because the large area that's there, the terrain, the fact that large areas of the Highlands, I don't know if you'd call it a revolt, but there are certain areas that are conflicts between certain areas of the island and the state are fairly entrenched. So the figures – what you can get clearly from them is the trend and the change over time and that's clearly continuing because of the large-scale inward migration of non-Papuan settlers drawn into the region mostly for economic opportunity, and most of that economic opportunities are on the plains.
Johnny Blades: You've established that the Melanesians – the Papuans – their growth rate is quite a bit less than the non-Papuans.
JE: That's what the research shows and that's even given that the numbers are a bit rubbery. Because for them to conduct an accurate census would be damn-near impossible and the figures that we have to use, so we use them. But anecdotally as well – from talking to health experts and looking at what's going on on the ground compared to say PNG – then yeah the birth rate clearly is lower. There's a whole range of reasons for that. One is the infant mortality and the maternal mortality rate is very high, there are untreated diseases that cause infertility. But that's fairly clear and it's also clear that large numbers of migrants are coming in, the government is building new ports, there are ships that come in on a weekly basis, there's many flights every day from other parts of Indonesia. There's clearly the demand, and as we're talking, they are clearing tens of thousands of acres of rainforest and putting in labour-intensive things like oil palm plantations, where the workers are being brought in from Java rather than being recruited locally.
JB: Back in 2010 you had estimated that the total population of West Papuans in West Papua, that whole Papua region, was some 48%. And now with these new BPS (Indonesian Statistics Office) figures it's indicating that their percentage is something like 66%. Isn't that in some ways a positive, given that in the last couple of years a lot of the discourse around the West Papuan diplomatic wrangle has been around them having become a minority in their own land?
JE: Well, when you extrapolate these figures forward, and there's two different population growth rates, you come up with these figures of the minoritisation of the Papuan population. And that was a projection, I guess, if all else remained the same. And I think the exact figures may vary but the trend is still there. So in terms of whether that's positive or not... I think it certainly is positive that large areas of the Highlands of West Papua are still populated very strongly by groups of indigenous Melanesian people, even if that's not the case in the lowlands. But in means that the Papuans, certainly in the Highlands, are not on the verge of disappearing under the weight of inward migration. So yes, I think that's a positive thing. Some people seem to feel that the general conflict in West Papua would disappear over time as the Papuan population became a minority. Well that's obviously not going to happen. That is happening in the lowlands, but it's not going to happen anytime soon in the Highlands, even though – I must stress again – that there's a lot of development going on there which will bring in outsiders, bring in more military, which will always be a threat to them (Papuans).
JB: Transmigrasi is no longer an official programme, is that right? But these people are still coming in?
JE: Yeah so there's no official transmigration, but it's the policy, I think, of the Indonesian government because looking at the bigger picture of Indonesia and the Indonesian economy – and people talk about it growing – West Papua makes up something like 23 or 24 percent of the land mass of Indonesia and it's got huge resources: obviously the forestry, when most of the rest of the trees of Indonesia have been cut down, so Papua is really the last place where there's huge stands of rainforest; there's also the mineral wealth which is possibly the richest part of the entire world – the Freeport mine is probably the biggest gold mine in the world, the biggest copper mine, it's also the biggest economic entity in Indonesia and also the biggest taxpayer. So looking into the future, the Indonesians' capacity to exploit the natural resources of West Papua, and with all that brings, that will be one of the factors that allow Indonesia to grow as people are predicting it to grow, and become one of the main economies in southeast Asia, and certainly bigger than Australia. Which is one of the fears, I guess, which is underlying Australian policy, that in some future when the Indonesian economy overtakes the Australian economy in size, and Indonesia becomes a more important country internationally, then that's going to be quite a different situation than has been the case in this part of the world up until now, where the Australian economy and therefore its military resources and the rest of it were superior to the Indonesians. So a lot of that long-term growth will come out of West Papua. And if that continues, it will involve shifting more and more people down to that region.