The Politics of Protected Areas

Disclaimer: what I thought would be a positive and empowering story about the movement towards effective, people-focused conservation has revealed itself to be a story of resource wars, neo-colonialism, and suspected genocide. Read on for some disconcertingly beautiful photos amid a backdrop of political repression and a couple of glints of hope for the future.

Conservation in West Papua

Last month the government of Indonesia approved legislation declaring the state of West Papua as a conservation province or Provinsi Konservasi. The initiative was led by Papuans with the support of their regional government and bolstered by campaigns from groups such as Conservation International and Sea Legacy that generated global support for the movement. From such conservation groups’ online media the story is beautifully told as a people fighting to protect their land and their right to traditional life. West Papua is a predominantly traditional society made up of 51% native Papuans. The regional government of West Papua is portrayed as a key stakeholder and influencer over the national Indonesian government. Photos of the region’s pristine forests and coral reefs adorn the websites and almost leave the reader without a clear idea of what exactly is the threat to existence in West Papua. The success of these groups in promoting the Provinsi Konservasi cause and garnering support internationally to put pressure on the Indonesian government is clear. They managed to be present in the movement without being at the forefront or assuming any kind of managerial role. Such groups abstained from entering the politics of the region and this was crucial to the success of the movement.

Natural Resources and Conservation in West Papua

Dig a little deeper and the reason that West Papua requires this level of protection becomes clear. Further inland beyond the boundary of the Provinsi Konservasi sits the world’s largest gold mine and second largest copper mine, Grasberg; this represents the greatest threat to the region’s biodiversity (Brockington et al., 2006). West Papua is rich in natural resources, though this is not reflected in the wealth of the region which retains one of the highest poverty rates of all Indonesia (Jong, 2017). The mine is mostly owned by Freeport-McMoRan, a company accused of funding the repression of the West Papuan people by the Indonesian military. Public resentment of this company is clear from the various attacks on Freeport employees by radical West Papuan independence groups (ASEAN Post, 2018). Freeport and cultural repression arrived hand in hand to West Papua, resulting in the complex power disparities visible today between native Papuans, Indonesia and the American Freeport.

Occupation, Neo-colonialism, and Independence in West Papua

West Papua has been under the control of the Indonesian government since the end of Dutch colonial rule when Indonesian forces took the western half of Netherlands New Guinea by force. Papuan support for Indonesian government was proclaimed after the Act of Free Choice in 1969, in which 1,025 people voted unanimously in favour while the other 798,975 Papuan natives were excluded from the process (New Internationalist, 1999). Regardless of the voting ‘turnout’, the result of this referendum is heavily contested due to the Indonesian government having signed a 30-year contract with Freeport-McMoRan giving them mining rights prior to the referendum taking place (Pataud Célérier, 2010). In the 50 years that Indonesia has ruled an estimated 400,000 Papuan natives have been killed, with some human rights groups going as far as describing a genocide against Papuans (Human Rights Watch, 2018;, 2016). Sources for such human rights abuses are scarce on account of the banning of foreign journalists from the region (, 2016). Since 2002 Papua has been granted ‘special’ autonomy, but this has done little to quell the distrust from both sides, with one civil servant in-training in the regional government summarising it as “To separatist Papuans, I am a traitor. To most of our Javanese teachers, I am a monkey they are trying to lure down from the trees.” (Pataud Célérier, 2010).

Navigating Complexity in West Papua

It should be clear that there are an overwhelming number of reasons that outside involvement in West Papua for conservation would be thoroughly complex. Even basic awareness of the multitude of potentially contentious political alliances is enough to ward off conservation groups from striding into the fray. I doubt that there’s a single region of the world where conservation groups could waltz in with their idea of “community-based” conservation and succeed in integrating all the relevant stakeholders in the process. No situation will ever be that simple, and yet in scientific literature community-based conservation is heralded as some sort of fix-all that hasn’t quite realised its own potential due to financial restrictions on its implementation (Berkes, 2007).

In the case of West Papua specifically, the potential involvement of foreign conservation groups is shrouded in political complications that could have far-reaching consequences for Papuan self-determination. While Indonesia continues to govern in West Papua, foreign conservation groups that support Papuan independence cannot hope to gain access let alone succeed. However, the success of community-based conservation ought to depend on the ‘success’ of the local community (Hill, 2018). Its definition requires that the approach taken be “by, for and with the local community” (Berkes, 2004), which raises the question of the extent to which community-based conservation can really be applied if a political aspiration of the majority of Papuan people is being ignored. The local Papuan community needs to be central to their conservation plan, and given this position can their demand for self-determination really be separated from conservation? Certainly not by foreign conservation groups, as to neglect Papuans’ right to self-determination would be to remove their central position in the conservation approach, reducing it to yet another form of neo-colonialism to be endured.

Besides the fact that foreign journalists and the Red Cross are both banned from Papua making it unlikely that conservation groups would be allowed in, it would be thoroughly complicated if they were to get more involved. The neutral position maintained by conservation groups throughout the campaign no doubt improved the chance of the Indonesian government approving the legislation. Given the national government’s position on all things Papuan I remain sceptical that this legislation will be enforced for the good of local people. That being said, the declaration of a Provinsi Konservasi is bold and made headlines worldwide, in part due to conservation groups’ work. The publicity this announcement received should go some way to holding the Indonesian government accountable for enforcing the legislation. Protection of West Papua will stabilise the local communities’ lives and livelihoods, a marker of success for community-based conservation.

To defensibly work for conservation by/for/with the local community, conservation groups ought to support Papuans’ right to self-determination. Practically speaking though, the alignment of political aspirations with conservation goals is a risky one due to the Indonesian government’s total rejection of the former. For now, only time will tell whether an integrated path to self-determination and conservation is possible for West Papua.

Additional Reading

How Conservation became Colonialism

Everyone Profits from West Papua, expect Papuans

West Papua, A History of Exploitation


ASEAN Post. 2018. Papua massacre shines light on forgotten conflict. [accessed 2019 Apr 20].

Berkes F. 2004. Rethinking Community-Based Conservation. Conservation Biology 18:621-630.

Berkes F. 2007. Community-based conservation in a globalized world. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104:15188-15193.

Brockington, D., Igoe, J. and K. Schmidt-Soltau, K. 2006. Conservation, Human Rights, and Poverty Reduction. Conservation Biology 20 (1): 250-2.

Hill D. 2018. Rights not ‘fortress conservation’ key to save planet, says UN expert. The Guardian.


Human rights in West Papua | Recognising the inalienable right of self-determination for the people of West Papua. 2016. [accessed 2019 Apr 20].

Jong H. 2017. Grasberg mine’s riches still a distant glitter for Papuan communities. Monga Bay. [accessed 2019 Apr 14].

New Internationalist. 1999. Breaking Free From Betrayal. [accessed 2019 Apr 20].

Pataud Célérier P. 2010. Autonomy isn’t independence: Indonesian Democracy Stops in Papua. Le Monde Diplomatique. [accessed 2019 Apr 20].

World Report 2018: Rights Trends in Indonesia. 2018. Human Rights Watch. [accessed 2019 Apr 20].

5 thoughts on “The Politics of Protected Areas

  1. Thank you for your blog and the additional readings! It’s terrible that the fight for nature and people cannot go hand in hand, but at least in one of the two there seems to be progress. In the second-last paragraph you said that you “remain sceptical that this legislation will be enforced for the good of local people.” I wondered what you meant by this. Do you think that they could be negatively impacted after all? Or that the Indonesian government would only implement it to make money off of the conservation?


  2. Thanks for the comment Marron. Without speculating too much I wanted to say that it’s likely that the Indonesian government has spotted a way of making money from tourism and is protecting the region for that reason. That might result in something positive for local people but could also endanger their traditional way of life. I think it’s unlikely that their motivation completely shifted from economic development to protection of people and nature so while their reason for protecting nature remains economic I think it’s important to remain sceptical about the long term value of that initiative for the local people.


  3. This is unsettling to say the least and leaves me with many thoughts… It makes me realize once more how complex the problem is and how challenging to argue that one action is the ultimate good. Thank you for the essay and also the additional sources.


  4. Hey EMMMMMC, very interesting blog! I wonder if you think it would help/be good if the Dutch government especially would take a strong position? Maybe the conservation organizations that ‘try’ to navigate the extremely complex political situation in West Papua need some institutionalized backing. You explain the Dutch colonial history of the Netherlands in West Papua. Wouldn’t be right for the Dutch government, of all parties, to start discussing and addressing the injustices you describe, injustices for which we, as the historic previous colonialist in the region, have undeniable responsibility? The Dutch government have tried to protect human rights in countries like Afghanistan and Mali, but we cannot begin to try to ensure the freedom and rights a people that we promised freedom and independence to begin with? Maybe it is not a discussion anymore about what would be right. Still, I find the continued ignorance of the Dutch public around point and the human rights abuses in Papua almost endlessly frustrating (but that ignorance is also in me, I was personally shocked to learn about the number of 500.000 peoples estimated to have died there). I’d also recommend to take a look at the work of Papuan-Dutch activists living in the Netherlands, like Raki Ap, who also takes an important environmental justice/climate racism perspective on the issue, and Nancy Jouwe, who teaches at AUC.


  5. Hey emmmmmc, thanks for your blog post, thanks for shedding light on this issue that I was, embarrassingly enough, unaware of up until now. It is interesting how you link environmental problems to issues of human rights, as that is increasingly the case for numerous other environmental problems such as climate change. I do think it is important to look at issues in a more integrative way and recognize how they overlap and intersect with other pressing issues. You are talking mainly about conservation groups, but I was wondering if you know whether there are any groups or NGOs active that try to take a more integrative approach like you talk about, in that they actively try to tackle the issues by addressing them simultanously and by recognizing their interconnectedness?


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