Mama Yosepha Alomang - Told by Vera Loy

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[Picture above was taken by Vera Loy in Vanuatu, 2016

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[Picture above was taken by Vera Loy in Vanuatu, 2016.]

I first met Mama Yosepha Alomang in 2005 when she came to Adelaide as a guest speaker, invited by our branch of the Australia West Papua Association, to talk about her experiences in West Papua.

For those of you unfamiliar with this part of the world, West Papua is the western half of the island of New Guinea—it was part of the Dutch East Indies for many years. The Republic of Indonesia replaced most of the Dutch East Indies after the Second World War, but West Papua was retained by the Dutch as they argued it was a separate country; until it was invaded by Indonesia in 1961 and eventually ceded. The Melanesian people of West Papua have been struggling for independence from Javanese dominated Indonesia ever since.

West Papua is one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet. It is estimated there are over 700 species of birds, including the spectacular birds of paradise. There are no monkeys or large carnivores. Instead, they have animals more in keeping with those found in Australia, including tree-kangaroos and a distinctive Long-nosed echidna. In fact, it is to the east of the Wallace line. The geography ranges from (rapidly disappearing) glaciers on Puncak Jaya, and alpine grasslands, to lush tropical rainforest.

However, West Papua is also home to the world's largest gold mine, the Grasberg mine, mostly owned by Freeport-McMoran, Inc, based in the US and frequently referred to as Freeport.

For over 30,000 years West Papua's indigenous peoples, including Mama Yosepha's tribe, Amungme, lived a sustainable existence, subsisting on pigs, sweet potatoes and other crops harvested from the jungle. However, three decades of mining practices (permitted by the Indonesian government in return for vast payouts) have destroyed rainforests, polluted rivers, and displaced communities. Freeport dumps at least 200,000 tons of tailings into local rivers every day, spreading deadly pollutants over vast areas. Meanwhile, Indonesian soldiers repeatedly, often brutally, suppress peaceful protests against the mine.

Mama Yosepha was born in West Papua (Irian Jaya) during the 1940s. She was orphaned as a baby and brought up by her stepfather. She had minimal formal education, at least in part due to constant relocations of the villagers by government troops, but became a skilled midwife. She became an active advocate for the rights of local people, especially women, in regard to forced acquisition of land and dangerous pollution by Freeport. In conjunction with the Catholic church and other women, she established a cooperative to sell fruit and vegetables to Freeport, rather than have them import everything from overseas.

In 1999 she was awarded the Yap Thiam Hien Award, for her contribution to human rights, and used the money to establish Yahamak, a non-violent foundation to help local people.

In 2001 she was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for her environmental efforts. At the same time, Freeport offered her a settlement of $248,000US. Freeport funded the construction of the Yosepha Alomang Complex—consisting of a clinic, meeting hall, orphanage, human rights violations monument—and used by Yahamak for its programmes.

Two of the stories Mama Yosepha told that night in 2005, remain with me to this day.

In 1994, she was detained and tortured by the Indonesian army for six weeks, accused of giving food to an independence fighter. For part of this time, she was locked in a toilet disposal container without food or water, knee deep in faeces. She survived.

On a positive note this, and other abuses around that time, gained international publicity and caused the Indonesian government to investigate Freeport's practices.

I think the second story is a wonderful example of non-violent protest. As I mentioned before, Mama Yosepha and other local women attempted to sell their produce to Freeport. Freeport refused and continued to fly in food from overseas, so one day, the women covered the landing strip at the airport with fruit and vegetables and lit bonfires, to keep the planes from landing. The protest lasted 3 days. Later the women were able to build brick homes and install electricity with the money from the coop.

Mama Yosepha is a strong supporter of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, the official organisation currently applying for membership to the Melanesian Spearhead Group. Their goal is to present their case for Independence to the United Nations.

I met Mama Yosepha again last year in Vanuatu, at a meeting of the ULMWP to gain Vanuatu's support for membership to MSG. Last I heard, Mama Yosepha was still in Vanuatu, concerned about being arrested again if she returned to West Papua. A not unreasonable concern given that there are presently men in jail serving 15 years, simply for raising the West Papuan flag. She considers she can help her people more through working with the ULMWP.

For a tiny woman with no formal qualifications, Mama Yosepha has made a huge impact.

She was warned, she was arrested, tortured, and yet she persisted.

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