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Twenty Asmat men heave their canoes off the muddy bank of western New Guinea's Asewetsj River to begin a search for gharu trees, said to hold powerful magic that protects their cultureor a curse that could unravel it.
Some of the men wear white-feathered headdresses lined with shells; some have painted their faces and chests with white lime. Occasionally they stop rowing and beat their paddles against the canoes, playing them like drums. The sound echoes down the thick S-curve of a river lacquered blue by a cloudless sky.
The Asmat believe that an ancient god, Fumiripitj, carved their ancestors from the surrounding trees. Drum sounds bring the spirits to life.
So does incense from gharu trees. The trees produce a hard, black resin that the Asmat burn to connect with their ancestors and to cast spells. Today outsiders, too, seek gharu as the source of expensive incense sold in the markets of Asia and the Middle East.
The rowers penetrate one of the world's largest, most biologically diverse intact rain forests. It is the landscape of a beautiful nightmare. Sky-piercing mountains, the tallest in Southeast Asia, are surrounded by moats of malarial swamps, a terrain that's isolated the Asmat region for centuries.
But as tropical rain forests in other parts of the world are dismantled, the modern world is finally turning hungry eyes towards the untouched lumber and minerals here.
This year, Indonesia carved the province of Papua from one district into three to speed development. Logging concessions now cover nearly a third of the region. United States oil giant ConocoPhillips just applied for permits to explore for oil.
Gharu Gold Rush
More than 70,000 Asmat live in villages scattered throughout the west central Papua region of New Guinea, harvesting wild sago trees and fishing.
"The land and the natural environment are like our own mother, who nurtures her children so they are healthy and survive," said Wiro Birif, a leader of Lembaga Musyawarah Adat Asmat (LMAA), a community activist group founded "by the Asmat, for the Asmat."
"Nature is also the place where our ancestors live," said Birif. "They are around us here in the forest."
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