Tribe Goes High-Tech to Fight for Rain Forest Home

February 6, 2004

Hidden World of the Asmat airs on National Geographic On Assignment in the U.S. Monday, February 9, at 7 p.m. ET/ 8 p.m. PT on the National Geographic Channel.

View a Photo Gallery of the Asmat. Go >>

In the rain forest of the mountainous Papua region of New Guinea, six Asmat tribesmen, some in face paint and cockatoo feathers, paddle a narrow canoe swiftly up the Sor River.

The scene is primordial—but at each tributary stream the men pause so that Ernest Dicim, sitting in the middle of the canoe, can mark the coordinates with a global positioning system (GPS) unit. Dicim is a leader of Lembaga Musyawarah Adat Asmat (LMAA), the Asmat Traditional Council.

The streams mark age-old but never-mapped boundaries among Asmat families. "Our whole life revolves around our resources," Dicim said. "Through mapping our lands we hope to raise awareness that if these resources finish, our future is uncertain, and our traditions die."

Although the Asmat have lived in this region for thousands of years, they have no official title to their land. The Indonesian government owns everything. But in November 2001 the government granted Papua "special autonomy" status along with a promise to give some control to the indigenous peoples there—if they can prove traditional claims to the land.

More than 70,000 Asmat live among the forests of west central Papua in 120 villages throughout the 7,800-square-mile (20,200-square-kilometer) region. The Asmat subsist by fishing and by harvesting wild sago trees, whose pith is carbohydrate-rich.

"Land and the natural environment are like our own mother that nurtures her children so they are healthy and survive," said Wiro Birif, another LMAA leader. "Nature is also the place where our ancestors live. They are around us here in the forest."

Bountiful Lands

The Asmat aren't the only people who value their land. Papua harbors the largest intact rain forests in Southeast Asia. Logging concessions now cover nearly a third of the region. Oil is another potential resource, and ConocoPhillips, the U.S. oil company, has applied for exploration permits.

"A lot of people will want to come into this area and use these natural resources," Dicim said. "We hope our maps will show that we have claims to this land, and we use it for our everyday livelihoods."

The Indo-Pacific Conservation Alliance (IPCA) in Washington, D.C. helps the Asmat chart their future. IPCA provides the funding, training—and GPS units—to LMAA.

"Their culture and their environment are two sides of one coin. If one is destroyed, the other is jeopardized," said John Burke Burnett, IPCA founder and director.

Continued on Next Page >>


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