Tribe Goes High-Tech to Fight for Rain Forest Home

Jennifer Hile
National Geographic On Assignment
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.

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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.

"The Asmat have lived in harmony with their environment for thousands of years, and have developed appropriate ways of using their natural resources. They are the best stewards of their land."

The mapping project is also meant to raise awareness among the Asmat about where their land begins and ends, allowing them to see their home in a larger context.

"There was a general perception here that our land and resources were vast and almost limitless," Birif said. "An important use of mapping is to raise awareness that our resources are limited, so we need to use them carefully."

Mapping Their Turf

In the canoe, the men paddle to a branch of the Sor River that the Asmat consider sacred. They believe that a great flood filled it with the spirits of their ancestors—and that to fish here or to take down the trees would bring disaster to nearby villages. The river's glassy surface mirrors the surrounding forest in perfect detail.

"Even now our ancestors are still here, and this land, this river, and everything around it is a historic place, a sacred place," Dicim said. He marks the coordinates, and the men row on to the nearby village of Manep.

The heart of every Asmat village is the communal jeu, a one-story house sometimes 100 feet (30 meters) long, made of sago thatch, pole trees, and tree bark. All major decisions are made here. Fireplaces line the walls of the jeu, each one representing a family in the village. They call the fireplaces the lungs of the community.

On arrival at the jeu, the men gather around the central fireplace and lay out their maps. About 80 local villagers file in. In the local Asmat dialect, Dicim announces the borders of each family's land. The villagers shout approval in unison. In this community, consensus is crucial.

The IPCA will enlist a professional cartographer to transfer the GPS coordinates onto digital maps.

The Asmat believe the key to their survival is getting a voice in how their traditional lands are used. The maps help the Asmat stake their claim to their land—and to their lives.

"After the mapping has been finished, the local, regional, national, and even international governments must recognize Asmat traditional lands and must recognize the maps we are making," Dicim said. "This is our struggle."

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