Islanders in Indonesia Fear Plunder of "Magic" Trees

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Like many subsistence cultures around the world, the Asmat need to reconcile the demands of ancient values with the new markets.

"When outsiders first came into these villages a few years ago offering money for gharu, it was seen as a chance to make easy money. A gold rush mentality followed," said Nev Kemp of the Washington, D.C.-based Indo-Pacific Conservation Alliance, which helps support LMAA's conservation efforts. "A lot of the traditional customs that protect these people and this forest started breaking down."

Among the rowers on the Asewetsj River is Ernest Dicim, another LMAA leader. "The gharu tree is a tree for life, a tree where many spirits reside," Dicim said. "It can be used to communicate with the spirit world."

A curse falls upon those who abuse the gharu, the Asmat believe. "Many people, mothers, fathers, and children, have died," Dicim said.

Hunting for Gharu

As the Asmat in the canoes continue up river, small white birds with black masks swoop down in corkscrew dives, slamming into the plate glass river, hunting fish. Thick bouquets of white flowering trees occasionally burst through the unbroken green canopy along the riverbank, like fistfuls of bridal flowers held to the sky.

A scout spots a promising gharu site. The men pull over to the riverbank. There they build a small wooden altar where they place tobacco, stones, and leaves—an offering to the ancestors.

"We must not let the ancestors of this land allow evil things happen to us. So we make an offering and decorate it according to tradition," explained one of the villagers.

Barefoot, the men walk single-file into the forest, clearing a path with their machetes.

Ahead is a gharu tree. Not until the men chop down the tree will they know if it contains the treasured resin. They wind a sash of leaves around the tree for luck and begin chopping with axes.

As the tree falls, the Asmat chant; the sun pours through the tear in the canopy.

As the men jimmy the bark off the tree, a thin, hard black vein suddenly appears in the milk-white wood.

"Ini gharu hitam bagus," Dicim said—good black gharu.

Dicim hopes to start organizing the gharu trade. "We have made little and lost much." Gharu traders from elsewhere in Indonesia have brought money—and alcohol and prostitution.

The Curse of Gharu

"As a result, many men contracted syphilis," Dicim said. "And there was also no awareness about HIV. There was sexual activity without knowledge of consequences. Many people died, became thin and just died."

Life in the village has also suffered as people abandon shared responsibilities—like maintaining community houses—going into the forest seeking gharu instead.

Asnar Arsat, an outside trader from the island of Sulawesi, hires Asmat to collect gharu for him. "But the gharu trees are disappearing," Arsat explained. "Gharu is getting rare. You have to go a long way to find it now."

Traders are aware of the curse of gharu. "It is generally believed that the profits you make from gharu, if you put that in another business, the business will fail," Arsat said.

Arsat pulls out six rough burlap sacks of gharu, pouring the contents on the floor. The piles will fetch thousands of dollars abroad. Local villagers—with no access to education, motorboats, or outside contacts—have little bargaining power in the trade. They see a tiny fraction of the profit, absorbing all the social and environmental costs.

The LMAA leaders fear that international loggers and miners will follow the gharu traders. The fate of the Asmat depends on more than the tree of good and evil. LMAA is working to strike a balance between traditional reverence for the forest and modern incentives to tear it down.

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