original reports from some fascinating places few have
..::.. WEST PAPUA
© Darren Jew 2001.
volcanoes, giant bears, nuclear submarines and hunters
of various persuasions, Kamchatka, a far-flung peninsula
in Russia’s Far East, contains some of the country’s
greatest natural wonders and its most lethal environmental
threats, reports Anouk Ride.
sparkles in the orange light of sunrise. Spun in frost
overnight, plants hang stiff over the running riverwater.
Powderlike steam rises where the river’s icy flow meets
hot volcanic water bubbling up from underneath the earth.
up from the river, its surrounding plain fades into
the forest of white and stone birch stretching their
twisted naked branches towards the sky. In the distance
are mountains and volcanoes blanketed in snow. One known
as Avacha smokes listlessly.
splash returns my attention to the Nalychevo River.
Hovering in the lukewarm current at the banks is a silver
salmon, taking a rest from its jumpy journey inland.
Half an arm’s length, its dark gray body is flecked
with red: a sign that its days are numbered. But it
exudes vitality – this flushed fish is at the beginning
and end of life in a world of white.
colour signifies life and purification. White is a lifeforce,”
says Zhanna Dolgan, an indigenous woman, of this colour,
that up until now I assumed I knew.
a Far Eastern region of the Russian Federation, is one
day an autumnal orange and the next covered in ice.
But this deflects attention from another natural drama:
what is happening underneath.
volcanologists say the time has come for the earth to
regenerate. Since the year 1737 when the first eruption
was recorded, on average once in 50 years we have a
catastrophic eruption of seven or more degrees on the
Richter scale,” says Margaret, a walking guide to the
regional capital, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. “The director
of the Volcanology Institute says that in the next two
years there is a possibility of a strong earthquake
and our emergency agencies should prepare.”
they prepared? “There are plans for what to do when
the eruption happens,” she says confidently, “but the
public do not know what the plans are.”
around 300 volcanic peaks and at least 30 active volcanoes,
Kamchatka is a fish-shaped peninsula that was once connected
to Alaska via the Aleutian land bridge. A territory
the size of Germany, Switzerland and Austria put together
it is bounded by the Pacific Ocean, Bering Sea and Sea
part of Russia, Kamchatka in reality is like a far-flung
island. There is no railroad or main road from the mainland
and the only way to get there is by plane or ship. Hosting
the closest port to the United States, Kamchatka enjoyed
a special military status during the Cold War. This
meant foreigners and most Russians were banned from
entering the peninsula – leaving a small and declining
population of 347,000 people, including around 15,000
still hosts the Russian Pacific Naval Fleet and is only
just beginning to awaken to its new geopolitical reality.
While official attention was focused on its maritime
resources, Kamchatka’s forests, volcanoes and mountains
remained largely unexploited. Only a few avid hikers
and mountaineers set out beyond Koryakski and Avacha
volcanoes on the outskirts of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky,
armed with ice picks and dried pig fat. “Because it’s
purely the fat of the pig, doctors warn: Do not eat
this! It is unhealthy! But if a doctor goes out into
the forest you can guarantee he himself will have it
in his pocket!” jokes one climber and ranger Irina Kruglykova
who took her son to climb his first volcano, Avacha,
at the tender age of 11. The closest cone to the airport,
Avacha erupted 12 years ago. But Irina says locals were
not scared: “They came and watched as though it was
amazing fireworks. It was a truly fantastic sight. Too
beautiful to be scary.”
the early 1990s, rumours started that some state-owned
lands were to become private lands generating fear that
developers would take over such natural treasures. The
club of hikers and mountaineers set out into the city
and collected 1,300 signatures that were presented to
the then-Governor Birikov asking him to protect the
Nalychevo river’s watershed. Nalychevo Nature Park was
established, an alpine range and 1,000 indigenous people
were encased in Bystrinsky State Reserve and an area
of coast became South Kamchatka Nature Park in 1995.
Four years later Blue Lakes Park, Karymsky Volcano and
the spectacular Klyuchevskoy Group of Volcanoes were
established as protected areas as part of a WWF Gift
to the Earth by Governor Birikov. Around 28 per cent
of Kamchatka’s land is legally protected and the rest
so far is almost untouched by mining and logging.
many are hoping the parks can be used to generate tourism.
Irina, whose favourite park is Klyuchevskoy, would like
“the whole of Kamchatka to be a park” using tourism
to make this economic. When asked what would happen
if too many people came, she points to the low number
of tourists currently coming to a region as spectacular
as Kamchatka – 2,000-3,000 a year compared with 2.5
million in Alaska – and says: “Too many? I dream
dream becomes closer each summer when increasing numbers
of Europeans make their way over on the 9-hour flight
from Moscow to see the volcanoes, bathe in hot springs,
taste wild salmon and see wildlife.
rangers who have seen Kamchatkan brown bears many times
are daunted by their presence. At dusk I watch a male
brown bear wander along the edge of a cluster of dark-green
dwarf pines grazing for berries on the opposite side
of Nalychevo river. It is so large I can hear it move
even though it’s a small black dot in the distance where
the tundra meets the forest. Weighing around 500 kilos,
these bears can shed 150 kilos over the winter. So they
spend the summer and autumn eating as much as 40 kilos
of berries and salmon a day. The river’s edge is littered
with signs of their passing – salmon tails and heads
with the brains sucked out. This abundance of food apparently
means the bears rarely pick fights. “Kamchatkan bears
aren’t angry. They are the least aggressive bears in
the world, its true,” comments Irina, “because it’s
not difficult to catch or find food, our bear always
has enough to eat.”
the next morning, led by a young guide, Egor Afanas’yev,
we approach three bears in a circle so they do not detect
our scent with their keen noses. “Like cows,” comments
Egor of the mother and two cubs and indeed they do graze
at the same pace over the berries with their heads down
and mouths in constant motion. They are huge but a pale
camel-brown with lighter tips giving their fur a whitish
glow in the sun. As we draw closer, one marks its territory
by standing on its back legs to scratch a tree. It must
have caught our scent because it turns to see us. And
then all three are standing on their hind legs looking
at us and sniffing. Eyes shining and noses wet. There
is electricity in our met gaze and a shared adrenalin
rush at the sight of the unexpected. But they linger
only a minute or two before turning and running behind
scrub and out of sight.
people have relied on bear meat and skins to survive
the winter for over 21,000 years and continue to depend
on them. “Every time I meet with my father back in my
village we hunt bears. We use a rifle now but the method
of hunting and traditions are the same. When we kill
someone – the bear is not something but someone to us
– we have special rituals that I have to do every time.
Put something into the fire, ask the spirit of bear
to forgive us and not to be unhappy with us,” says Zhanna.
“At one time we had a friend among the bears – we had
a house near the river and this bear used to be quite
curious. We called him Spyer and left him stewed milk.
We didn’t kill him because he was like one of us.”
she describes traditional hunting by Koryak people in
the north, we sit in an office in the urban capital.
The difference between the story and the setting in
which it is told illustrates the dual life of Kamchatka’s
indigenous people. She says this is made particularly
difficult by the negative attitudes of Russians to indigenous
people and the “politics of paternalism” of the federal
government. Except for Koryak people, most indigenous
peoples have lost their language and are struggling
to hold onto remnants of traditional culture. “Usually
the tradition of bear tracking and hunting is passed
from father to son,” explains Zhanna. “I have a brother
but our mother is Russian and in his passport and official
documents he wrote: ‘I’m Russian’. I’m not sure he’ll
ever hunt. And my father he hopes I’ll continue the
tradition although I’m a woman. Right now I don’t know.
But there is a proverb that eventually each salmon returns
to their stream.”
indigenous people have decided to rely on the wilderness
as Russia’s economic woes forced each individual to
fend for them self. Viktor Nikiforov from WWF-Russia
explains: “Under the old policy of the Communist Party
eight years ago, there are maybe 100 places where indigenous
people were living. But the state decided to close services
to all 100 villages except two. Now life is very poor
in those villages: there are not enough jobs, not enough
funds for services.”
indigenous communities are making trade links beyond
the villages. Communities in Bystrinsky Nature Park
are working on marketing non-timber forest products
such as mushrooms, berries, natural medicines and herbal
teas with the help of IUCN – the World Conservation
Union and the Canada International Development Agency.
Other indigenous groups sell handicrafts to tourists.
“Those that have lived almost all their lives in the
village move with their kids far away from civilization
to where their grandparents were. It’s quite incredible,
without any support they start their lives in another
place,” says Nikiforov.
not all that are seeking out the wilderness in order
to make a living have such a benign impact. In the centre
of Nalychevo is a reminder of the consequences of just
one intruder in this volatile ecosystem.
sulphurous water bubbles up the man-made clay walls
of a pool. A small raised gutter stops the water from
spreading and killing forest around it; instead it leads
excess water towards the river. The aqua pool steams
more vigourously when the volcanoes smoke. “It’s the
same system. Its all happening together,” comments Irina.
“This pool was created 43 years ago when a geologist
began digging. He hit water here but the springs nearby
mysteriously dried out. The high mineral content of
water here is dangerous for plants and animals.”
that the local administration is searching for sources
of income, geologists may be back to explore Kamchatka.
In Koryak Autonomous Region platinum is mined and gold
deposits are believed to be large in many parts of Kamchatka.
The same areas are home to spawning rivers for salmon,
which are already threatened by illegal overfishing.
lunar-like landscape made by a lone geologist prompts
a conversation about Russia’s space program – one of
the many reminders of the nation’s former might. We
realize that many of the Russian words and names known
by English-speakers – such as sputnik – are connected
to the days when the world watched Soviet exploits in
outer space. There are some important exceptions – we
realize that what Irina has been referring to as a “helicopter
to the moon” is a spaceship.
the moon is a vast space with no human inhabitants,
then the helicopter that arrives that day takes us to
a lunar landscape. A wry, black leather-clad man known
as Sergey starts the engine to his helicopter, which
is bare except for a manual in a plastic pocket and
a tube of salve on the floor (presumably these two cover
all situations). As the propeller increases speed, autumn
leaves begin to crowd the air around us like crazed
golden insects buzzing round the helicopter as it hovers,
turns and then dips its nose and ascends. We fly over
wooden dachas with small market gardens, over fields
of rolled, stacked hay, over cows that scatter at the
sight of us overhead and then over a rich rusty brown
forest, plains dotted with reindeer and then…mountains.
Through the cracked, splattered glass they are so close,
streaked in snow and sometimes completely white. Past
the white mountains and volcanoes is one lone peak of
dark gray ash and stone – Karymsky volcano. Flecked
with snow on its flanks it stands at 1,486 metres above
sea level. We circle the crater at the top which releases
smoke through pores in its sides and rim. It’s a strange
sight – gray but far from bland – alive.
to it is a crater lake filled with greeny-aqua water
that hosted fish up until both the lake and Karymsky
volcano last erupted in 1996. Even in a region where
eruptions are common, its scientific description by
the Institute of Volcanology of the Russian Academy
of Sciences is dramatic: “The underwater eruption in
the Karymsky lake began on January 2, 1996 between 14:00
and 15:40. A gas-ash trail rose up to 3 km and spread
to the southeast, in the direction of the Pacific Ocean.
Ash fall from the trail covered hundreds of square kilometers.
Simultaneously, in the northern part of the Academia
Nauk caldera, steam and gas loaded with a dark material
rose in columns above the lake with a frequency averaging
once every 5-6 minutes. In the process of the volcanic
expulsions a cupola-like cloud with a diameter of 200-300m
formed. Over the course of several seconds the cloud
changed its form. A basic wave in the form of a Taurus-shaped
cloud spread to all sides from the eruptive center.
Its top edge was approximately 100m high. At the same
time, a white gas-steam plume extended upward 7-8 km
from the eruptive center. Each series of underwater
explosions was accompanied by the formation of waves
on the surface of the lake, some of which reached several
meters in height. The energy of one explosion, as calculated
by S.A. Fedotov according to the maximum height of the
gas-ash clouds, reached 1014 J. On January 3, explosive
activity in the lake stopped. According to our calculations,
the activity lasted a total of 12-14 hours. The enormous
waves, along with the sharp change in chemical composition
and water temperature, lead to the death of practically
all life in the lake. The lake became one of the largest
reservoirs of acid water in the world. The entire surface
of the lake steamed…”
while the Karymsky volcano smokes, the lake looks like
its silent sibling, barely a ripple on its surface.
We try to land at the top of the crater’s rim but as
we do so the snow surrounds us like a stirred up cloud,
the helicopter rocks and Sergey decides against it.
So we go on further. Rivers that glint in the sun and
seem to slither like snakes shedding their skins as
we approach break through the forest. Steller's eagles
fly over these scouting for food. Then the rivers become
wetlands – spots of dark water against the yellowish
grass look like the fur of a blue-spotted leopard. Its
extraordinary to see the landscape’s patterns – sea,
black sand beaches, wetlands of blue pockets amidst
yellow grass, rivers, mountains of white birch and then
Zhupanovsky – a white, perfectly formed snowy volcano.
On the other side of Zhupanovsky the scene changes again
to bare mounts of ash, dark brown volcanic-enriched
soil and a few patches of scrubby plants. You could
suppose that mining or logging had stripped the area
but it is naturally barren – a landscape only recently
spewed out of the centre of the earth. This is a slice
of nature kept but not tamed.
Kamchatka’s fortunes to the military seemed like a necessary
marriage of convenience to protect the closest settled
part of Russia from the US during the Cold War. But
the region’s white mounts are no longer prized as being
kept clean from foreign intrusion and it has lost its
strategic importance to the national government. While
the military’s presence has forestalled exploitation
of Kamchatka’s nature, the flailing army and navy now
pose a potentially irreversible environmental threat.
just important as a military base, the region has also
been a testing ground for Inter-Continental Ballistic
Missiles. Kamchatka continued in 2001 to provide a target
for missile launches, with the launch of a ballistic
missile from a submarine in the Barents Sea to the Kura
test range in Kamchatka in February just one of the
incidents. In September the press center of the Pacific
fleet confirmed they had “lost” a Granit missile during
its exercises that month in Avachinsky bay, stating
it was luckily equipped with a practice warhead. On
land contamination from heavy metals, radiation and
military equipment is often not maintained, let alone
there being effort to clean up that which has been abandoned.
For instance in 1997 a decommissioned nuclear submarine
sank in the bay after corrosion allowed water to leak
into the hull. The Rybachy submarine base lies just
outside the urban capital of 250,000 people and may
in an unused state the chance of submarine accidents
than 20 submarines are out of activity and parts of
these submarines still contain radioactive substances,”
says Alexander Ivanov, a deputy of the Committee of
Ecology and Natural Resource Use. “The nuclear submarine
is a potential source of environmental catastrophe.
Its radioactivity has no reason, no colour and only
death. Large funding is needed to decommission such
submarines but do we have it? No. And the number of
submarines sitting there is growing. There is a possibility
of drowning of these submarines – like with the Kursk.”
most people, including politicians and military staff,
seem unfazed by the presence of submarines and unaware
of the dangers associated with them. In the 1999 energy
shortage reactors of nuclear submarines were used to
supply power at the Rybachy base but a 5,400A current
had to be sent through power lines designed for 1,200A
overheating equipment and presenting a threat of malfunction.
side effect of the region’s economic difficulties is
the increase in stealing metals from military bases.
In 2000 two sailors stole catalysts, for igniting the
reactor of a nuclear submarine, containing palladium:
a metal more valuable than gold. (The nine stolen tubes
were worth $US3,571 each). The two men tried to lift
control rods but failed as an engineer had welded the
lever down on his own initiative. Perhaps he realized
how common theft had become and what dangers this could
unleash. If this had not been the case, the thieves
could have vented radioactivity over the port and its
thousands of inhabitants nearby. The sailors also reportedly
did not realize the equipment was potentially radioactive
and kept the stolen metal under their mattresses.
office of the Vice Speaker of the Public Parliament
of Kamchatka, Vladimir Novikov, is dominated by oil
paintings of submarines. “I worked on these ships,”
he explains with a grin. “I lived for 38 areas in a
secret base where the radioactive vessels are based.
Up till 1992 this base was closed, but today the military
men can describe the situation freely. And I may say
that the area is healthy and the people are healthy.”
The grin widens. “Look at me, do I look to you unhealthy?
Can you say that I look 55 years old?”
B. Mashkovtsev, the white-haired Governor of Kamchatka,
is an old-school member of the Communist party. He is
also unconcerned about the submarine base, saying briskly:
“It has passed our environmental experts.” He seems
weary from being asked questions concerning the region’s
environmental controversies: “There are no ways to use
nature without causing some hurt. It has been this way
since the world was established.”
asked about Karymsky volcano, an area shelved for protection
under the previous Governor but its status remains unconfirmed,
Mashkovtsev is vague. He adds: “I support the existing
nature parks but some boundaries of these areas will
be changed if there are possibilities of mining in this
area.” In Kamchatka while the Governor cannot unilaterally
alter the status of protected areas, he does have discretionary
powers to re-draw the borders.
we don’t have a mining industry,” says Mashkovtsev.
“Maybe the ecologists are happy about this. As for us,
we now have a large task ahead – to prepare to find
investors for this industry. ”
of the enthusiasm for mining is linked to the need to
find a solution to Kamchatka’s energy shortages. Up
until recently the Russian Government helped fund shipments
of oil in tankers from Sakhalin to supply locals with
energy. But now supply is unreliable. Delays in oil
deliveries can mean days without heating which is no
trifle for inhabitants living in -15 degrees Celsius
winters in the city and as cold as -50 degrees Celsius
problem has been that we can’t pay for the fuel that
is coming to us. Now we have guarantees from our Russian
government that we will have supplies. I hope that we
won’t have difficulties this winter,” says Novikov.
is urging for the exploitation of thermal water that
he sees as the most environmentally and economically
sustainable source of energy, following the example
of Iceland, which has made use of its geologically active
environment. “I think thermal water and the natural
warmth of the land should be our main source of energy,”
he says. “It is the best for nature but the Government
has other ideas.”
will use floating nuclear stations to solve this energy
problem,” says Governor Mashkovtsev. “We have several
types of submarines here and a nuclear station, which
is like a submarine but is used to produce energy, and
this has passed all our ecological experts. In the case
of a potential crisis we are assured everything could
be shut down from the existing station.” It will be
the first nuclear plant of its kind in Russia, and one
Minatom – the Russian nuclear agency – hopes to later
export to other countries.
300-kilometre gas pipeline is also being constructed
to bring natural gas to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Viktor
Nikiforov from WWF-Russia comments: “It will go through
many salmon rivers and you know there are volcanic activities
and quakes so there is a big risk.”
fishing already beleaguers the lifeforce of Kamchatka’s
waterways and seas. The rivers bring poachers further
inland in search of salmon. “They take only the caviar
and leave the dead fish behind. You can tell where they’ve
been from the dead fish lying on the ground,” comments
Irina. “Tourists are a help as when there are tourists
around hunters are less likely to come into these areas,”
she continues waving at a salmon-filled river in a valley
where brown bears are found. The bears are also a poacher’s
targets as their gallbladders can fetch high prices
on the Asian medicine market.
only four rangers in the 309,320-hectare Nalychevo Nature
Park, the problem is one that goes beyond Park management.
Prices for salmon caviar in Kamchatka are now as high
as the rest of Russia and salmon poaching has come to
resemble an operation from a Bond movie. Russian newspapers
have reported M18 helicopters taking tons of salmon
caviar from protected areas such as the Kommandorsky
Islands Biosphere Reserve and South Kamchatka Nature
Reserve. The illegal harvest of salmon and other marine
species is estimated to be worth more than $US1 billion
annually. Local fishers, most of whom are out of work,
say stocks are being fished out by Japan primarily but
also Korea, the US and Alaska.
State Committee and Fisheries Committee are responsible
for harvesting and protection of the species themselves.
But those who use nature can’t seem to protect it. There
is less interest in biodiversity because agencies that
control fishing and hunting are too close to the fishers
and hunters,” says Ivanov. “Vessels that harvest fish
illegally bring them not to Kamchatka but to Korea,
China and Japan. Each year the harvest is less and less
– because the fish are harvested with no limits, no
controls. The only hope is to establish a specialized
agency, a Ministry of Natural Resources, to protect
the fishery. Like with all our other natural resources,
the current system of protection simply does not answer
the demands we have.”
sharply differing views on how to manage Kamchatka’s
rich natural resources reflect a general lack of political
consensus. A classic manifestation of this was the decision
to go ahead with the first geothermal power plant which
started up on December 20th 2001 while at
the same time developing a design and feasibility study
for the floating nuclear plant. Pushed by the Ministry
for Nuclear Energy, it is to be based in Vilyuchinsk
which currently hosts a dozen rusting submarines needing
decommissioning. The political outlook can look progressive
or unchanged since Soviet times depending on who is
speaking. For some, now is a time of actively introducing
opening up the administration to the growing influence
of tourism agencies and environmentalists seeking to
promote Kamchatka’s natural assets. For others, it is
a time of defending economic and political power built
up during the military’s unquestioned reign of the region.
Added to this are the complexities of the Russian federal
system involving various layers of authority and politicians
unaccustomed to acknowledging, let alone resolving,
debate. What will emerge from these controversies is
unclear. Kamchatka’s politics is a blank page.
this page is filled, who controls Kamchatka?
our final day on the peninsula we encounter a moose,
a snow sheep and a brown bear in the hotel lobby. The
only recognizable animal is the moose, whose giant antlers
are wrapped in strips of cardboard held together with
beige masking tape. Through the gaps I tap its rock-like
bone underneath, making a sound like a door knock. The
snow sheep, a rare and popular prey for hunters because
of its large twisted horns, is packed in boxes. The
brown bear’s head and skins lie in a navy duffel bag.
huge Spanish hunter, Juan, in military-dark green cords
and shirt is the proud owner of these trophies. He is
accompanied by his wife who confesses although she goes
on the hunts she feels squeamish and looks away when
the gun fires.
spend the evening discussing their travels. It is known
for hunters to spend $US10,000 to come to Kamchatka
and hunt but Juan, being the sole foreign hunter this
week, has spent a mere $US5000. They describe eating
salmon caviar each morning for breakfast, praise the
flavour of reindeer meat compared to the stringy snow
sheep, relate their experience of camping out in the
wilderness and trading tales with indigenous hunters.
The white hunter and his Russian tour agent seems to
have a reasonable perspective on why and how to hunt
assuring us it benefits local indigenous people and
does not endanger animal species. But Parks staff are
more circumspect saying that the hunters natural desire
to always shoot the biggest animal available means populations
of bears will get smaller and smaller in size and that
the offer of US dollars will tempt guides and trackers
to let them do so. Radmir Korenev, from the Parks Department,
says the hunting licence for a bear is 600 roubles ($US20)
and snow sheep half this fee (40 per cent of this money
going to the federal budget and the rest to the region’s
next morning at the airport our bags sit next to the
reindeer, snow sheep and brown bear and I watch them
all being pulled on a trolley across the tarmac. The
sight of the blue duffel bag bulging with a bear’s skin
and head sits uneasily with my memory of the first brown
bear I had seen. That great male, in the distance and
out of our reach. His dark fur rippled as he strode
in a way that expressed an enviable confidence in his
surroundings. Now the skin of one of his kind was being
lifted by two men into the hull of the plane.
the stairs to the aircraft my eyes are drawn beyond
the airport, to Avacha volcano. Perched high and white
it dominates the landscape. Its snowy cone evokes a
ferocity and vulnerability as its trail of smoke sullies
the blue sky.
questions about Kamchatka? Contact me: email@example.com
– Fast Facts
Location: Bounded by the Pacific
Ocean, Bering Sea and Sea of Okhotsk, north of Japan
lies Kamchatka, a 1,200-kilometre-long peninsula.
Administration: Kamchatka is subdivided
into the Autonomous Republic of Koryakskaya in the north
and Kamchatka Region in the south – both part of the
Kamchatka has around 300 volcanic peaks around 10 percent
of which have been active volcanoes in the past 100
years plus 200 hot springs and geysers. Nature parks
and protected areas form 28 percent of the region.
Animals: the world’s largest population
of brown bears and greatest salmon spawning ground for
ten different species, whales, half the world’s Steller’s
sea eagles plus seals, sea lions and otters. Also contains
sable, bighorn (or snow) sheep, reindeer, fox, lynx,
wolves and moose.
Plants: Kamchatka’s deciduous
forest is comprised of stone birch (which can be 200
years old) and Kamchatkan white birch (up to 70 years
People: There is a small and
declining population of around 300,000 people, including
indigenous cultures. Itelmen people once inhabited the
entire central and southern portion of the peninsula
– today some 1,500 Itelmen live on the west coast and
Even people live in the eastern mountains.
About 700 of them rely chiefly on the reindeer and are
separated from the rest of their people by the Sea of
Koryak people number about 5,000 and live in the North
hunting reindeer, fishing and hunting marine mammals.
How to get there:
Flights leave Moscow for Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky 3
times a week: each Monday, Wednesday & Saturday.
Travel in Kamchatka:
Tours can be arranged through PARK Travel Company which
also contributes funds to maintenance of Kamchatka’s
protected natural areas email: firstname.lastname@example.org
(Anouk Ride travels to Kamchatka were organized and
supported by WWF, the conservation organization.)
1 rouble = 0.033 USD
Jayapura, I spoke to independence leader Theys Eluay
for this feature. Sadly, he was kidnapped and strangled
to death by Indonesian military officers in 2001. They
received jail sentences of only three years for the
murder. Here are the thoughts of Eluay and others on
what an independent West Papua may be like…
very easy to understand,’ insists West Papuan leader
Theys Eluay, ‘This is what we want – independence.’
It is also obvious that the locals in West Papua (officially
known as Irian Jaya) have arrived at this conclusion
themselves and, in stark contrast to Aceh, without propaganda
wars and threats. This great slice of Papua, with 240
tribal groups, has involuntarily been Indonesia’s easternmost
province since they took the territory by force from
the Dutch in 1961. Ever since then the military have
controlled the province’s resources and people using
torture, rape, killings and land dispossession. Now,
however, from the villages to the cities a grassroots
movement for independence is spreading new shoots.
Wamebu from the Institute for Irian Jaya Indigenous
People Study and Empowerment agrees: ‘There is now a
self-confidence in people. There have been many demos
to raise the flag and also on land rights. Recently
hundreds of people carried the body of a victim of the
military to their headquarters in Jayapura. This body
was buried in front of the military headquarters, not
in a cemetery, so that they are forced to acknowledge
what they are doing. Every month someone is killed.
If you look at things now, everyone’s ready to face
the military because we know too much. Before they just
went along with it.’
went along with it because they were never presented
with an alternative. West Papua has been betrayed by
the best of the West – by the US, the Netherlands, Britain,
Australia, the world’s biggest mining company and most
recently, the Highland peoples believe, by the International
Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
US were the first to ignore the West Papuans. In 1962,
they brokered a deal whereby the Dutch would leave the
territory and transfer sovereignty to the United Nations
until a local vote could be held for independence or
integration with Indonesia. The West Papuans were not involved in these discussions and instead
of the UN, Indonesia
quietly took over administration of the province and
repression began in earnest.
don’t know why the US had to make that deal,’ says Theys.
‘We were already a nation, we had a culture, a flag,
even an anthem. We already had freedom and rights as
a nation. But we were never listened to. Why weren’t
years later, in 1969, under the ‘Act of Free Choice’
Indonesia selected 1,025 West Papuans to be ‘asked’
whether they wanted independence. All elected for integration
of the few journalists there at the time (the world’s
media was focused on Indochina), Hugh Lunn, has written
an account which records Papuans’ heartfelt and ignored
pleas to the outside world. On arriving at his hotel
he found a letter soaked in blood which said Indonesia
was killing dissenting Papuans. Then a Papuan who came
into his room supposedly to repair a light mimed himself
being shot in the back of the head while another pretended
to be handcuffed. UN staff who spoke to Lunn off-the-record
had all experienced but not publicized similar creative
requests for international support.1
also ignored such pleas. At the request of Indonesia, it arrested two pro-independence activists when they entered
Australian-administered Papua New Guinea. They carried testimonies from Papuans
calling for independence and for the UN to abandon the
Act of Free Choice. These were never delivered – instead
the activists were put in jail.
statement prepared by the US Embassy in Jakarta and presented to Australia before the UN-supervised
vote says: ‘Personal political views of the UN team
are... 95 per cent of Irianese (West Papuans) support the independence movement and that the Act of Free
Choice is a mockery.’2
new evidence confirms that the UN, Australia and the US all knew that the Act of Free Choice was actually what Papuans
call the ‘Act of No Choice’. The duplicity is incomprehensible
to most Papuans – the UN had embraced many new nations;
the US, in its anti-Communist crusade,
avowed support for freedom and Australia followed suit. But all these promises and pronouncements
were void when it came to their own oppression.
West Papua was officially proclaimed Indonesian, the
small rebel group, Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM or
Free Papua Movement) although armed only with bows,
arrows and spears, provided the Indonesian military
with a rationale to clamp down on the province. An estimated
60,000 troops were deployed. From 1967 to 1972 the military
violence is estimated to have caused between 30,000
and 100,000 Papuan deaths. Then, in the late 1970s,
a series of ceremonies raising the West Papuan flag in the Highlands resulted in
the military bombing and strafing of whole villages,
killing at least 1,000 people and causing at least 5,000
to flee and hide out in the forest.
to Denny Yomaki, from the Irian Jaya Environment Foundation,
the OPM is not a real threat but an excuse for military
occupation. He says locals found groups of fake OPM
on the border who have better weapons and who also have
crates of Indonesian-brand beer and whisky delivered
once a month. This stands in stark contrast to the ‘real’
OPM as Denny explains: ‘Some of the OPM fighters in
the forest have been fighting for 30 years now and they
are isolated – they have never seen cars or TVs or whatever.
In the forest, the only way people can think is to fight
with bows and arrows and whatever they have.’
silence over continuing human-rights abuses was ensured
once they became intimately involved in Indonesia’s great land grab. West Papua may be the most profitable
real estate Indonesia owns – mainly due to its rich mineral resources. The chief
mining enterprise is the world’s largest copper and
gold mine run by the American company Freeport McMoRan
Copper and Gold. The Indonesian government has a nine-per-cent
stake in the mine. Another major profiteer is British
mining giant Rio Tinto which owns nearly 15 per cent
of Freeport’s share capital,
producing around $150 million for Rio Tinto in 1998.
All that the West Papuans will get from this huge enterprise
is a scarred environment – Freeport now dumps 70 million
tonnes of tailings a year into the Ajikwa river and
will leave behind a 230-square-kilometre scar in the
jungle when the mine closes in 30 years’ time.3
have been spectators not participants in development,’
laments Theys Eluay. ‘Java’s too crowded and they see
Papua as a way to feed themselves. Without us they will
years fighting a war largely unknown to the outside
world, in January 1996 the OPM resorted to desperate
measures to get their demands heard. They took hostages:
scientists from Britain’s Cambridge
University, the Jakarta Biological Science Club and
the World Wide Fund for Nature, their assistants and
local people from the district of Mapnduma. Eleven were
released within the first two weeks but four British,
two Dutch and five Indonesian citizens remained hostages.
OPM leader Kelly Kwalik says: ‘We took the researchers
hostage because we had no other way for our cause to
ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) had
a solid relationship with the people of Mapnduma district.
So it was natural that they became involved in attempting
to reach an agreement to release the hostages. By early
May it seemed that they had reached an understanding.
A ceremonial feast to celebrate the release of the hostages
and International Red Cross Day was scheduled for 8
May in Nggeselema village.
the OPM cancelled the release of the hostages: they
felt the ICRC had broken their agreement by failing
to bring official representatives of the English, Dutch,
German and Indonesian governments to Nggeselema.5
though we wear penis gourds and torn shirts we have
the brains God gave to us all,’ said Kwalik. He was
angry and announced that the hostages were not going
to be released yet, but he did not threaten their lives.
He also asked: ‘Is this really the Red Cross or people
disguised as the Red Cross?’4 Kwalik was
convinced that when they gave back the hostages they
would be attacked by the Indonesian military. The next
morning on 9 May Sylvianne Bonadei, the ICRC staff member
who dealt most closely with the local people and the
OPM, visited Nggeselema. It was agreed the ICRC would
return three days later and it was clear that negotiations
were not closed.4
3:00pm a helicopter with the logo and flag of the ICRC
landed in Nggeselema village. As always when it arrived,
locals approached the helicopter to welcome the medical
staff. But the four white passengers (one of whom some
eyewitnesses claim looked like Bonadei) fired into the
crowd, the church and the clinic, killing two civilians.
Five military choppers that had followed behind the
ICRC helicopter then conducted an aerial bombardment
that razed the village and left twelve people dead.5
the same time as the attack, the ICRC announced its
resignation as negotiator at a press conference at the
Sheraton Hotel in Timika.5 The local people
in Nggesselema had no way of knowing that their attackers
Bonadei firmly denies she was on that helicopter of
killers – and the other ICRC staff were put on a plane
to Jakarta that same day. The ICRC is investigating who might
have impersonated their staff and used their symbol
and equipment. Bonadei says: ‘If the emblem has been
violated... it was our only powerful means of getting
into that place and get the trust from these people,
so how can they possibly trust us again?’4
who were the white attackers? Residents of Keneyam –
a village used as a military base during the hostage
crisis – have testified that 16 white people wearing
army camouflage arrived in their village on 8 May 1996,
the day before the attack.5
appointed Military Attaché and SAS veteran Colonel Ivor
Helberg to provide specialized assistance and advice
to Indonesia’s General Prabowo during the hostage crisis.
He says he had a team of police hostage experts working
with him but others claim these men were actually the
élite English military unit, the SAS. Ivor Helberg himself
says: ‘I cannot imagine that either the Indonesian Government
or Her Majesty’s Government... would allow some third
party, mercenary organization to actually execute the
kind of operation on our behalf. I mean, can you imagine
if it all went wrong? It would be horrendous, wouldn’t
it? What would the parents [of the hostages] think and
that sort of thing?’4
van den Bergh of the mercenary group Executive Outcomes
(EO) has said that he led a team of five people in the
Mapnduma area in 1996. The team worked as technical
advisors and trainers for helicopter attack teams. He
has also confirmed the participation of members of the
SAS but denies that his EO troops were involved in the
attack on Nggeselema.1 It has not been verified
whether the white soldiers who undertook the attack
were SAS, police working with Helberg, Executive Outcomes
soldiers, or a combination of all three.
the violence and fear continues. This and last year,
for example, independence rallies in early July resulted
in the military firing on unarmed protesters, killing
over 20 people and wounding over 100. Amidst the clamour
surrounding East Timor, the military presence here has
continued without comment. Military Head General Wiranto
has made moves to strengthen rather than relax Indonesia’s grip – including proposals to
legislate a state of emergency.
hopes for a political solution have been raised by a
national dialogue on the province under President Habibie.
Representatives from all over the territory have told
Habibie they want independence. Indigenous activist
Zadrak Wamebu thinks that Habibie is a better person
than Suharto but: ‘Habibie doesn’t have control over
what the military does. There’s still people dying.
The military is supposed to be just used in an emergency.
There’s so many armed forces here and there’s no need.
If there’s an emergency, civilians can join the army
and sort it out.’ He adds with bright-eyed enthusiasm:
‘I’ll join the army!’ Then pauses for a moment: ‘But,
no, I wouldn’t join it because I’m anti-violence.’
ponders what an independent West Papua would be like: ‘It’s hard to say. A system would have to consider all
tribes. It would be dangerous if they took on a similar
system to Suharto. If there were one tribe that controlled
all the others.’ He adds teasingly: ‘Well, except if
they were my friends...’
he is certain about one thing: ‘The political system
and the political culture which we’ve experienced have
supported terror not freedom. We need a situation where
people are sharing, where you have to listen and respect
what your elders give you. We need to be in a different
world where it’s not seen that some people have to be
out in front of the rest.’
questions about West Papua? Contact me: email@example.com
Hugh Lunn, ‘How the West was lost’ The Weekend Australian
21-22 August 1999.
2 Sydney Morning Herald 26 August 1999.
3 World Development Movement.
Broadcasting Corporation Website.
5 Press Release Military Operation for the
Release of Hostages and Human Rights Violations In the
Central Highlands of Irian Jaya: Unveiling the Mystery
of the Bloody ICRC Mission, The Involvement of Foreign
Soldiers and the Indonesian Army, signed by Johanes
Bonay, SH (Director IHRSTAD), Herman Saud (Christian
Evangelical Church in Irian Jaya ), Mgr Leo Laba Ladjar
(Bishop of Jayapura), Rev Benny Giay, PhD (Research
and Development, Christian Missionary Alliance of Indonesia,
Jayapura) 25 August 1999.
West Papuan Association (Sydney)
Box 65, Millers Point, NSW 2000.
Tel: +61 2 9552 6022.
Fax: +61 2 9960 1698.
Emerald St, London WC1 N3QL England.
Tel: +44 171 242 1441.
Fax: +44 171 242 1771.
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