Yerisiam Gua Women: Our lives depend on sago

[awasMIFEE note: This is a translation of an article by Zely Ariane which was published by tabloid Jubi on 29th October, based on a similar article published by in May. As part of a response to a complaint to the RSPO, the company has since initiated a process of dialogue with the community, and they met on the 4th November to address the issue of the sago groves which it started to clear in April 2016. Those discussions are ongoing, but they come after a long history of problems with this plantation since it first started clearing forest in 2012. Two recent articles on the Mongabay site address question why the business community, for all its talk of sustainability, has turned a blind eye to what has been going on in Nabire: Why an RSPO complaint made in May 2016 has still not been made public on the company’s case tracker? and why are trading companies with no deforestation commitments continuing to buy from Goodhope, PT Nabire Baru’s parent company, claiming that they were not aware the company was engaged in deforestation? ]

Yerisiam Gua Women: Our lives depend on sago

Mama Yuliana Akubar was barefoot as she entered the Nabire District Legislative Council Building that lunchtime. Dressed in batik with a Papuan motif, she looked cold, still damp after the rain on the journey from Sima village in Yaur sub-district to Nabire.

“I did bring shoes, but let’s go in like this. This is what we Yerisiam people wear,” she said softly.

She came with 30 other members of the Yerisiam Gua ethnic group from Sima, to attend an exchange of opinion between PT Nabire Baru, the Sima community and the government, facilitated by the District Legislative Council.

Mama Yuliana reminisced about her hopes. She said that her elder brother had been one of those who gave the company permission, fuelling their hopes that it would improve the Yerisiam people’s standard of living.

Now the company’s actions are increasingly distant from its promises. “The company has backtracked from all we spoke about originally”, she said.

“Maybe the land doesn’t want us to work”

Dorkas Numberi (47 years old) explained that when the oil palm company moved in, the villagers were offered work. “Some people stared work, but maybe the land didn’t want to let them. After the Yerisiam people started working our feet were itching, and then covered in boils. Some people’s feet were swollen”, she said.

She told how her son and daughter also worked for the company. First of all they said it was planting work, but it turned out to be working in the nursery. “They were planting seedlings. But when they got home their bodies were all itchy and scratchy, they thought it was just normal, but then they had sores all over their body.”

Both children stopped working for a month or two, and got better. Then they started working again and the sores came back. Her daughter couldn’t use one of her legs to walk with, it was so bad. Once she just had to sit down weakly where she was, and after that couldn’t walk for two weeks.

Mama Dorkas’s son, who also worked for the company, is now dead. Mama Dorkas thinks it is because of his frequent visits to the hospital to get treatment while he was working there,

This view was confirmed by Mama Yakomina Maniburi (48 years old). She worked for the company in 2013.

“I worked for one year, and in the end they said I had gout. My foot was always hurting. I kept getting treatment from the company medic, but it didn’t get better”. Mama Yakomina left the company and has continued to take medicine until now, two years later.

She says that the company doesn’t take care of medical treatment for local people and workers. “Even though we have asked the company to help us with medical treatment, but nothing happens. In the end I got out, and made a letter of resignation two years ago, and the company has still not given any financial support,”

She also thinks that the wages people get working for the company are not enough to pay for daily needs. For casual labourers, the company pays about 600,000 Rupiah every two weeks, for six days work a week. “But that was how it was in the beginning, I don’t know how much they pay now,” she said, reminiscing about two young Yerisiam people who were beaten up by Brimob guards because they were demanding their wages which were overdue.

Yohana Inggeruhi, who also worked for the company in the nursery phase, also confirmed that working conditions were making people sick. She suspects that the skin diseases are caused by fertilisers or the soil which is used to plant saplings into polybags. They work without gloves, they’re supposed to bring their own equipment

Her anger was mixed with surprise as she explained how the company throws its oil palm fruit away. “They’ve planted all these trees, but I don’t know why they still just let the oil palm rot, they still don’t have a factory. They destroy it, throw it in the sea, put it in a sack and throw it in the Wami River, sometimes they just leave it scattered by the side of the road”.

“Nothing good’s come out of this plantation”

Sima village is located on the coast. The oil palm plantation comes right up to the sago groves beside the village. Several men from Sima are skilled boat-builders, and one of them is even building a large enough boat to carry logs.

Enjoying the breeze that blows along the beach, children were fishing diligently as their mothers sat around telling stories on the shore

“We have sinned against God’s Creation. I ask Father, O Father, tell us how we can stop this”, Mama Yance said, tears welling in her eyes.

“Before, there were birds over there, palm cockatoos, sulphur-crested cockatoos, hornbills, so many of all of them.” Pointing to the oil palm plantation, she said “Look over there now, it’s all been cleared, so the birds flew over that way. Once I went out rowing my boat, I saw it had been cleared over there, and there was oil palm planted. I looked and I saw the bulldozer come down and took away my wood. They’re going to plant oil palm beside this river too. So the birds thave come to look for food here, because over there its all open, as if you were looking out to sea!

Mama Yance hiccuped gently as she recalled forcefully the recent events. “When it happened I said to Grandfather, if you go up the Wami river then you’ll surely start to cry. Grandfather said, there’s nothing good to come out of this plantation, it won’t make our lives better. Grandfather, my forest isn’t good any more, the birds, pigs and deer are all gone, it’s empty. Where could they stay?”.

Stories of how the forest and sago groves have been destroyed keep on coming. Not many of the women can hold back their emotions. For those of us who weren’t brought up by sago and forest, the women’s stories just seem to be tales of those who have been “ignored by progress”.

But these stories are about their very existence as Papuans.

This could be seen as Mama Dorkas said “as time goes on this place is more and more destroyed. in the end neither, birds, animals or humans are safe here. That means where we looked for food, we can’t any more. We used to be able to fill our noken bags with snakehead fish, now there are none.”

The changes in the lives of the women, and the whole community of Yerisiam people living in Sima, arising from PT Nabire Baru’s oil palm plantation have made themselves felt very rapidly. Previously, the women said. the Yerisiam people had their tradition of dancing and drumming in a sacred place called Akhirtukua. Now that place doesn’t exist any more. Even though it was one of the centres of Yerisiam culture, as passed down from the ancestors.

“Now there’ no space for normal human relationships with those who are working. We used to sit down with the family and eat betel nut together, or drink tea, smoke, tell stories like we always have done. Now almost all of them seem so distant, there’s a clash with our needs as humans. Most of all we regret that they’re away on church holy days. If someone dies they’re also away, they can’t go to the funeral.”

“End of the road for the Yerisiam”

PT Nabire Baru made a promise in front of the people that the Jarae and Manawari sago groves wouldn’t be cleared. They were the Yerisiam Gua people’s last sago groves. But in the end the people heard that the sago groves were included in the concession.

Mama Yuliana couldn’t accept it, saying “Actually who decided that, that’s what we want to know. But last time we held a meeting with the co-operative heads, they couldn’t give us an honest answer”.

The whole Yerisiam community in Sima, and especially the women, are strongly opposed to clearing the sago groves. According to them, Jarae, which means “end of the road for the Yerisiam”, is the last point of defence of their food supply, and also their livelihood.

When asked what message the women wanted to give to outsiders that followed the struggle of the Yerisiam people against PT Nabire Baru, Mama Berta Maniba (46 years old), holding back the tears, said “I care about this sago grove. Ever since my mother gave birth to me, until now when I’m married and look after my own food, I’ve never eaten rice, I live from pounding sago trunks – from the sago that I produce myself I can buy the metal box for my betel nut, my clothes, the other things my children need”.

Mama Dorkas’s eyes were no longer teary as she gave her firm response: “If we have said that we don’t want this particular site cleared, the company should be stopped, if they clear everything we have then what will become of us, what will happen to our children and grandchildren, we can’t be as we should any more, because this was created by the Lord for us, the people. So for that reason we don’t want the company to go on working, it should be shut down.”

News came through from Sima that the excavators had been withdrawn from the sago areas. The women of Sima had time to take a breath before thinking about the next steps for their struggle.

I didn’t know the forest, but I’m getting to know how unpleasant life can be without it. I didn’t grow up with sago, but leaving Sima, I had been taught the wisdom of living from such a blessing.

Source: tabloid jubi

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