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Biodiversity Day: A deep relationship with nature

Biodiversity Day: A deep relationship with nature
Biodiversity Day: A deep relationship with nature


For International Biodiversity Day, I preface an interview with indigenous leader and rights activist Arkilaus Kladit with an exploration of the natural wonders located in the rich forests of New Guinea, and in particular its western region known as Papua in Indonesia . This island, the second largest island in the world after Greenland, stands as a biodiversity hotspot.

Shaped like its native Bird of Paradise, the island is on the front lines of biodiversity and climate crises due to a relentless push by agribusiness companies, backed by international finance, that want to clear its forests to give way to palm oil and paper pulp. , and other plantations. Indigenous peoples across the island are embroiled in battles with outsiders and governments that underestimate the strength of the indigenous connection to the land and choose not to value their right to forest-based economies that protect their cultural and natural heritage.

A male Lesser Bird of Paradise in Papua
A male Little Bird of Paradise sings in a tree at Rhepang Muaif, Nimbokrang, Jayapura Regency, West Papua. Jurnasyanto Sukarno / Greenpeace
Map of New Guinea.  Simon J. Greenhill under CC License
Bird-shaped island of New Guinea, showing estimated boundaries for languages ​​within the Trans-New Guinea language family. Simon J. Greenhill under CC License

And what a legacy it is! The diversity and ruggedness of the terrain has allowed for a flourishing of different cultures throughout New Guinea, with hundreds of different languages ​​in dozens of separate speech lines. While indigenous land management methods and traditions vary from place to place in New Guinea in accordance with local ecological conditions, the common thread is the indigenous connection to the land. This is why land rights are so important across the island, including in Papua. And indeed, there, all the land is owned by someone, hence the expression Papua Bukan Tanah Kosong (Papua is not an empty land).

New Guinea is also like a treasure chest filled with a kaleidoscopic array of unique animals. In addition to birds of paradise, the islands' treetops are home to solitary marsupial planes, various species of tree kangaroo; and the downy cuscus family, including the critically endangered blue-eyed spotted cuscus.

Blue-eyed Spotted Cuscus (Spilocuscus wilsoni).  Tim Flannery Tim Flannery
Blue-eyed Spotted Cucus (Spilocuscus wilsoni)

Down on the forest floor, giant cassowary birds roam and four species of Echidnas egg-laying mammals raise their eggs (babies). One of these Echidna species is named after the much-loved nature broadcaster, David Attenborough.

A distinctive cassowary in Sorong, West Papua.  Behind her, a mother with a child in a hut observes the bird.
A cassowary visits Malagufuk village, located in the middle of the rainforest in Kalasou Valley, Sorong, West Papua. Sugar cane juice / Greenpeace
The isolated long-beaked echidna known locally as What do you say?and also named after Sir David Attenborough, was only recently filmed by a team in the Cyclops Mountains Papua Province.

Perhaps less cuddly, though no less impressive, there are also crocodiles and giant 2.5 meter monitor lizards that rival the length of the famous Komodo Dragon and unlike dragons, these are at home in trees! There is also a wealth of bats, snakes, frogs, crabs, fish and insects along with many other classes and orders of animals. Due to the inaccessibility of most of New Guinea's ecosystems, scientists are sure that there are still many more species that they have yet to discover and describe.

When it comes to plants, the island of New Guinea really delivers. In 2020, a hundred botanists working together announced that the island was home to 13,634 plant species. This is more than any other island on Earth surpassing the famous mega-diversity of Madagascar. In addition, two out of three New Guinea plant species are found nowhere else on Earth. This in turn allows for an amazing range of foodscapes – indigenous food systems that are healthy and serve to reproduce unique cultural ways of being.

Yellow orchid in Papua.  Paul Hilton / Greenpeace
An endemic orchid in Papua Paul Hilton / Greenpeace
Crab in West Papua.  Paul Hilton / Greenpeace
A crab runs across the beach in Jamursba Medi, Tambrau District, West Papua. Paul Hilton / Greenpeace

The indigenous people of Knasaimos-Tehi

Arkilaus Kladit is an indigenous leader and rights activist who lives on Papuas Birds Head – the westernmost tip of the island. Arkilaus shares an insight into what the land and the forest mean to his indigenous Knasaimos-Tehit people in Southwest Papua Province, Indonesia.

Arkilaus Kladit showing the Cempedak tree inside the forest.  Jurnasyanto Sukarno / Greenpeace
Arkilaus Kladit – Cempedak Tree (Official Music Video) Arkilaus Kladit – Cempedak Tree (Official Music Video)

The forest is a precious gift passed down from generation to generation, an asset that supports our way of life. We are committed to preserving it, as it contains everything we need – from animals to medicinal plants, from our daily needs to places for our sacred ceremonies and traditions. Our connection to the earth is deep and profound, it holds us like a mother's womb. It is a part of us that we cannot abandon – we cannot leave our mother behind, no matter how far we may wander.

Money is just a tool that helps support our lives, but we can survive without it as we have access to enough food and resources for our daily needs.

Our rituals are sacred and enduring and they will never fade because they bring blessings and connect us to our ancestors. Each of our clans has its own traditions and ceremonies to seek permission from our ancestors for permission and guidance. These show us how to use the land responsibly, from growing food gardens to finding timber to build our homes, and guide us on which areas are designated as 'Quantities' for protection and regeneration.

We are very concerned about the way the central government makes decisions about our land as if we do not exist, treating the land as if it were empty. This lack of legal recognition of our land worries us greatly and makes us feel very fearful that harm will come to us. It is essential that the Knasaimos-Tehit people are officially recognized by the state to guarantee respect for our rights. The recognition would empower us to protect our land and forest and ensure that anyone who wants to use the land must first seek our permission, effectively preventing unauthorized access and protecting it from destruction.

A boat seen on the Klaogin River, Seremuk District, Knasaimos Landscape, South Sorong Regency, Southwest Papua.  Alif Rizky / Greenpeace Alif Rizky / Greenpeace
A boat seen on the Klaogin River, Seremuk District, Knasaimos Landscape, South Sorong Regency, Southwest Papua. Alif Rizky / Greenpeace
Women and youth of Knaisaimos-Tehi with yellow flag
Women and youth are now more prominent in Knasaimos-Tehit affairs. Figure below a Merbau tree in their customary forest in Sira village, Knasaimos area, Sorong South Regency, Southwest Papua. Jurnasyanto Sukarno / Greenpeace

But our goals go beyond securing a government regulation that legally recognizes our indigenous land rights. We are committed to educating and motivating everyone to understand the irreplaceable nature of our land and forest and that we cannot buy and sell it, helping everyone understand the importance of allowing us and future generations to manage and protect the land. To this end, with the help of our NGO friends, we are learning how to map the land of each family clan and submitting these maps to obtain legal recognition.

In the past, youth and women had limited roles in forums according to our traditional practices, but times have changed and now they are involved in all activities. We strive to continue this improvement, increasing our capacity to sustainably manage land at a scale that effectively meets our basic needs.

Our deep connection to the forests of Knasaimos and to nature is deep and intrinsic, we are a part of it, and the forests are our life blood, woven into the fabric of our existence.

Igor O'Neill works in research and communications for Greenpeace Indonesia's forest campaign




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