This is the first article in the “Mothers of Papua” series, which documents the journey of WRI Indonesia’s Papua Team and a series of discussions to open the study on Papuan Women, their traditional role and rights and the management of natural resources. This article serves as an initial study with the hope that it can expand our knowledge and understanding.

Women are central to life in Papua, playing a critical role in managing natural resources, especially in meeting family needs. Surabhi Singh and Sunita Dixit explain that women play a larger role in the management of natural resources, especially in meeting family needs. Therefore, excluding women from these resources will significantly impact the decline in the functionality of natural assets.

Papua's special autonomy law mandates good governance through maximum public participation. Development planning, implementation and supervision must include customary, religious and women representatives. The respect accorded to women, symbolized by expressions such as "she is the noken, she is the bird of paradise, she is the key to the door to life", underscores the vital importance of women in Papuan society.

Despite their crucial role, Indigenous Papuan women face harsh natural conditions, inadequate infrastructure and limited health facilities. In 2020, Papua Province had the highest Maternal Mortality Rate in Indonesia, reflecting poor quality health services for women. Furthermore, gender inequality is evident in the Gender Empowerment Index (GEI) for 2021, with Papua Province scoring 67.50 and West Papua Province 62.17, both below the national average of 76.26 (BPS, 2021).

Mama-mama sedang mengumpulkan bahan baku untuk pembuatan teh mangrove.
Papuan women gathering materials for mangrove tea. Photo credit: Kasan for WRI Indonesia

A study from the perspectives of the Land of Papua—its people, nature and wisdom—is urgently needed. The rapid pace of investment and development has significantly transformed the natural landscape and the lives of indigenous communities. Based on field findings in the Arfak Mountains, Manokwari, South Manokwari, Biak Islands, Jayawijaya and the coast of Jayapura, four key relationships between women and natural resources in the Land of Papua have been identified.

Frontline Guardians of Nature

Women, as the primary food producers for families, possess a deep understanding of natural conditions and their changes over time, which directly impact family food security. For instance, in Kais and Mentemani (South Sorong Regency), large-scale land acquisition in sago forests has pushed food sources further from settlements. As a result, women have to exert more effort to ensure the availability of food for the family (Larastiti, C, 2020).    

In Kabidon Village, Yendidori District, Biak, women participating in the Bersaudara Forest Farmers Group (KTH) are reforesting critical lands to combat the depletion of water sources (Travel Notes, 2020).    

In the Arfak Mountains, women dedicate seven to eight hours daily to gardening. They shift garden locations according to the principle of igya ser hanjop (respecting the boundaries of their own and others' lands), which employs practices to preserve nature. These practices include allowing soil to rest for one to two years to maintain fertility and gardening without chemical fertilizers. Such methods by the women in the Arfak Mountains help protect customary territories to help the tribe people understand the importance of these areas.  

Mama-mama dan anak perempuan sedang membawa hasil panen sayur.
Women and girls carrying vegetable harvest. Photo credit: Yusuf Ahmad for WRI Indonesia

Drivers of Life

Els Tieneke Rieke Katmo, an academic from the University of Papua, highlights the women-centered culture in Papua. For instance, the Kamoro Tribe places women in key traditional roles, entrusting them with the management of natural resources, historical knowledge, medicinal knowledge, farming techniques and traditional practices essential for environmental sustainability.    In Yawerma Village, Supiori Regency, Papua Province, women drive daily life by utilizing marine resources and transforming land into gardens. They sell marine products, processed mangroves, betel nuts and sago in markets to meet various needs. Besides market sales, fish catches also contribute to food supplies for their families (Travel journal, 2020). Women in the village possess skills in weaving, knitting and making noken, which are used by the family or sold.

Seorang perempuan sedang menjual hasil kebun dan ikan di pasar
A woman selling produces from the garden and fish at the market. Photo credit: Ulet for WRI Indonesia

Women also play a crucial role in fulfilling traditional needs. They ensure the availability of food and the smooth running of rituals during traditional ceremonies, where their contributions are indispensable. Women influence all traditional decisions behind the scenes, and their efforts are a source of pride for the tribe, comparable to the beautiful and graceful birds of paradise (Interview notes with Naomi Marasian in 2020).

Keepers of Tribal Memories

Women play a crucial role in preserving the history and memories of their tribes. They often remember family, clan and tribal histories in great detail, acting like historians who maintain records and memories of the tribes in Papua.

Salah satu perempuan yang mengikuti proses pemindahan sketsa kampung ke peta citra satelit sebagai bagian dari proses pemetaan partisipatif.
A woman participates in the effort to input a sketch of the village into a satellite image map as part of participatory mapping. Photo credit: Hendrika Wulan/WRI Indonesia

In the process of mapping customary territories through participatory mapping, women serve as vital sources for conflict resolution, drawing on their extensive tribal knowledge. In many cases, men seek information about land from senior women. The involvement of women enhances collaboration, solidarity and conflict resolution (Westermann et al., 2005).    

Women also pass down knowledge and history from generation to generation, including language, myths, farming methods, inheritance history, herbal medicine recipes, war poison recipes and logistics systems for traditional ceremonies. This traditional knowledge is crucial for the sustainability of both the tribe and its natural resources.  

Voices of Indigenous Women

In 2017, Yustina Ogoney was appointed by Teluk Bintuni Regent Petrus Kasihiw as the Head of Merdey District, marking a significant achievement for local women who often face skepticism about their leadership capabilities, not by external parties, but often by the locals. Yustina welcomed this decision, saying, “We must prove that women are capable of being leaders.”     

One of the key aspirations of the Moskona Tribe, conveyed to Yustina, was the recognition of their Customary Forest status. The Moskona Tribe's forest area, surrounded by Forest Concession Rights (HPH), is under constant threat of expansion. Official recognition was necessary to protect the forest. Through the concerted efforts of Yustina and various stakeholders, the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry in October 2022 issued SK 8031/MENLHK-PSKI/PKTHA/PSL.1/20/2022 on the Establishment of Customary Forest Status for the Ogoney Clan within the Moskona Tribe, covering approximately 16,299 hectares in Merdey District, Teluk Bintuni Regency, West Papua Province.    

Law Number 2 of 2021 mandates that women must represent one-quarter of the members in the Papua House of Representatives (DPRP) and the Regency/Municipal House of Representatives (DPRK), with a minimum representation of 30 percent. In the 2019–2024 period, women comprised around 15 percent of the 55 members of the Papua House of Representatives. Achieving 30 percent female representation in the legislature is a priority for the 2024 election. The Papuan People’s Assembly (MRP) includes a Women's Working Group (Pokja), providing a platform for Papuan women to express their views.    

Papua's cultural heritage traditionally centers on women, but modernization has often sidelined them from strategic decisions. Despite their crucial role in managing and preserving natural resources for family life, women's contributions have been undervalued. Increasing women's empowerment and leadership capacity is essential for them to be heard in public forums. While opportunities for women to voice their opinions at elite levels are emerging, the primary challenge remains ensuring their influence in decision-making processes that recognize the importance of their roles.  

Kelompok Pengolah VCO di Papua
Discussion with the women’s group processing virgin coconut oil (VCO). Photo credit: Hendrietta Retno for WRI Indonesia

Source: Notes from the field trip in the Arfak Mountains, South Manokwari, Manokwari, Biak Islands, Jayawijaya Mountains, Jayapura.