Four months before Raki Ap was born his father, a West Papuan cultural leader, anthropologist and musician, was killed. He had been arrested in November 1983 by the Indonesian military special forces and imprisoned and tortured for suspected sympathies with the Free Papua Movement, although no charges were laid.
Five months later he was shot in the back. Officials claim he was trying to escape. His son, along with many of his supporters, believe he was executed by the special forces.
It was this shocking start in life that inspired Ap, who grew up in the Netherlands after his mother fled West Papua with her three young children, to fight for indigenous rights.
He is now the international spokesman of the peaceful Free West Papua campaign. He does so, he says, while acknowledging his father’s spirit is still very much with him. “We know as indigenous peoples we never walk alone,” he smiles.
He is in Glasgow for COP26 because, he insists, it is not possible to separate environmental issues and human rights in his homeland. West Papua is the world’s largest tropical island, and houses the planet’s third largest rainforest.
But it is also the site of the Grasberg mine, which holds the world’s largest reserves of gold and the second largest of copper.
It is where BP’s massive liquid gas Tangguh project is to be found. The company says it is giving back to the community, creating training and jobs, improving education and protecting. It claims Tangguh-supported health programmes have now led to the virtual eradication of malaria in local communities. Critics vehemently disagree.
In West Papua palm oil is harvested and forests still cleared. Though journalists and NGOs are not free to enter, associated human rights abuses – from political arrests to ex-judicial killings – have been reported by organisations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
The Ferret has revealed that over 1,000 fossil and big business reps are at COP26 despite repeated calls to keep polluters out. And their presence matters in terms of the plight of countries in West Papua, says Ap.
“These are the same corporations ignoring the rights of the indigenous people in West Papua, destroying the environment and the way of life and one of the most pristine lands, having a say in the blue and green zones of the so-called climate summit,” he says.
This, he claims, is the opposite of what should happen. Instead of corporations, the people with experience of living in the wake of environmental destruction, as well as the knowledge of how to restore their environment should be at the heart of the climate talks.
“The real solutions are not on the table because the representations of those who know how to persevere ecosystems are being marginalised,” he says. “The lobbyists are there and the frontline protectors of the environment are kept out.”
Instead of the official conference, he is attending an event at the Landing Hub – a makeshift, fringe venue packed with talks and cultural events – to launch of West Papua’s Green State Vision, a call for action and rebalance of power. “We are not victims – we are climate leaders.” But so far those in power are not listening.
What is missing from the heart of the COP, he says, is any focus on the root causes of environmental damage and the link between colonialism and the climate crisis. He explains: “From a former Dutch colony we got a new coloniser, Indonesia.” It, he claims, gave the space to corporations “to do what they do, which is to destruct to make profit”.
This includes deforestation, he says, and ultimately leads to carbon emissions.
“And so we see these are the true causes of the problem of what we call the climate crisis – unfinished ongoing colonisation, capitalism against racism against Black and Indigenous peoples.”
The same structures from the past are very much alive, he claims. And yet, his vision is one of hope. Structural changes – from the end of slavery to the women’s rights didn’t start from the centre of power, he argues. “They started from the fringes and the edges of society.
“There is the same situation here [at COP26]. We need action from the world leaders but once again we have some of the same old. But the hope is that history has shown us that change will happen if people find the courage to believe in themselves and build alliances.”
In response a spokesman from BP said: “The Tangguh project in Papua Barat has brought very significant benefits for its local communities in Papua, as well as for Indonesia and for BP and its partners.
“These have been both economic and through Tangguh’s extensive community engagement and support programmes. Tangguh began development in the 1990s and has been safely producing LNG since 2009.”
Cover image thanks to iStock/lvarobueno