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'Civilization' May Spell the End for the World's Last Frontier

December 22, 1989|CHARLES P. WALLACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TIOM, Indonesia — The single-engine Cessna belonging to U. S.-based Missionary Aviation Fellowship banked sharply as a forest-covered mountain loomed ahead. Then a balding grass airstrip appeared and pilot Rick Willms set the tiny plane down with practiced, though heart-stopping, skill.

As the plane thundered to a halt, a crowd of people converged on the end of the runway to watch curiously. About half of them wore no clothes: Some women had grass skirts and some men wore a cylindrical gourd called a koteka. Despite their nakedness, a few carried umbrellas. Others wore black plastic bags like hats.

Seven thousand feet above sea level, the small village of Tiom is set in a spectacular mountain valley. The checkerboard patterns of gardens growing sweet potatoes rise dizzyingly up the side of cliffs so steep that it is not uncommon for women working there to fall to their deaths.

As a visitor raised a camera to photograph the scene around Willms' plane, people in the crowd simultaneously raised a forefinger. By silent consensus, the fee for a photograph is now 100 rupiahs (about 4 cents) per person.

"We get a lot of tourists through here these days," explained Alan Speakman, an Australian missionary whose brown clapboard house overlooks the steep runway.

These are the highlands of Irian Jaya, a place that many people--anthropologists, missionaries and government officials--regard as the world's last frontier.

A sizable number of people in Irian, whose interior was not explored or shown on a map until 50 years ago, still dwell in the Stone Age.

But after millennia of isolation, the 20th Century is now making rapid inroads here.

Lying at the eastern end of the sprawling Indonesian archipelago, Irian Jaya is as far from the capital, Jakarta, as Los Angeles is from Washington, but far more remote.

It has a population of 1.5 million spread over a bird-shaped territory the size of California. The region varies from the only year-round glacier in the tropics to malaria-infested swamps along the coast. Irian Jaya is the western half of New Guinea, the second largest island in the world after Greenland.

For Indonesia, Irian Jaya represents a vast storehouse of natural resources: oil, a mountain made of copper, and timber forests as far as the eye can see. Such resources will be increasingly in demand for exploitation as the country's current sources of revenues, principally oil, run out over the next few decades.

"We must speed up development," said Irian's governor, Barnabas Suebu, "but we also need to take care to preserve our original culture."

Irian Jaya also represents a political headache for Jakarta, as a tiny but influential separatist movement called the Free Papua Movement, armed principally with bows and arrows, continues to agitate for independence.

To the more than 200 missionaries in Irian Jaya, the province represents the ultimate test of faith on the edge of the world. With the missionaries have come education, medicine and a slow acceptance of Christian values in a country that is the world's most populous Muslim state.

For the anthropologists, Irian Jaya stands like a remarkable textbook: people speaking 250 distinct languages who still chop trees with sharpened stones and yet can remember ancestors dating back eight generations. There are people in Irian Jaya who until 10 years ago did not know there was an outside world, who count in base 27, as opposed to 10, using elbows and ears, but have never seen a wheel.

Efforts to bring "civilization" to Irian have brought mixed success.

A few years ago the government decided the people would always be backward without clothes, so it launched Operation Koteka, dropping jogging shorts from the air to remote villages. The villagers promptly put the shorts on their heads.

One missionary in Jayapura, the provincial capital, said his group is now actively discouraging the wearing of clothes because the people had not been properly prepared for the change; there was an epidemic of skin diseases because many wore the clothes without ever washing them.

The remote villagers have recently been introduced to a cash economy for the first time, and, according to missionaries, have become avid consumers, especially prizing such items as portable radios and wristwatches.

But they have little to sell at the markets; in the highlands, for example, the Dani people prize their ability to raise pigs, but the townspeople are overwhelmingly Muslims who do not eat pork.

The people are agonizingly innocent.

One missionary recalled that a villager had approached him to change $2,000 that he said he had earned by catering to American tourists for several weeks. The villager then presented a wad of Monopoly play money.

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