Papua New Guinea: Curse of the Gaharu

Papua New Guinea: Curse of the Gaharu 

Tuesday, November 11, 2003
  Source: The Star (Malaysia)

The Asmat people of Papua New Guinea believe in the magical powers of the gaharu tree. They burn its resin to connect with their ancestors and to cast spells. Outsiders, meanwhile, value gaharu as the source of a costly incense. But now, commercial interests want to log and mine the very forests which these trees grow in.

On the Asewetsj River in the mountainous rainforest of the western Papua region of New Guinea, a score of men from the indigenous Asmat people set off in canoes to search for gaharu trees, believed to hold a magic that protects their culture – or a curse that could unravel it.

Some of the men wear white-feathered headdresses lined with shells; some have painted their faces and chests with white lime. Occasionally they stop rowing and beat their paddles against the canoes, playing them like drums.

The Asmat believe that an ancient god, Fumeripits, carved their ancestors from the surrounding trees.

In western New Guinea, the centre of every Asmat community is the traditional jeus or longhouse made of sago thatch, tree bark and pole trees. Drum sounds bring the spirits to life. So does incense from gaharu trees.

The trees produce a hard, black resin that the Asmat burn to connect with their ancestors and to cast spells. Outsiders, too, value gaharu as the source of a costly incense for the markets in Asia and the Middle East.

The rowers penetrate one of the world’s largest, most biologically diverse intact rainforests. Its mountains, including the 5,333m Puncak Jaya, are the tallest in South-East Asia. Malarial swamps surround the mountains like moats.

Now commercial interests want to develop lumber and mineral resources in the 20,200sqkm region. The rainforest holds many valuable kinds of trees and veins of gold, silver and copper. This year the Indonesian government divided Papua into three districts for development.

More than 70,000 Asmat live in villages throughout the region, harvesting wild sago trees and fishing. “The land and the natural environment are like our own mother, who nurtures her children so they are healthy and survive,’’ says Wiro Birif, a leader of Lembaga Musyawarah Adat Asmat (LMAA), a community activist group. “Nature is also the place where our ancestors live. They are around us here in the forest.’’

More than 70,000 Asmat live in 150 villages scattered throughout the rainforest of western New Guinea. Like many subsistence cultures around the world, the Asmat need to reconcile the old ways and the new markets. “When outsiders first came into these villages a few years ago offering money for gaharu, it was seen as a chance to make easy money. A gold rush mentality followed,’’ says Nev Kemp of the Washington DC-based Indo-Pacific Conservation Alliance, which helps support LMAA’s conservation efforts. “A lot of the traditional customs that protect these people and this forest started breaking down.’’

Among the rowers on the Asewetsj River is Ernest Dicim, another LMAA leader. “The gaharu tree is a tree for life, a tree where many spirits reside,’’ Dicim says. “It can be used to communicate with the spirit world.’’

A curse falls upon those who abuse the gaharu, the Asmat believe. “Many people, mothers, fathers and children, have died,’’ Dicim says.

A scout spots a promising gaharu site. The men pull over to the riverbank. There they build a small wooden altar where they place tobacco, stones and leaves – an offering to the ancestors. Barefoot, the men walk single-file into the forest, clearing a path with their machetes. Ahead is a gaharu tree. Not until the men chop down the tree will they know if it contains the treasured resin. They wind a sash of leaves around the tree for luck and begin chopping with axes.

As the tree falls, the Asmat chant. The sun pours through the tear in the canopy. The men jimmy the bark off the tree. A thin, hard black vein suddenly appears in the white wood. “Ini gaharu hitam bagus,’’ Dicim says (“this is good black gaharu”).

Gaharu traders from elsewhere in Indonesia have brought money – as well as alcohol and prostitution. “As a result, many men contracted syphilis,’’ Ernest says. “And there was also no awareness about HIV. There was sexual activity without knowledge of consequences. Many people died, became thin and just died.’’

Asnar Arsat, an outside trader from the island of Sulawesi, hires Asmat to collect gaharu for him. “But the gaharu trees are disappearing,’’ Ansar explains. “Gaharu is getting rare. You have to go a long way to find it now.’’

Traders are aware of the curse of gaharu. “It is generally believed that the profits you make from gaharu, if you put that in another business, the business will fail,’’ Arsat says.

The LMAA leaders fear that loggers and miners will follow the traders. The fate of the Asmats depends on more than the tree of good and evil.

A balance must be struck between traditional reverence for the forest and modern incentives to destroy it. 

2003 National Geographic Society
Story By Jennifer Hile


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