A measles and malnutrition crisis has killed at least 72 people, mostly children, in Indonesia’s remote province of Papua, home to the world’s biggest gold mine.
As Rebecca Henschke and Hedyer Affan report, the crisis has put the spotlight on a region closed off to journalists for decades and revealed serious government failings.
Just two months old, Yulita Atap’s life has already been brutally hard. Her mother died in childbirth. Her father gave her up for dead.
“In the cloud of grief he wanted to hit her, to bury her with her mother,” says her uncle, Ruben Atap.
“I said, don’t do that, God will be angry, he became calm and was grateful that we wanted to take care of her, but we are now struggling to keep her alive.”
She lies limply on a bed in the only hospital in the Asmat regency, a jungle-covered area the size of Belgium. Her ribs exposed, nearly piercing through her skin, her stomach bloated, she floats in and out of sleep.
Her uncle stares constantly at her tiny body.
Government health workers helped him make a two-day journey on a speedboat up a river to get here. The rivers are the highways, weaving like snakes through the thick jungle.
On the next hospital bed is Ofnea Yohanna’s family. Three of her children, aged four, three and two, are severely malnourished.
She married when she was just 12 years old. Still in her twenties, she has six children.
“We eat when there is food, when there isn’t we don’t. We don’t have a boat at the moment to go fishing in,” she says.
While we talk her daughter stares emptily off into the distance, her eyes hollow and lifeless. She picks at a packet of sweet biscuits, a pile of plain white rice on brown paper sits uneaten next to her.
A proud tribe
Traditionally, the Asmat tribe has lived on sago starch extracted from palms, and fish from the rivers and sea.
“Asmat is, in its way, a perfect place. Everything you could possibly need is here,” wrote Carl Hoffman in his 2014 book about the disappearance and presumed death of New York socialite, Michael Rockefeller, in Asmat in the 1960s.
“It’s teeming with shrimp and crabs and fish and clams and sago palm, whose pith can be pounded into a white starch and which hosts the larvae of the Capricorn beetle, both key sources of nutrition,” he wrote.
Changing diets, fading traditions
The semi-nomadic Asmat tribes used to spend months in the forest to make sago and find enough food to live.
Cultural changes began happening in the 1950s with the arrival of Christian missionaries, and in recent years diets have dramatically changed with increasing number of migrants from other Indonesian islands coming here.
The nearest city of Timika, an hour’s flight away, serves as a centre for the US-owned Freeport mine, the world’s largest gold mine.
Timika has one of the fastest population growths in Indonesia.
“People increasingly buy imported food and because in some places the forests have been logged they have to go further to get sago,” says local health researcher, Willem Bobi.
“So now the quickest thing is to buy instant processed food; government money has come in and made our people dependent.”
A native Papuan, Willem Bobi travelled across the vast jungle-covered area and described the dire health situation in a book, The Asmat Medicine Man, which was published last year.
“I knew a crisis like this would come. I saw there was a lack of clean water and a serious lack of health facilitates. I saw health clinics where the only doctors had been on leave for months but were still being paid wages.
“The crisis we are seeing now has happened many times before but it has never been as bad as now,” he says.
“It’s happening because the health authorities have not dealt with this seriously enough.”
Source: BBC News