Koroway and tree top houses, West Papua (2012)


In 2012, together with Iulius Carebia, I went on a trip to Korowai, a tribe living in the forests of West Papua, somewhere between the rivers flowing south of Maoke Mountains.

It took us ten days to get there, starting from Agats, in the south of Papua, travelling with the locals and finding our way by word of mouth.

A boat, the last one in a chain of boats which took us upstream, brought us to Basman, a village on the southern border of Korowai territory. We stopped on an empty bank, from where a wooden bridge was leading inland. The recently built bridge, stretching a few hundreds of meters from river to village, was not what we expected to see there. It had been built to serve transport construction materials. The Indonesian Government was building two villages there, to move the Korowai out from the forest. One village – Mu 1– had been finished a few years before. Around 50 houses, looking more like a labour camp, without inhabitants and an empty school building.

The Korowai are semi-nomads, living in and from the forest. Each family lives on its own territory. Brought in the village, they were always returning in the forest, after a few days, when the food had been finished.

(I’ve seen dozens of such ghost-villages in West Papua which justify spending public money and feed the Indonesian propaganda on its effort “to develop”…)

In Basman we were hosted by Daut, one of the clans’ chiefs, and his two wives. The heads of other families gathered at Daut to check what we brought and why we were there. After a day of discussions, they came with a sort of plan for our trip.

At first, we thought the debate was caused by suspicions regarding us. But there was something else. The Korowai are organized in clans, each one with its ancestors and lands. Not all clans are in good relations, which can easily spark a fight. In the forest they are always winding between different territories, to avoid the enemies. Our plan, to cross all Korowai lands on an “efficient” route, on our pace, was mission impossible.

From Basman we deepened in the forests and swamps. Our guides were following barely visible tracks, between pounds of dark water hidden by vegetation, water streams and man-made clearings, where we could see houses raised by 5-10 meters above the ground. The forest resounded of birds and yodelers. The Korowai constantly make their presence known, “so that they know we are coming and don’t get scared.”

We were escorted by three guys. The Korowai don’t go alone in the forest and never without bows, arrows and spears. The bows were kept tensed and the arrows on hand. They have a fast temper and spontaneous reactions: run or fight.

After three days our guides convinced us that it is not possible to go further. “The waters are too high, we can’t cross them now”. They left us at a crossroad in the middle of the forest, with other guys, and returned to Basman.

The new guys took us with them to Yaniruma, a big village between Korowai and Kombai tribes, which become the base camp for our trips to the Korowai clans.

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