Papua is the largest province of Indonesia, comprising a majority part of the western half of the island of New Guinea and nearby islands. The province originally covered the entire western half of New Guinea (named Irian Jaya), but in 2003, the western portion of the province was declared by the Indonesian Government as a separate province named West Irian Jaya (now West Papua).

Jayapura. By Tobias Ohl – Canon IXUS V, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Within Indonesia and West Papua itself, ‘Papua’ usually refers to the entire western half of New Guinea – West Papua – despite its division into separate provinces. This article covers both provinces.

About 75 percent of Papua and West Papua is covered with tropical forests. The northern part of the two provinces is separated from the southern part by a massive chain of mountains known as Pegunungan Maoke. This is one of the highest groups of mountains in the world with the highest peaks in Indonesia, Puncak Jaya (4.884 m), Puncak Mandala (4.640m) and Puncak Trikora (4.730m) to mention a few.

The Puncak Jaya massif has four glaciers, even if it is only 4 degrees south of equator. It was formerly known as Mount Carstensz after a Dutch explorer who came there as the first European in 1623. Among climbers it is best known as Carstensz Pyramid. The summit was first reached in 1962 by the Austrian climber Heinrich Harrer and his team.


The climate is tropical, warm and humid along the coast and in the lowlands, cooler in the highlands. In the monsoon season the rainfall can be very heavy, up to 5.500 mm a year. Some of the largest rivers in Indonesia are flowing here, Baliem, Memberamo and Tariku. In the south west regions the rivers have created large areas of mangrove swamps and tidal forests. The best time to travel in Papua is between May and October when the climate is relatively dry.

Flora and fauna:

The forest grows up to an altitude of about 4.400 m, and the base of the mountains are covered by dense rain forest with a large variety of plants. The wide range of habitats include alpine mountains, dense jungle, swamps, pine forests, plains and coastal areas. This has led to an equally large variation of plants and animal life, with many species unique to New Guinea. Much of the animal life is of the Australian type, with several marsupial species. There are a variety of snakes, anteater, opossum, bats, lizards, tree kangaroo, marsupial cat, tortoise and crocodiles that can reach a length of 7 meters. The island is also known for its many species of butterflies and 650 unique bird species, including 80 species of the bird of paradise. About 20 percent of Papua is now protected with national parks, some of the parks along the coastline is accessible, while parks in the highlands can be hard to reach.

People and Religion:

The main religion is Christianity, blended with some traditional beliefs and customs. With the large population who have moved here from other regions of Indonesia, Islam is a growing religion in the coastal areas.


Papua and West Papua is the least developed provinces in Indonesia, a majority of the population are occupied with agriculture, fishing and hunting. Major industries are exploration for oil and gas, timber, fishing and mining. The largest deposit of copper in the world is found here. Only a small fraction of the income from these valuable resources is for the benefit of the local population, something that has contributed to the growth and support of OPM, the movement for Papuan independence (OPM – Operasi Papua Merdeka – Operation free Papua, OPM is behind many guerrilla actions in the area).

History of Papua:

Even if Papua was discovered at the start of the 16th century by Europeans searching for the famous spice islands (Maluku), very few went ashore to explore the land. Parts of the interior has been white areas on the maps until the 20th century, when Dutch military forces made some expeditions to the interior of the island. The large Baliem Valley with more than 50.000 inhabitants in the highlands south of Jayapura were actually discovered as late as 1938. Even today many areas are practically unknown, and still there are stories about newly discovered tribes that never before have seen the civilization.

The Portuguese called this area Ilhas dos Papuas, of the Malaysian word papuwah, meaning something like “island of the fuzzy hairs”. Dutch explorers later named it New Guinea because the people here reminded them of the people of Guinea in Africa.


The Dutch recognized the Sultan of Tidore’s (in Maluku) sovereignty over New Guinea in 1660, and because Tidore was already under control of the Dutch, New Guinea was now theoretically Dutch. The British were also interested and tried unsuccessfully to establish a settlement near Manokwari in 1793. The Dutch claimed sovereignty over the western part of New Guinea in 1824 and came to an agreement with the British, Papua was officially annexed in 1848.

The Dutch also made an unsuccessful attempt of establishing a settlement near Kaimana, but not until 1896 they managed to establish a permanent presence in Manokwari and Fak Fak. Papua was basically neglected, except for some mining companies from USA and Japan, which explored the rich natural resources until WW2 when the Japanese occupied New Guinea. From 1944 there was fierce fighting here between the allies and Japanese forces, it was considered very important to take control here to be able to control the entire Pacific ocean. Jayapura, the capital, was first liberated, then Sarmi, Biak, Sorong and the Japanese airbase on Morotai north of Halmahera in Maluku. The way to the Philippines was then open, on the south coast of Papua there were battles over Merauke and Fak Fak.

The island was totally liberated in 1945 and remained a Dutch colony until 1962, when they had to hand it over to the United Nations after a period of Indonesian military actions and strong diplomatic pressure from the UN. The province was finally handed over to Indonesia in 1963 on the condition that the people themselves should be allowed to decide their own future in a referendum. This was supposed to happen in 1969, but the Indonesian government announced that it instead would use a procedure called “musyawarah”, a consensus of “elders”. 1025 specially selected delegates gathered to decide that Papua in the future should be a part of the Indonesian Republic. This decision has by many organizations, among them OPM (Operasi Papua Merdeka – operation free Papua), never been acknowledged. They argue that a free democratic referendum where everybody could participate would give full independence to the region.

The Indonesian takeover has caused a great deal of riots and unrest in the region, in 1969 in Biak and Enarotali, in the 1970’s and 80’s there were conflicts around the Baliem valley, Tembagapura and the Paniai district. After several years of relative calm, members of OPM stormed the Indonesian consulate in Vanimo across the border of Papua New Guinea and rioted in Tembagapura and Timika, in 1996 several people were killed during unrest in Jayapura. A number of foreigners have been kidnapped by OPM and held hostages. The official transmigrasi program to move people from densely populated areas in Indonesia to more remote locations like Papua has also caused a great deal of problems with the indigenous people. As much as one third of the population here are migrants from Java, Bali and Sulawesi, this is of course also a political tool to quicker “Indonesianize” the region.

Art and culture:

Festivals and ceremonies are held frequently, but very few are announced so you need a little bit of luck to see one. January is the time for the “Papua Tourism Week” when cultures from all over the island are on display in different cities, there are also some arrangements for visitors at other times of the year. The culture here are as diverse as there are tribes and languages and something really unique.


The largest cities in Papua can be accessed by plane, but it will take some effort to go to the less populated areas. Most of the transport must take place by means of plane or boat

the time) Almost49REASSESSMENT AND little blue pill.

. To be allowed to travel to some areas you will also need a special permit, this can be arranged at a police station in one of the largest cities. Parts of this region is considered to be potential problem areas, and you should check the current local conditions before going here.


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Bjørn Grøtting

Photographer based in Norway. See a collection of my best photos in the portfolio. Licensing of images is done through Photoshelter or alamy.
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