Where Is Papua?

Papua in Indonesia May Be Home to Many Uncontacted Indigenous Groups

A Papuan man in traditional garb.

Agung Parameswara/Getty Images

Many people often ask, “Where is Papua?”

Not to be confused with the independent nation of Papua New Guinea, Papua is actually an Indonesian province on the western side of the island of New Guinea. The Indonesian half (west side) of New Guinea is carved into two provinces: Papua and West Papua.

The Bird’s Head Peninsula, also known as the Doberai Peninsula, sticks out of the northwestern part of New Guinea. In 2003, the Indonesian government changed the name from West Irian Jaya to West Papua. Many of the world's uncontacted indigenous peoples are thought to be hiding in both Papua and West Papua.

While Papua is a province of Indonesia and therefore is considered to be politically part of Southeast Asia, neighboring Papua New Guinea is considered to be in Melanesia and therefore a part of Oceania.

Papua is the easternmost province of Indonesia as well as the largest. The location of Papua can roughly be described as due north of Australia and southeast of the Philippines. East Timor (Timor-Leste) is southwest of Papua. The island of Guam is located far to the north.

The capital of Papua is Jayapura. Per a 2014 census, the province is home to approximately 2.5 million people.

The Independence Movement in Papua

Because of Papua’s size and remoteness, governing is not an easy task. Indonesia’s House of Representatives has approved the further carving of Papua into two additional provinces: Central Papua and South Papua. Even West Papua will be carved in two, creating a Southwest Papua province.

The extreme distance from Jakarta and ethnic differences have given way to a strong independence movement in Papua. The so-called Papua Conflict has been going on since the Dutch left in 1962 and has resulted in brutal clashes and violence. Indonesian forces in the region have been accused of human rights violations and of covering up unnecessary violence by denying entry to foreign journalists. To visit Papua, foreign travelers must obtain a travel permit in advance and check in with local police offices in each place that they visit. Read more about traveling safely in Asia before you go.

The Grasberg Mine (gold)
George Steinmetz/Getty Images

Natural Resources in Papua

Papua is rich in natural resources, attracting Western companies -- some of which are accused of exploiting the region for wealth.

The Grasberg Mine -- the world’s largest gold mine and third-largest copper mine -- is located near Puncak Jaya, the highest mountain in Papua. The mine, owned by Freeport-McMoRan based in Arizona, provides nearly 20,000 jobs in a region where employment opportunities are often sparse or nonexistent.

The thick rainforests in Papua are rich with timber, valued at an estimated US $78 billion. New species of flora and fauna are constantly being discovered in Papua’s jungles, -- considered by many adventurers to be the most remote in the world.

In 2007, an estimated 44 of the world’s approximated 107 uncontacted tribes were thought to exist in Papua and West Papua! The prospect of being the first to discover a new tribe has given rise to “first-contact” tourism, where tours take visitors deep into unexplored jungles. First-contact tourism is considered irresponsible and unsustainable, as tourists bring sickness and even worse: exposure.

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