People play an important role in the ecological systems in which they live and of which they are part. According to the dominant discourses on 'the environment', indigenous people in particular have special relationships with nature and live in harmony with their natural surroundings. Yet in contemporary times there are many forces affecting how people perceive and relate to their environments, hi 'developing countries' many indigenous people are marginalised and economically-impoverished. This research presents a version of local people's lives within a contemporary West Papuan setting. It is a discussion of the particular ways that the non-human environment has meaning and significance in the lives of indigenous people on an island that I have pseudo-named 'Belolo'. It is based on original ethnographic research carried out in 2000/2001.
Interrelated with the islanders' 'rules' and approaches to natural resource ownership and use are people's social identities and notions of belonging to the Belolo community. Exploring these subjective issues reveals diverse and fluid ways that the islanders apprehend the non-human environment. Cases study examples related to land tenure, marine resource use, reef bombing, place names and songs show that social organisation, and human relations generally, are primary considerations mediating Belolo people's responses to issues and incidences to do with natural resources. At the same time, economic and political factors related to their position in relation to the Indonesian State also shape local perceptions and priorities in relationships between humans and the non-human environment. In the examples from Belolo Island, structural imperatives, local knowledge, practices, memories, emotion and beliefs constantly merge in a negotiation of social and environmental morality.
This research reveals the complex struggles of material and cultural survival amidst political tension and social pressures that Belolo islanders face at the turn of the 20th century. Individuals in this setting creatively express and construct their identities related to the non-human environment, doing so for plural purposes and in particularised ways. Identity, the recognition of culture and morality are critical issues that have emerged from researching contemporary environmental values in a West Papuan village.