Hydro-electric dams, as shown in other parts of the world where large-scale projects have been undertaken, have had enormous environmental and social impacts. Plans exist for West Papua’s Mamberamo River to be dammed in order to provide electricity for an aluminiurn smelter. The smelter is to be operated by a Canadian company, and its construction will in turn see the development of an industrial zone, in the pristine northern region presently inhabited by isolated tribes.

Professor Otto Soemarwoto, an Indonesian ecologist has said of the Asahan Dam in Sumatra:”…development has been too much emphasised for national growth. The local people have been viewed as constraints for the development projects … resettlement schemes are in fact devices to alleviate these constraints. The projects are not conceived to benefit the local people, but people in cities and foreigners.”

During and subsequent to the dam’s construction, large areas of land are flooded and made uninhabitable, with a potential for the spread of water-borne diseases and malaria in the tropical environment. The people first and most directly affected will be those groups which require relocation. To be moved away from ancestral homes is especially difficult for isolated populations. The stress of relocation is indicated by a rise in morbidity rates. This applies especially to the very young and the very old. A population’s resistance to illness is lowered because of the very real stress accompanying resettlement and because of sudden changes in food consumption.

Almost 90 per cent of Mamberamo people are illiterate. Tribal groups include the Bauzi, who live by catching fish and crocodiles in the rivers and lakes, hunting in the forests or collecting wild fruits. The presence of the military in Mamberamo since 1985 with a “cooperative” crocodile business, has had a great sociological impact, especially on the local women. With tobacco, sugar and coffee as payment for this work, the troops force the local men to catch crocodile for weeks away from their villages, leaving the wives vulnerable to the needs of the local troops. Existing regional health standards are already low, and may be compounded by the influx of foreign construction and semi-skilled workers.

It would seem far more beneficial to West Papua’s long term development if a hydroelectric scheme very much smaller than 10,000 MW was developed in the Mamberamo area. Power generation throughout the rural areas could bring about the development of local industries and the electrification of villages. Even with the Mamberamo Dam, small scale micro-hydro schemes would be required if these needs were to be met, as Mamberamo power is intended to provide power solely to an industrial complex and new urban development. Minister for Research and Technology, Professor B J Habibie, is seeking out investors for the Mamberamo Dam project, and visited Australia in May, 1995.

[Source: http://www.cs.utexas.edu/~cline/papua/dams.htm]