PanaJournal – The four “religions” of modern life promise benefits that might take a while to pay off.

When the fundamentalist Baptist missionaries in this isolated valley in West Papua asked for contributions to build a new church, Zakarias chipped in with the most valuable thing he could find — a bird of paradise.

Early Portuguese and Dutch spice-seekers were presented with brightly-colored bird skins that had no feet. The locals had simply hacked off the appendages, perhaps deciding that a leg-less bird was more aesthetically pleasing and therefore worth more in trade. The Europeans however deduced that the creatures were legless because they spent their entire lives in the air, using a depression in the female’s back as an open-air nest.

The Portuguese dubbed them “Passaros de Sol,” or Birds of the Sun. The Dutchmen who followed the Portuguese dusted off their Latin vocabulary and named the creature “Avis paradiseus,” or Paradise Bird.

The irony of buying his way into heaven with a bird that represented holy salvation to the early European conquerors did not occur to Zakarias.

What he did recognize is that proponents of four “religions” want a piece of his soul.

Zakarias showed me chunky grey caterpillars that nature conservationists encourage him to raise. These will become gaudy, yellow and black swallow-tailed butterflies, and when sold to collectors will earn him a welcome few dollars each. For a couple of years he had undertaken the extra work strictly as an act of faith — he had received promises of a payback, but no guarantees.

To the conservationists the butterfly venture represents a philosophy which opines that conservation of the rainforest will work only when local people get some tangible benefit from it. The quid pro quo in this case is that Zakarias agrees to help manage and protect the Arfak Mountains Strict Nature Reserve in the “bird’s head” corner of the Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea.

Call it what you will: a new way of saving nature, an example of “sustainable development,” an unreliable promise. I call it a religion. In effect, the conservationists have, more or less, convinced Zakarias to change his behavior in return for a possible future reward. “Do not clear land for farms in the nature reserve,” the conservation commandments say. “Respect the national park boundaries and enter not therein except to hunt deer with a bow and arrow. And don’t even think about killing that bird of paradise.”

The conservationists are among the most benign of the new religionists.
I count at least four nouvelle faiths: the belief systems propagated by the government, the churches, the businessmen and the people who promote nature conservation.

The Javanese who run the country from distant Jakarta want to “Indonesianize” Zakarias by encouraging him to speak Bahasa Indonesia, to follow the civic principles of the national philosophy called Pancasila; and to ignore the disruptive Free Papua Movement campaigning for independence.

Fundamentalist Protestant preachers want to “Christianize” him, and by doing so add his tenor voice to the Sunday choir.

Tycoons who manufacture shampoo and jogging shoes want to “consumerise” him, by making him feel the need for things his people have not needed for millennia previously.

And conservationists want to “empower” him, to give him a voice in saving nature, as long as it coincides with the way the Western experts think conservation should work.

“Trust us,” these modern-day evangelists seem to say. “We’re from the government/church/business/nature conservation sect. We’re here to help you. If you believe in us, even though we give you no guarantee, your life will be improved.”

The four “religions” of government, church, business and conservation have achieved some significant results.

For example, some Christian missionaries in West Papua have helped stop cannibalism and infanticide, have established schools and clinics, and have initiated community development projects like water systems and gardens. But the conversions are not necessarily deep. While many people profess to be Christian, of one form or another, it is not uncommon for Papuans to believe that sitting in church will result in immunity from sickness and that forgetting to shut one’s eyes during prayers will lead to blindness.

It also seems that some societies out here are retrograde cargo cultists at heart.

I was told this, perhaps apocryphal, story. An American missionary had a disciple; a young man whom he had hoped would go off and undertake God’s work in another valley. The missionary and his wife and two kids lived in a prefab house that someone (surely not them) had somehow lugged up into the mountains. Although he had known the Papuan would-be-missionary for several years, the American Bible-thumper had lived aloof from the community and had never invited the acolyte into his house.

Finally the American felt the local lad had passed all the hurdles but one. He suggested the young man join the family for a Coke, whereupon he asked him: “How will you know that you are the best Christian you can be?” The local man, who had grown up in a village without running water or access to medical care, gazed around the inner sanctum, taking in the sight of a television and VCR, a radio-phone, a microwave, a refrigerator, a boom-box, all powered by electricity generated by a tiny hydroelectric system the missionary had asked the local people to construct on the stream behind the village.

The young man pondered the question, because it was important for him to get it right. Finally he replied: “When I have all the things you have.”

Sounds like the koreri cargo cult — a widespread Melanesian belief that if proper rites are performed the ancestors will bestow good health, food and material goods — hasn’t died out completely, merely morphed into a slightly different ritual in which the good Hatam people of Minyambou raise their voices to Jesus every Sunday, before depositing a sweet potato in the collection box.

Clearly the soul is a complicated organ. The day I was leaving Minyambou, I sought out Zakarias to say goodbye. He admired my watch. Seeing that I wasn’t about to give it to him, he offered me a trade: my Casio for a bird of paradise skin. I said a prayer for all of us. ***

This is a chapter in “Curious Encounters of the Human Kind (Indonesia)”, Explorer’s Eye Press (2015) and it has been excerpted with permission of the author. Available on


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