Indonesia census turns up Papua tribe living in trees

JAKARTA Thu Jun 24, 2010 5:58pm IST

JAKARTA (Reuters) - A tribe of hunter gatherers living in trees in the remote forests of Indonesia's easternmost region of Papua has been discovered officially for the first time by the country's census, an official said on Thursday.

The nomadic tribe, called Koroway, numbers about 3,000 people speaking their own language and living off forest animals and plants, census officials found during the country's 2010 census survey.

"Their houses are in trees, their life is stone age," said Suntono, head of Indonesia's statistics agency for Papua.

After receiving reports from missionaries, census officials needed to walk for up to two weeks to find the tribe, after travelling by boat from the nearest permanent villages, but still only reached the fringes of their territory.

The nearest city to the swampy southeastern corner of Papua is Merauke, the site of a planned giant food estate attracting interest from investors such as Singapore's Wilmar to grow sugar.

Scientists said last month they had found new species in Papua, including the world's smallest wallaby. The discoveries come as scientists warn of the threat of species loss as the planet warms and forests are destroyed to feed humans.

Suntono said tribe members, who wear nothing but banana leaves, protected their area from outsiders as they depended on it for food such as deer, wild boar, sago and bananas.

A secessionist movement has smouldered for decades in politically sensitive and resource-rich Papua, with attacks in the past year on workers at Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc's Grasberg mine that has the world's largest gold reserves.

There are more than 2,500 tribes in Papua and all have different languages, Suntono added.

Papua makes up most of the western half of the island of New Guinea. Papua New Guinea, a separate country, occupies the eastern half.

(Reporting by Telly Nathalia; Writing by Neil Chatterjee; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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