In the years 1997/ 1998, the weather phenomenon El Niño caused a lot of suffering and need. Among the countries which were affected was also Papua (then known as Irian Jaya) the easternmost province of Indonesia. This island is the most untouched jungle region in Asia Pacific. Roughly 3,2 million people live in an area which is almost the size of the State of Montana in the States. Some of them are still living in stone age conditions with cannibalism still a part of their culture. In Papua over 250 languages are spoken which causes many conflicts. There are villages which are one day’s hike apart but they can’t talk to each other because they don’t speak the same language. Often the only communication is with weapons.
The west coast consists of a large tropical jungle covered with swamps. In the center of the island there are mountains as high as 5431 m (17’818 feet). The mountains are inhabited and covered with forest up to around 3000 m (10’000 feet). The staple diet of the locals is sweet potatoes. They supplement these with fruit and nuts from the trees. Usually abundant tropical rains supply plenty of water to fill the mountain streams and irrigate the arable land. However, the drought in 1997 dried everything up leaving only stagnant pools of water. These became polluted and caused severe disease and death to the local people who were already weakened by malnutrition.
The shift in climate caused the mountainous areas to be hit by cold spells freezing the trees which usually provided food and protection. Flying over the area it looked like a winter landscape in Europe. People living in these extremely difficult to reach areas could only be supplied with food, medication and other necessities by helicopter.
In January 1998 the Government asked us for urgent help with the helicopter. Ernie tanner visited the country, the vice governor and various departments to plan the operation. He accompanied MAF who flew supplies of rice to the highlands. From there, the material needed to be distributed by helicopter. The collaboration with MAF worked very well and their pilots were a big help distributing the goods on site. In co-operation with the Australian government, Médecins sans Frontières and MAF, many tons of food and medication were supplied to those in need.
Since then, we have built a permanent Station in Wamena, in the highlands of Papua, where we help the local people with various needs. Over the last 20 years, we have flown many emergency flights saving countless lives.