Blog – 7 years in the Papua highlands

Before Article

From 2005 to 2012, Marnix Balke worked in Indonesia-Papua as a consultant in organisational build-up and economic development. In that period he lived with his family in Wamena in the Baliem Valley, which had not been discovered until shortly after the Second World War. Due to the outside influence, the inhabitants were catapulted from the Stone Age into modern times, with money, planes, cars and other modern technology. In addition, the government, missionary and development organisations became involved. Marnix is still regularly asked what it was like to work there and whether sustainability also played a role. He shares his experiences in this blog.

Bio-based economy

Being a nature people, the Papuans lived in symbiosis with nature. The special thing was that this way of life already had several sustainable elements in itself. Think, for instance, of crop rotation in the vegetable gardens. If there was temporary overcropping and soil depletion due to cultivation of crops, these were burned down after a number of years and pigs were allowed to fertilise the soil. This was followed by another period of cultivation. All materials used were natural and therefore bio-based. Waste only came about when external materials were introduced.

One of the first sought-after products from the outside was iron axes. These provided better results than home-made stone axes.


– Marnix Balke, senior consultant & project manager at CFP Green Buildings

gebouw in PapuaLarge-scale development

Wamena, the capital of the hinterland, was developing to the full and therefore needed many government buildings, schools and shops. To meet this demand, the architecture of other parts of Indonesia was mostly copied. This meant that gravel, sand and cement were made into masonry blocks. The walls were then plastered with cement and painted on both sides. This required a lot of sand (extracted from the river) and cement (flown in) through a long logistics chain.

Starting work with local materials

However, the Baliem river also provided a lot of clay deposits in various places. In the 1960s, a missionary had already been baking bricks, but that had fizzled out. As several school buildings had to be constructed as part of our foundation’s programme, that was a good opportunity to combine various things! By including prominent red bricks in the design of the buildings, an exemplary project was created that combined an attractive design with locally produced bricks. The locally produced bricks provided income for the local population. Moreover, the bricks were cheaper and of better quality than the cement bricks. When other building projects also switched to local bricks, a boost was provided that also resulted in sustainability gains for the local economy. More jobs were created, more use was made of bio-based materials and the resulting clay holes could later serve as fish ponds for farmed fish.

Current sustainability

Example projects that appeal, coordination with various stakeholders for support and clout, increased use of bio-based materials and the reduction of logistics with CO2 gains as a result: it would all fit into a current BREEAM questionnaire or other sustainability benchmark. The indicators and intended effects that were the main focus at that time were income and labour for the local population, local value creation and the strengthening of the economy and education. In other words, a multiple effect. Isn’t that the beauty of sustainable projects? In development work jargon, the route of activities was towards outcome, output and wider impact. And in current projects it’s actually the same again and the eventual broader impact on sustainability and society makes me want to get to work every day in the Netherlands too!

Written by Marnix Balke, senior consultant & project manager at CFP Green Buildings