Why conservation efforts in Papua New Guinea by rich people is obnoxious.

Biodiversity conservation is the activity concerned with preserving nature, the processes in nature, and the relationships that exist in nature.  

 Who determines what environment needs conservation?  Most conservationists advocate protection of the species while others seek to protect landscapes.

 Whatever decision is taken, it all comes down to satisfying human values: protecting or restoring an ecosystem service for the benefit of humans, protecting aesthetic values for human pleasure, for posterity value – especially in pharmacology for the benefit of humans, and protecting the inherent value of nature as deemed important by humans to satisfy intellectual curiosity.

 When conservation efforts is human centered, the underlying philosophy is that of a custodian.  Human beings elevate themselves above nature – they assume the responsibility of benevolent guardians to safeguard as well as reverse the negative impacts on nature caused by members of their own species.

The beginnings of conservation started with aristocrats – people who could afford to have servants which allowed them time to do activities that were outside of activities concerned with survival. Conservation activities are done by people who have achieved self-actualization as per Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

This is why conservation, a pastime of the aristocrat in the west when taken and applied to the poor people of the world including Papua New Guinea is obnoxious. It will not work. The contrast in life style silently screams, but crusaders pay no attention. Living in rural Papua New Guinea is about surviving; there is no time and space for becoming benevolent wardens.  

It is obnoxious because of the double standards. The westerners who brought conservation also brought in their criteria for development which is measured by amount of cargo accumulated and how plump a bank balance is for an easy life.  

It is obnoxious when the so-called eco-warriors flaunt their cargo, money and easy life and assume forest people are happy to live in grass huts, dress in leaves and provide the entertainment.

 It is obnoxious to want to preserve a land that provides a livelihood for the people without giving alternatives. Babies somewhere in the forest need to eat meat to grow big and strong, no one has the right to deny babies that right.

 It is obnoxious that conservation pays peanut when development needs real money.  Forest people like humans anywhere in this world have developmental aspirations too.

 It is obnoxious when rich people do not mind oppressing other human beings just because they can.

It becomes as act of terrorism on the human race when protection of wildlife becomes more important than the dignity and sacredness of human life.

 The notion for all-inclusive conservation will become reality when forest owner’s advances up the tiers on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Self-actualization will come about only when these forest people are satisfied with their station in life. Only then can they really and truly appreciate their role as custodians of nature. 

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What is conservation for Papua New Guinea?

Papua New Guinea like other last frontiers of biodiversity richness has been recipient of a lot of money for biodiversity conservation.   A notable donor is the United Nations Global Environmental Facility (GEF).  When PNG ratified the Rio Convention in 1993, GEF grants totaling US$34,728,691 that leveraged US$63,040,600 in co-financing resources were given to PNG for nine national projects. These include five projects in biodiversity, three in climate change, and one multi-focal area[1].

But, how much conservation has PNG achieved with such amounts of money from donors like the GEF?

Currently, there exist 56 Protected Areas (PA) in PNG.  Of these 33 are Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) established under the Fauna Protection Act 1974 while the rest are National Parks, Sanctuaries and Memorial Parks, established under the National Parks (Act) ordinance 1966-1971 and the Sanctuaries and Fauna Protected Area Act (1966). Until recently, one Conservation Area has been established under the Conservation Areas Act 1980.

These PA are situated on state land and were acquired between the 1970’s and 1980’s – none in the last two decades and all before the availability of the GEF money.  Similarly, almost all WMA’s were established in the 1990’s using some GEF money, but none in the recent past.  The Conservation Areas Act 1980 has never been implemented until recently in this decade..

If conservation is about acquiring land as PA’s, then PNG has failed dismally. The PA’s occupy a tiny 2.8% of the 46, 000 km2 of the PNG landmass.

If conservation is about protecting wildlife then this is another dismal effort. Notable wildlife sanctuaries established in the 1970s and 1980s only exist on paper.  Baiyer Wildlife Sanctuary is not on the tourist maps anymore, so is the Wau Ecological Institute and the Moitaka Wildlife in the Nation’s Capital.

If conservation was meant to be an alternate development option to environmental destructive development, then the previous conservation projects (eg: the Lak Integrated Conservation and Development Project  (ICAD), New Ireland Province) shows that conservation will never compete with the extractive industries in fulfilling the people’s developmental aspirations.

If conservation was about sustainable management of resources, there is no way of measuring the impact of a sustainable management project because stories are still being told of people hunting wildlife to low numbers. There is also evidence of large scale destructive logging practice in Wildlife Management Areas.

Government efforts in conservation so far, has been found wanting. The low budget allocated to conservation year after year, the lack of new PA’s in the last two decades, even the issuance of logging and mining license in conservation areas show that conservation is a low priority to the government.

What is it that we are trying to achieve with conservation in PNG, when conservation projects are not achieving envisaged success?  Could it be that we are measuring the wrong target?  What is conservation in PNG anyway?

Conservation seems to be an alien concept in Melanesia.  Activities like hunting, mating, eating – all have a name in the local language, but the preservation and sustainable management of nature was the unintended outcome of low population, less destructive harvesting technology, and fear of the unknown.

Being isolated in a small hamlet in the forest, the world to the people was the forest boarded by their tribal enemies on all sides. There was no way for people to appreciate that they were also global citizens.

The precautionary view for conservation was non-existent because there was no global view and importance attached to the theory of extinction when the people were surrounded by vast forests.  The people were not aware that population growth and climate change was changing their landscape.

This conservation ethos of conserving biodiversity because of its inherent value was non-existent for the locals.  The priority of local people was on species of utilitarian value and traditional taxonomy attest to this.

Furthermore, there was no observable urgency for conservation among the local people to secure food security.   Surrounded by the vast forest, the prevailing thought was that there is enough for now and there will still be enough for the future.

Even the posterity value of conservation is not shared by Melanesians. The local people expand energy to maximize harvests to strengthen social relationships and alliances which would then provide the support in times of need.

If conservation is an alien concept in Papua New Guinea, do we need it?

Yes we do, because of the encroaching environmentally destructive activities for economic development for the elite few. Conservation is the last hope to protect the livelihoods of  Papua New Guineans who still depend on forest resources.

How can we implement successful conservation projects in Papua New Guinea?

The thrust of conservation should not be about nature, but about reforming people’s attitudes toward nature. Conservation in Melanesia and in PNG should be about education that shows people the consequences of their actions on their natural resources that will eventually impact their livelihood.

Furthermore, the people must be given alternatives so that they can minimize their dependence on the forest. If this is not forthcoming, then, science knowledge must be used to inform sustainable management strategies.

The local level government must be given the mandate to make their own conservation laws as well as enact appropriate penalties for offenders.

Last, but not the least, any new conservation interventions must involve local people.  They must be made decision makers and not mere observers – after all, it is the people who live on the land and their actions determine the outcome of conservation efforts.  Therefore, they need to own their actions.

With a clear understanding of what conservation looks like Papua New Guinea, future conservation efforts can be planned so that there is realistic outcomes to measure success. This will also ensure that Papua New Guinea get value for all the foreign currency pouring in for conservation efforts.

victoria pigeon

[1] http://www.gefonline.org/Country/CountryProfile.cfm,

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