Were traditional Papua New Guineans conservationists?

LSC1 (220)This essay is based on three papers. These papers document practices  of seasonal hunting and harvesting and protection of certain species of importance to three communities in Papua New Guinea.

Kwapena (1994) documents the hunting practices of the Moapa people of the Mashall Lagoon,  Central Province. Foale (2002) records the “tambu” reef system of the New Ireland while Silitoe (2001) provides insight into the hunting practices of the Wola of the Southern Highlands.

In two of  the three case studies, the authors documented that a hunting ban was imposed periodically on their  respective communities.

The Maopa people in Mashall Laggon Area, Central Province had a hunting ban that would last over three to four years.

On the coast, the “tambu”reef involves the closure of fishing on a particular stretch of coastline for a specific period of time, usually from a few months to a year or in some cases a few years. The closure was quite often associated with a death within the clan that controls rights to that stretch of coastline and is a ritual component of a cycle of feasting associated with that death.

The hunting ban would then be followed by an intense period of hunting, where even the grassland is burnt to force animals out into the open (Kwapena 1984).  In the “tambu” reef, the accumulated stocks of many species, particularly benthic invertebrates are then removed, often with alarming efficiency (Foale 2002).

The local knowledge of these people was directed to identifying patterns that maximise capture success. They did not show concern for aspects of  biology (recruitment etc) that conservationists are interested in.

In the case of the Wola,  Silitoe (2001) observed that the Wola people, who were not “enthusiastic” hunters, would at times expand high energy to capture high value animals like cassowary and wild pigs for customary activities. From his study, Silitoe (2001) observed that in their hunting sprees, the Wola treated the forest as having …” an infinite buffering capacity”  to their destructive hunting activities.

Melanesian’s exist through relationships, and these relationships needs to be maintained all the time.  Value has been placed on nature to facilitate these social relationships. Resources are stockpiled only to be harvested to facilitate social transactions and to maintain relationships and alliances (Silitoe 2001). The hunting spree with the Maopa of Marshall Lagoon was to strengthen and reiterate family relationships (Kwapena 1984). Tambu reef was also a means of stockpiling resources, often for a specific purpose, such as a feast; and had nothing to do with maximising and sustaining yields for conservation (Foale 2002).

So, how did people coexist with nature for thousands of years?

Silitoe (2001) proposes that unintentional conservation  may have been achieved indirectly because these traditional knowledge and practices were created in conditions of small population, large forest covering and richer biodiversity and hunting tools which were less deadly.

Fear of spirits also ensured sacred areas became refuge and replenishing grounds for wildlife.  For instance,   most of these cultures attribute their hunting capacity to spirits and not human hunting skill. In this instance, hunters let game go if they miss after a few attempts, taking this to indicate the spirits are discontent.  Beliefs that spirits governed everything contributed to unintentional management of resources

This system however, will not protect nature which is now threatened with with pressure from, high human population densities, new and efficient hunting technologies and a readily available market for wildlife.

That is why the indigenous people of Papua New Guinea must learn the concept of conservation to ensure that food security and the currency for maintaining relationships  is available both now and into the future.


Foale, S. (2002) Commensurability of scientific and indigenous ecological knowledge in coastal Melanesia: implications for contemporary marine resource management strategies. Resource Management in Asia-Pacific Working Paper No. 38

Kwapena, N. (1994). “Traditional Conservation and Utilization of Wildlife in Papua New Guinea.” The Environmentalist 4(7): 22-29.

Sillitoe, P. (2001). “Hunting for Conservation in the Papua New Guinea Highlands.” Ethnos 66(3): 365-393.

Revisiting Novotny et al. 2002

Interesting interview about a paper written over 10 years ago by one of PNGs prominent researchers, Vojtech Novotny from the Binatang Research in Madang.

Ecology Students' Society

In 2002, Vojtech Novotny, Yves Basset, Scott Miller, George Weiblen, Birgitta Bremer, Lukas Cizek and Pavel Drozd published a paper in Nature providing evidence for low host-specificity of tropical herbivorous arthropods. This finding was based on data from over 900 herbivores from 51 plant species in a rainforest in New Guinea. Based on this finding, Novotny and colleagues provided new global estimates of arthropod diversity in the range of 4 – 6 million species, which was substantially lower than the accepted figure at that point in time. Fourteen years after its publication, I spoke to Vojtech Novotny about the making of these findings and their validity today.

Questions sent by email on 19th June 2016; responses received by email on 17th July 2016.

Hari Sridhar: What was the specific motivation to write this paper? Was the fieldwork done with this paper in mind or…

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Marry Conservation To Tourism To Increase Conservation Research

This essay is in response to an article titled: Conservation Research Is Not Happening Where It Is Needed Most.  The conclusion in the article published in PLOS Biology, an open-access, peer-reviewed journal  was reached after an analysis of 7,593 peer-reviewed papers.

Papua New Guinea was at the bottom when compared with 5 other high biodiversity countries. PNG contributed only 0.2% (n=7,593) in publication to the world knowledge on biodiversity. None of the publication was by an in-country institution.  In contrast, Costa Rica, another high biodiversity country contributed 0.5% to world biodiversity knowledge, 14 papers from Costa Rica was led by in-country institution. Furthermore, Costa Rica has 4 experts at the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) while PNG has zero representation.

The authors cite many reasons for the lack and offers solutions.  All the solutions are relevant to PNG and when implemented may make a difference.

The paper, however dedicates only one sentence to the role of governments in conservation research. Governments, however are the biggest stakeholder influencing conservation research. And for PNG, the lack of political will by governmants to prioritize conservation can easily be one of the main reasons for the dismal results.

PNG is a developing country and is struggling to attain development. Money needed for development is locked in her natural resources. Currently, priority is in harvesting the natural resources to raise revenue for development.

Conservation is seen as anti-development. Conservation uses money but does not make money consequently conservation is not a priority. These sentiments are not expressed but is reflected in a lot of decisions taken by the government.

A classic example is preservation of Kokoda Track versus dumping of toxic waste into the Basamuk Bay.  Efforts have gone into protecting the Kokoda water catchment. While at the Basamuk Bay, despite community protests, the government allowed the Chinese Nickle-Cobalt Miner to dump toxic waste into the bay. What makes Kokoda special for preservation over Basamuk?

The common denominator in both project is money. Both are paying – the Australians are paying to protect while the miners are paying to dump their mining waste.

Another example in which money comes before conservation is when mining and logging rights are granted to the extractive industry in the areas designated for conservation.

Because it is not a priority, no serious money is budgeted for conservation in PNG.  Conservation groups raise their own funds but have to balance their conservation agenda with the socio-economic and developmental needs of the people they work with.

Because it is not a priority, there is an absence of developmental pathways for human resources for conservation either at the university or in government institutions.  All the skills needed to function as a conservationist is left to individuals to pick up while on the job.  There is also a lack of incentive to utilise local conservation practitioners who have attained advanced degrees.

The Conservation and Environment Protection Authority (CEPA) is the designated authority to implement conservation in PNG. But it also has a contradicting role – the office collects fees and grants permit to developers to discharge waste into the environment.  As seen in the Kokoda versus Basamuk case, money making projects will win all the time.

Making money is a priority in PNG while conservation as it is today is a black hole that consumes money and gives nothing back.

The only way to make conservation a winner in this environment is to frame it as a money making venture for development.

How can we do that? Divorce conservation from CEPA and marry it to tourism to form Conservation and Tourism.

Already there is an incentive to make money with the proposed merger. People now have an incentive to look after their resources. It will be easy to make people understand the need for sustainable management because their income in the long run will depend on it.

This new merger will increase conservation manpower because research information will become a selling point for tourism.  This may improve training for local conservation research and the inevitable outcome will be more publications.

What is good for conservation is good for tourism is good for people. To protect this new development venture, the government will build infrastructure where it is needed. Steps will also be taken to strengthen environment protection policies and laws.

Conservation and tourism spreads money to local people and promotes development. Tourism does not only involve international tourists only. locals can become tourists as well. Local tourism is a viable industry in PNG and needs to be promoted aggressively and researched further.

Tourism and Conservation may be the trigger that will set off a  domino effect of positive changes in conservation and sustainable development. An inevitable end product will be an increase in  conservation research on biodiversity in this country.

Re-wire the Brain: New Conservation Direction


A singsing group from the Zia Tribe of the Waria Valley, Morobe South Coast.

Whittling it down to the bare bones of it all, conservation has been about satisfying human values: protecting and or restoring ecosystem services for the benefit of humans, preserving a super market for human needs, protecting aesthetic values for human pleasure, securing nature for posterity value – especially in pharmacology for the benefit of humans, and protecting the inherent value of nature as deemed important by humans.

When conservation efforts is human centered, the underlying philosophy is that of a custodian.  Human beings make themselves lord over nature, the rule maker – they take on the responsibility for protecting nature by making the rules to safeguard  nature and to reverse the negative impacts caused by members of their species.

The ideology of custodianship is absent in a lot of indigenous groups.  For example, people in traditional Melanesia consider themselves part of nature. The relationship is one of awe and respect and fear because of the intricate relationship and interdependence that exists between humans and nature.

Conservation proponents from the West who brought conservation to Melanesia brought in the custodian ideology.  Melanesians were thoughtlessly taken out of nature and crowned as lord over nature.   Their fear of the spirits and the unknown was revealed as petty and expelled as myth.

Knowledge and technology which was supposed to protect nature instead liberated voracious consumers.  The fear of the unknown and the fear of spirits expunged from his existence, the semi traditional man has run amok  in the forest, lighting fire and cutting trees and  over-harvesting  wildlife.

Western project proponents wrongly assumed that  forest owners shared their  values for conservation.  In reality, the forest owner have never wasted sleep on issues of climate change and extinction. Any change in nature was taken in stride as nature being nature.

The West also brought with it the concept of development.  A concept that contradicts their idea of conservation. Development is measured by  an accumulation of material wealth and money, while conservation promotes frugality.  When judged through western eyes , the forest people were pitied as a poor people.

Desiring  ’development’ but being so far from development opportunities,  the forest owners readily embraced conservation as a development option. The conservation proponents misread the enthusiasm of forest owners and pledged goods and services in exchange for a piece of the bush.  In the long run, the good intentions become a liability when conservation proponents become  engrossed in community development issues that had nothing to do with conservation.

The custodian mentality will not begin to sink in until forest owners achieve self-actualization as per 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 appreciate the custodian philosophy of looking after nature.

The irony of the preceding paragraph is that, indigenous people had achieved some level of self-actualization in their own societies. People had reached a point where all their basic needs were taken care of that they had time for activities outside of survival. Evidence is in the complexity of  customs and cultural rites and adornment.

Despite that, indigenous people are judged against the introduced culture of materialism and individualism, this causes them to lose confidence and trust in the system that worked for their forefathers and which has been passed down through generations.  They lose confidence in their innate knowledge of their environment.

With misplaced priorities, people shun the real keepers of knowledge – the elders, and put their faith in high school graduates who can speak English.

For progress, there is a need for indigenous communities to re-kindle pride for culture. A re-wiring of the mind that helps them realize that development is relative and that they are not as destitute as they are made to feel and they can keep their culture and live in a village and also enjoy the benefits of Western inventions such as medicine and countless technology.

The onus is now on indigenous people to reconcile their indigenous way of life with ideas from the outside.  A balance must be found between the two because conservation has become the last lifeline for indigenous people in maintaining and sustaining a livelihood in the face of rapid loss of culture, climate change, rapid population growth and loss of water sources and cultural lands.



Population growth is good

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Survival is a number game. The bigger the number, the greater the rate of survival. On the other hand, extinction happens when numbers get so low that recruitment via birth or migration is suppressed.   In the primitive sense, human beings are part of the system and the same rules  apply.

With over 75% of PNGeans still living in rural areas while maintaining a livelihood from the land – having bigger families increases the adaptive capacity of those families to impacts of climate change. The bigger the family, the more people who can diversify their efforts in supporting the family especially in terms of looking for food as well as any other assistance.

Having more people in the family is advantageous when it comes to family projects like building house and canoes to withstand the impacts of climate change.

More people means the family can easily defend their land and even resources from others since these resources are becoming scarce.

The chances of a family member getting a job in town is also increased in big families and the other family members benefit from cash remittance.

For rural communities, being able to adapt to climate change seems to be with families with bigger numbers. Smaller families trying to survive in a rural economy will struggle because they have to put in extra effort to achieve an outcome similar to the family with many children.

Escalate the same thinking to the nation – the more people there are , the increased manpower of building a nation. Because more people equals a big market, a big market equals more opportunities, more opportunities equals growth.

The bigger the population, the bigger and diverse the talent pool. The bigger the population, the bigger and better the gene pool.

To proudly take our place among the other nations of the world, we need to have more people. We cannot put our growth, our safety and our sovereignty in somebody elses hands. Surely we will not wait for consultants to build our nation, just because we have a very tiny population.

Some tribes in PNG have less than 1,000 members. These tribes are at risk of going extinct if their population growth is suppressed.

The main reason cited against growing a family is a lack of resources to cater for many mouths. A lack of resources may lead big families to poverty. Where poverty is defined as having less than $3 in your pocket at the end of a day.

At today’s exchange rate, being poor in PNG means, having less than K9 in your pocket.

As per the definition of poverty, over 80% of PNG who grow and hunt for their own food, live below the poverty line. If they grow their own food, why do they need the K9 for?  Rightfully, this definition applies to people who depend on a supermarket for all their food.

A better definition for poverty in PNG is hunger. When you work the land, you have food to eat. When you don’t work, you will go to sleep hungry. Having a bigger family to work the land is security against hunger.

In the name of world peace and the brotherhood of men, ideas and cultures are borrowed, stolen, adapted and even imposed onto other cultures. Instead of just accepting every new idea, we have to weigh new ideas against our existing “kastam”. We had a reason for doing things we did. We did not just exist.  Some “kastam” we can cut off, but others we may be cutting off at our own detriment. The key message is, think before we accept foreign ideologies that may be detrimental to the growth of our societies.





What should be our research priorities in conservation?

IMG_0065 copy

PNG as a wilderness area contains unique landscapes, undiscovered genetic potential and endemic plants and animals. The ecosystems play a vital role in the maintenance of global health.

However, this wilderness area and the biodiversity it contains are threatened by over-exploitation, pollution and destruction. The threat is magnified by the lack of information on what is in this wilderness area.

Conservation is a must, however, in the face of this urgency and with limited resources – what will be our priority?

Do we focus on ecosystems so that we preserve the process that support the biodiversity which indirectly is the protection of biodiversity, or do we focus on species – the traditional conservation unit, or do we focus on the evolutionary connection of species by studying the genetics?

Do we focus on taxonomy or the ecological relatedness of the biodiversity or the biology of the species? What about policy and related conservation laws? What about the interaction between humans and nature?

Mangrove Planting for Climate Change



Mangrove as a tool in addressing climate change gained prominence after the East Asia Tsunami in 2004. The tsunami generated in the Indian Ocean, ravaged coastal communities facing the Indian Ocean taking many lives and damaging infrastructure worth a lot of money.

Anecdotal evidence show that villages situated behind mangroves stands, sustain less damage when compared to those communities without mangrove barriers.

In the absence of technological intervention, Climate Change Experts identify mangroves as the first protection for coastal villages facing coastal flooding and extreme high tide.  Mangrove projects can be easily implemented by communities. Mangrove planting and rehabilitation costs less than other technological interventions and has been shown to be effective in saving lives and property.

What makes mangroves special?

Like any other tree species, the mangroves take 10-15 years to mature before they can provide the desired effect. Mature stands of mangrove act like a porous fence that slows down wave energy by reducing the velocity of the waves into and out of communities resulting in less damage infrastructure and livelihood.


Mangrove planting or mangrove forest rehabilitation must be approached as a long term strategy with the goal of ensuing planted and or rehabilitated mangrove stands become mature stands in the future.

Current practice involves planting of plant mangrove seedling in areas already under threat from the rising sea level. Numerous mangrove replanting exercise have never attained the envisaged success – this is despite the common  knowledge that young mangroves at waterfront are vulnerable to wave action and are easily uprooted and killed by the sun and the salt.

Ideally a mangrove replanting exercise should duplicate a vegetation succession as happens in nature.

Vegetation succession at a beach normally starts from the forest edge and gradually grows seaward.

Firstly, pioneer species like vines and grasses grow first to help build a soil environment suited for succession to take place. Then the trees, starting with the terrestrial species at the forest edge. Once this has established then the back mangrove species is the next to germinate, followed by the middle mangrove species then finally, the front line mangrove species facing the foreshore.

Re-vegetation through succession enables the plants to gradually adapt to a salty growing substrate and increases their chances of survival.

The process of natural succession takes years, the same will apply to a successful mangrove planting project.

The communities that survived the East Asia Tsunami in 2004, did not plant their mangrove stands the year prior to the tsunami. The mangrove stands have existed and protected, probably not intentionally, but importantly , the mangrove stands provided the needed protection.

While waiting for the mangrove forest to grow , the most cost effective climate change activity is educating people about the impending crises and the options available for adapting to the change.  Local people do have solutions for their challenges. They must be involved in the quest for a solution.

For the donors who fund mangrove projects, they  must realize that the impact of mangrove planting can only be realized in the future. Therefore they must  look for other targets to measure how their funds in the short term  is successfully addressing the climate change challenge.

Birds and their coloured feathers

The colours observed in bird feathers is made up of keratin, carotenoids, and melanin or a combination of the three.

feather Keratin serves a structural function in the construction of feathers. The keratin differs in implantation, thickness and stiffness of the rachis and barbs, symmetry and curvature of vanes. This structural design plays an important role when the bird combines colour and pattern to produces different signals.

Carotenoids are the pigments responsible for most bright reds, oranges, and yellows. Carotenoid cannot be synthesized by animals, and must be included in the diet, and are often limited in nature. Colours and ornaments that rely on carotenoids are costly to produce. Carotenoid is ingested from the diet at the time the bird is moulting and the colour gets deposited in the feathers.

Melanin pigments are deposited as black or dark brown granules within the epidermal cells. They create colour effects in combination with other pigments. Melanin adds strength and abrasion-resistance to keratins. Melanin is also a predictor of dominance, hormonal balance, foraging abilities, and provides protection from ectoparasites.

The gene responsible for melanin has been identified down to a single locus. This gene is highly variable for different birds and produce a colour ranging from the black, grey, brown to reddish brown and the yellow in chicken chicks.

The persistence of colour variations  in birds from generation to generation shows that feather colour is an inherited trait. Apart from the genetics, the amount of light variation in the environment also controls the variation observed in bird feather colour.

The amount of light in the environment is affected by the environmental features, for example, a forest with trees would exaggerate shadows when contrasted to a treeless environment. Furthermore, the light spectrum changes with increasing altitude.

Bird plumage can be classified into three groups according to the reflecting properties of the light as would be seen by the birds. Type A feathers have strong reflecting properties while type B has no reflective properties; and Type A/B only gives a weak reflection. Melanin colours ranging from pale yellow, chestnut, and brown and, black does not reflect much light in the ultra-violet (UV) range.

 The patterns observed on feathers are created by the scattering of light by ordered layers of melanin granules within the keratin of the barbs. The birds are capable of either repeating exactly from one set of feathers to the next or varying to produce apparent differences between sexes, age group and populations.

The green colour in parrots and other green birds is rarely acquired through the diet, but is a combination of yellow and blue. If the yellow is a Type A then the reflectance will be high, but if the yellow contains melanin then the green will result in Type A/B. CSC_0828

The red coloured feather is most times type A/B.  The type A/B red is mostly observed in birds that inhabit areas with more precipitation where red radiation is weak and allows the bird to blend into a dark background making the bird less conspicuous in the dense canopy of the rainforest.

Many bird species that are involved in predator-prey relationships exhibit colour polymorphism. These birds tend to move continuously, have a generalist habitat requirement and a widespread but patchy distribution. The Owl is a good example.

The adaptative function of melanin type B plumage on the cuckoo brood parasites is related to its life style of stealth.  The dull plumage has no reflectance and therefore is cryptic and conceals the presence of the parasitic bird near host nests. Furthermore, the arrangement of the bars on the feather which is arranged in the broken fashion enables the bird to remain cryptic in the undergrowth of the woodlands and mangrove bush while it searches for possible host.

The Bird of Paradise feathers seem to be the attraction for mate choice. A male with bright colour signals good nutritional condition and could be related to his ability to forage for the high quality food. As a result, bright colours in the male bird have been associated with the ability to provision, disease resistance, dominance and the honest advertisement of sexual prowess. The extra feathers on the Bird of Paradise does not have any aerodynamic significance but developed as a result of selection by females. The choosy female achieves the highest fitness by mating with an individual displaying the feature that signals the best quality.  However such trait often impairs foraging success and increases predation risk, so that only high quality individuals can afford such a trait and only high quality males are chosen by the female.

When human beings begin to understand the importance of feather color to birds, we shall begin to see the implication of our actions of selectively harvesting beautiful feathered birds, or removing bird habitat through logging. Or even the detrimental effects of keeping bids in aviaries as an excuse for conservation.

Forgive us our sins against the birds

cassowary_3Birds have been in the center of human attention since the dawn of time. The birds have inspired human cultures – from adornment, to dance moves, to habits. Birds as food is well-documented in human historical archives. Birds have even found a place in religion – immortalized in songs, stories, and rituals. Bird figurines are fashioned from precious stones, carved into wood, shaped out of a rock, molded into glass and even beaten onto metal. Some models are miniature replicas, others like the Nazca  hummingbird outline in the Peruvian desert is close to 100 meters in length and can only be seen from the air.  The modern technological feat of air travel has its source of inspiration in birds.

Once upon a time, beautiful and exotic bird feathers had their price weighed in gold and were traded alongside spice and precious metals. From high couture to indigenous culture, bird feathers has been and is still being used as a significant dress accessory.

Apart from satisfying human values, birds also serve important ecological function. Birds carry pollen from flower to flower ensuring seed production.  The birds even disperse seeds across the landscape that eventually grows into trees in the forest.

Selective harvesting of the best looking bird to satisfy human desire has caused certain bird populations to decline. Through natural selection over time, the brightest bird with the handsomest feather is also the possessor of good genes. Selectively removing the best birds removes the good gene from the gene pool.

With anti-pouching laws in place, extinction through harvest had been minimized. The main threat on birds these days is anthropogenic activities that destroy the habitat of the bird. Logging is one such destructive activity. Logging obliterates the home of the birds and destroys their food source, and in turn paves the way for increased predation.

Climate change, an anthropogenic driven change to the world climate is driving birds up the altitude and when there is no more space, the birds go over the edge. Extinction is inevitable. When that will happen is just a question of time.

Locking birds in aviaries is not a substitute for preservation. If animal indeed do have rights, then keeping birds in aviaries is a crime.   Birds are born to soar into the heavens but aviaries clip the wings of these birds and subdue their instinctive need for depth and breadth in space.  Studies have identified that most tropical bird species are nomads or transient species and move within  certain latitudinal gradients over a large area following availability of food.

In a mixed flock aviary, a number of birds are put into a single aviary. In the wild, these birds would not normally associate. In nature some of these birds occupy space at the top of the canopy while others in the mid canopy and others in the understorey. This division is a function of adaptation to minimize competition. At the different levels, the micro-climate is also specific for the insect, fruits and small plants found in that layer – which in turn is food for the birds. An aviary does not take that into consideration.

Birds in aviaries are fed a standard diet of fruits. Even if all are frugivores, some species feed on insects for extra nutrients. Others have been seen in the wild to practice geophagy – or soil eating for its mineral and salt content. The feathers of birds serve special function including advertisement of fitness, health, sexual fitness, camouflage and even stealth. Colored features are not grown but are the result of ingesting the colors from the food that is eaten.  Being fed a standard diet compromises the integrity of fitness advertisement.

Some birds need to remain in a group for competition to ensure the fittest genes are selected. For instance, the lek in Bird of Paradise is done by a group of male birds and never done by individual birds. Furthermore, without the required environment, a bower-bird may not be able to build required dance area to entice the female.

Just like humans, a reduction in personal space results in different psychological issues. Aggression, depression are two main ones. But changes can happen at the cellular level that affects other functions like mating rituals, reproduction and even the responsibility of rearing chicks.

At the end of the day, when humans finally meet the maker of the birds, we will be found guilty of all the bad things we have done against the birds.

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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