Re-wire the Brain: New Conservation Direction

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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.

 

 

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Book Review: Searching for pekpek. Cassowaries and Conservation in the New Guinea rainforest.

IMG_6511I see James Cameron’s Pandora in my mind’s eye, but behind the scenes – the internal conversations, the private moments, sickness, death, frustrations and many tiny victories – all the little moments that go into informing a great script.

It was a feat to relocate from a jungle of concrete, steel and glass to the forest – with jungle of trees that seem to stretch all the way to the end of the earth, covered with man eating vines, giant waterfalls, steep mountains, misty valleys, flash floods, pre-historical birds, and humans so at home in their environment they seem to possess supernatural powers.

Instead of Jake Sully among the 7 foot tall Naavi you have Andy and Deb among the 5 foot Pawaia.  Roaming the jungle, living, seeing and learning by searching for  “pekpek”.

In the pages of this book lies the proof that we are each built for our respective environment. It is perfectly Ok if in another life you find yourself a Pawaia in a forest or an urban warrior on the streets of New York.

In the pages of this book is also the narration of a life calling. The noblest calling – to defend Mother Nature in this tiny blue marble we call home. Many are called but few are brave enough to walk the path.

In the Avatar of Pandora, the story ends with the hometree burning to the ground, in Papua New Guinea, there is hope for a future because of dedicated people who with brutal honesty share their personal experiences – setting the foundation for greater exploits for science.   And cautioning against capitalists who come dressed in sheep skin.

I was briefly a student in the capacity building course before the program was dismantled. The training program taught me more than my four years of university.  Andy and Deb were mentors and role models.   Conservation was like a religion to them, a conviction that permeated their whole being (as is apparent in this book) – and they were building disciples. Disciples armed with a science knowledge to ensure sustainable management of resources for the forest people.

Much of what has become the basis of my consciousness for nature protection was absorbed from Andy and Deb and the countless visitors they brought to the program and the conversations and importantly, the paper discussions.

In retrospect, their model for building local manpower is working.  Regardless of whose payroll the ex-students are being paid from now, the conservation principles received from Deb and Andy lives on. They have built a cohort of biologists and conservationists who are capable of driving conservation into the future.

The first chapters of the book sounds so romantic – the stuff of adventure tales immortalized around dinner tables. At the turning of the pages, it becomes apparent that this accomplishment was at a great cost. Disease, rascals, “sanguma”, death, estrangement from relationships – a hefty price was paid in the name of conservation.

So what, after all of this?

Indeed, humans have short memory. The only remaining physical evidence of the dream of  a field station may be the metal frames of the proposed research centre and the iron cast oven slowly rotting in the jungle, which are now probably “tumbuna” story among the locals. But for some of us who have walked part of the way, no matter how brief, the place will forever be an altar of sacrifice – where tears, sweat and blood were shed for a cause. It is a sacred site for pondering life and the purpose for being alive at a time such as now when reckless plunder of the earth seems more fashionable than protecting it.

The best gift any generation can leave for the future is telling their story so the future can learn and make better choices.  Andrew Mack has done just that with his book.

The documentation of conservation history in Papua New Guinea in this book is priceless. The lessons to learn from it is universal. I would recommend this book as a reading for any student in the field of conservation in PNG or anywhere else in the world.

Call of the Mama Graun to West Papua

****** Anthropological work shows that indigenous people in Melanesia relate to the bush and the resources within to be their source of personhood, society and sustenance. There is no distinction between the physical soil, the tribal land boundaries and nature contained on it – all these are generally referred to as land also Mama Graun or the great provider. The land is considered a gift from some mystical ancestor and therefore, there is strong emotional attachment to the land.

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Mama Graun.

Soft earth, hard rocks, round river pebbles, sharp karanas.

Yellow, black, white, red coloured earth.

Blue distant mountains, white sandy beach, and fiery sunsets.

Birds of Paradise, Kwila, dugong, tuna and gold.

My land, my identity, my soul, my being.

Mama Graun drank my life blood, spilled when I was born.

My umbilical cord buried in her

A promise in blood to remain close to her.

An oath only to be broken by death.

Mama Graun thriving on fat from my forefathers.

Warriors, hunters, gardeners, dancers, lovers

All born, breathed, died and offered back to nourish Mama Graun.

Their stories, my inspiration.

Their exploits, my pride.

Their secrets, my power.

Mama Graun, the custodian of my life force.

The tubuna songs we sang,

Shoulder–to-shoulder we stood

United by blood and history.

Pride rising in our voices,

Chasing the kundu beats above the highest canopies,

A rhythm that put fear into many hearts.

Together with my brothers, in my heartland

 I was invincible.

But how can I sing my song,

In a strange land, without my brothers

My ancestors bid me avenge my brother’s blood.

For his blood call to me,

From the swamplands, rivers, mountains, ditches

Where he lay, slain.

An altar of sacrifice – sacrifice of blood for freedom.

What song can I sing?

For I cannot even honour my brother with a decent burial.

While I weep, Mama Graun persists.

I must return to honour my pact;

To mama Graun, to my ancestors,

To my descendants yet to be born.

Together with my brothers, we will face the morning star,

To defend my Mama Graun,

For a free West Papua.

fee west papua selma

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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