Foreign Corporations Keep Up Assault on Papua New Guinea Forests

Just under twelve years ago, AWI reported on the efforts by the Guiye Waiye Environment and Conservation Group (GWECG) to counter extensive destruction of wildlife habitat in Papua New Guinea (PNG) (see "Trouble in Paradise," AWI Quarterly, Spring 2000). Since that time, valuable forestlands have continued to be commercially logged and permanently lost. With massive-scale logging and mineral exploration, many species’ habitats and local communities are being overrun.

It is estimated that between 6 and 8 percent of the known animal and plant species in the world live in PNG - including many that are found nowhere else on Earth. A remarkable 1,100 new species have been discovered there in the last decade alone. PNG’s rich biological diversity includes birds-of-paradise,thousands of medicinal plants, and the highest diversity of tree-dwelling marsupials - including the Matschie’s tree kangaroo.

Wood consumption by the United States and other industrial countries plays a significant role in PNG’s rampant deforestation. One-fifth of tropical plywood originating from PNG and neighboring countries is exported to the United States. The bulk of that wood passes through China, which imports over 80 percent of PNG’s timber to manufacture inexpensive furniture for the American, European and Japanese markets. Studies reveal that approximately 70 percent of China’s timber imports from the region derive from illegal logging.

These operations are facilitated by the use of local shell companies in service to foreign parent corporations. Such shell companies shield the parent from accountability under PNG’s laws, which simultaneously are being weakened by government officials beholden to the foreign interests. Instead of protecting its natural heritage, the PNG government has relaxed regulatory standards, financed private resource exploitation projects, and fostered a culture of regulatory corruption.

Coinciding with the devastating impact on wildlife, such widespread renegade logging operations in PNG are destroying resources vital to indigenous communities. About 79 percent of PNG’s population depends on its biological bounty for food, medicine, income and building materials to sustain their livelihoods. The government also has leased 5.6 million hectares of forest to logging companies under special agreements that circumvent the nation’s explicit laws protecting communal land ownership rights.

Even foreign operators that legitimately obtain logging licenses rarely comply with applicable environmental standards. In June of 2011, the Malaysian timber company, Concord Pacific, was assessed a $100 million fine to be paid out to four forest tribes for large-scale illegal logging and environmental destruction. Furthermore, large forests and critical habitat for many endangered species are being cleared for palm oil cultivation (used to produce foods, cosmetics and other products). These plantations have caused severe river pollution from toxic pesticides and partially destroyed the sole habitat of the world’s largest butterfly, Queen Alexandra’s birdwing.

Mining is also practiced in PNG without environmental oversight. Mineral deposits, including oil, copper and gold, account for 72 percent of export earnings and 82 percent of gross domestic product for PNG. Even more than timber, the United States has an insatiable thirst for fossil fuels; crude oil is the largest U.S. import from PNG. Mining projects like those along the Ok Tedi and Fly rivers are responsible for mercury pollution and other persistent contamination, as chemicals used for processing raw materials find their way into groundwater and nearby rivers. Open-pit mining also generates large quantities of solid waste in return for the small amount of minerals rendered. Recently, the Australia/UK-based BHP Billiton Corporation paid indigenous people living along the Ok Tedi and Fly rivers $28.6 million in an out-of-court settlement for damage caused by mining operations.

New roads built for the mines also fragment wildlife habitat and open up previously unreachable areas to human development. Such impacts are not limited to terrestrial species. For example, gold mining in the Fly River catchment contributes a massive pollutant load that drains directly into the Gulf of Papua, causing habitat damage for marine species, including the Papuan epaulette shark.

In the face of these threats, GWECG continues to spread awareness about the vital importance of PNG’s soils, forests and species, and the foreign companies and practices that threaten their existence. The organization operates locally without much outside support, establishing eco-tourism programs to provide economic incentives for local communities to protect their environments. As GWECG’s founder, Peter Gundu, explains, “With so many natural resources, leaders in PNG’s government are not managing PNG properly for the benefit of our people and the future young generations.”

Ultimately it is the people of PNG who must control the management, development and protection of the nation’s forest resources. PNG communities own 97 percent of the land, which makes it difficult to set large tracts of land aside for conservation and helps facilitate exploitation of the land by foreign companies seeking to manipulate and mislead the communities. Groups like GWECG are better able to encourage people living in these areas to conserve because their projects link the value of sustainably managed resources to improved living standards, thus empowering local landowners to be more engaged in the conservation of their own land.

Despite the continuing loss of primary forests, there have been some gains in forest conservation. PNG now has 44 terrestrial protected areas, comprising 1.6 percent of its total land area. In addition, in May of 2010 the Governor of PNG’s Southern Highlands Province called for a moratorium on new forestry licenses to ensure there are enough resources available for future generations. In response, Forest Minister Timothy Bonga stated that a review of the Forestry Act was long overdue and promised to bring amendments to parliament for landowners to be equity partners in projects.

Key to any preservation effort is the work of groups like GWECG to educate individual landowners concerning what they stand to gain from preservation of PNG’s environment, critical habitats, and biodiversity. To find out more and support GWECG’s grassroots campaign, please contact: Peter Gundu, Coordinator, Guiye Waiye Environment and Conservation Group, P.O. Box 463, Kundiawa Simbu Province, Papua New Guinea, or [email protected].