The Warrior

I heard from my grandfather that our land used to be green — full of thick rainforest and evergreen grassland.

Now it was gray and dry — nothing that reminded of life.

Everything was burned down in the course of 30-year tribal fight.

The fight, that took away hundreds of lives, including people I loved.

The fight, that burned down our villages and destroyed our forests.

The fight, that forced us to run to the places where we were unwanted.

Finally, the fight that made me fight for peace for the rest of my life.

Willie Kerenga is a peace-builder. He grew up in the Highlands village which suffered from inter-tribal warfare for over three decades. The war claimed hundreds of lives, destroyed entire villages and hampered development.

Highlands Region, United Nauro-Gor

Realizing that someone should put an end to the fight Willie Kerenga and other leaders, including Fr. Jan Jaworski, a Catholic Priest in the local parish initiated inter-tribal peace talks in 2002. They used church networks to reach out to clan leaders and hundreds of people scattered across Papua New Guinea, encouraging them to come back to their lands and make peace with each other.

That was the start of peace and reconciliation process. In 2003 they organized a peace ceremony where heads of every clan — for the first time — came together in a “cuttim sugar” ceremony — “cutting sugar tree together”, a peacemaking ritual in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. They promised never to use guns again. They also came up with 32 community-based laws and introduced the concept of ‘community policing’. To administer this process, Willie Kerenga established an NGO — United Nauro-Gor, named after his tribe.

Peacebuilders community at the historical cuttim-sugar ceremony

The NGO now serves more than 13 000 people of United Nauro-Gor tribe and promotes peace, unity, human and community development.

Since that time they managed to build effective leadership and local governance system. “People police” turned out to be effective tool: there were not even small fights over ten years — people felt ownership over the peace and everyone cared for upholding the peace in the community. People realized that fighting was an opposite of prosperity and that only in unity they can build a better life.

With the support of development partners, United Nauro-Gor provided skills trainings to local people including women on essential skills as cooking, sewing, financial literacy, food security, land management and adult education.

United Nauro-Gor community at the peace-making ceremony

They also reconstructed essential infrastructure — school and aid posts, opened access to water and electricity.

“My village was almost flourishing. We had everything we needed and we were keeping to our promise — not to use guns again. One thing that we were missing was that picture of green fertile land and thick forests, that our grandfathers remembered. We needed it back”.

That’s how UNDP and Global Environmental Facility Small Grants Program on reforestation started in the region.

It aimed to revive and bring back the environment around the tribal lands to what it used to be.

Since 2011 with UNDP/GEF support community members planted more than 50 000 trees around the village. To make it sustainable they opened 22 community nurseries with each growing up to 7 000 seedlings annually. The seedlings are distributed to all neighboring communities.

One of 22 community nurseries
Community members loading new seedlings to be distributed in the village

Willie and his team also organized training on the basics of forest management to community members, which helps them to keep their forests growing.

“These projects propel unity and peace, people become preoccupied and actively engage in meaningful activities. They are proud of their work as environmental safeguards — reviving the natural environmental richness of our region is one of our special projects”, says Willie Kerenga.

He is also proud to show his village: “The face of the village has changed. Trees are growing and you can see green village from far away. The place is taking its form”.

New seedlings ready to be planted all around

Willie is planning for the next environmental project this year –bringing watershed management practices to manage sustainable use of land and water resources in the region.

The initiative is timely as the region recently has experienced severe draught that left villagers without access to water. He believes that environmental sustainability is another side of peace-building efforts.

“As our villages are growing, we will have more demand for natural resources — food and water. We used to be the warriors of peace and we succeeded. Now is the time to become the warriors of environment as our next step towards maintaining peace and building prosperity” says Willie.

The GEF Small Grants Programme (GEF SGP) supported United Nauro Gor Inc since 2001. The programme is implemented by the UNDP and provides financial and technical support to communities and civil society organizations to meet the overall objective of “global environmental benefits secured through community-based initiatives and actions”.

Since the start of its work in Papua New Guinea in 1993, Small Grants Program has committed over $2.2 USD million in small grants to over 160 projects implemented by numerous civil society organizations.

Willie Kerenga (second from the right) receiving Tomorrow’s Peacebuilder’s award from Peace Direct. Nauro Gor was internationally recognized for its peace-building efforts and was the first country in the Pacific to win this award.