Protecting Indigenous Forest Rights in Papua New Guinea

By Thomas Mutton | July 15, 2021

The Admiralty cuscusis is a nocturnal cat-sized marsupial found on the heavily forested tropical island of Manus. Photo credit: ©WCS Papua New Guinea Program

Manus Island is one of the world’s biodiversity jewels. It is the largest of the Admiralty Islands, located in the remote Bismarck Archipelago, and is the namesake of Papua New Guinea’s Manus Province. At its heart lies the largest remaining forest in the Admiralty Islands — the stunning Great Central Forest, which covers approximately one-third of the island (some 70,000 hectares).

The Great Central Forest is globally recognized as a Key Biodiversity Area, cementing its status as one of the most important places in the world for wildlife. It contains many unique and remarkable species, including the endangered superb pitta (Pitta superba) and the Manus Island mosaic-tailed rat, or Manus melomys (Melomys matambuai), plus a host of other vulnerable species such as the Ipil tree, targeted for timber.

The fate of the Ipil on Manus Island reflects a recent explosion of unsustainable logging in Papua New Guinea despite strong legal provisions to protect Indigenous land rights and ensure sustainable forestry activity. In fact, lowland forests across Melanesia have experienced an unprecedented and unfathomably destructive rush of logging, often illegally undertaken.

Unscrupulous logging companies in PNG have exploited loopholes permitting large-scale clearing to establish agricultural crops as a pretext to harvest valuable timber. This practice has reached such a crisis point that civil society groups have planned a multi-day meeting next month in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’s capital, to push for a fundamental reformation of the nation’s forestry industry.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. At a time of accelerated climate change and widespread destruction of carbon sinks, the forest plays an important role in mitigating carbon emissions. However, despite the interlinked ecological, cultural, and wildlife values of the Great Central Forest, tensions have arisen due to foreign logging operations in the southern region since 2018.

The Great Central Forest is globally recognized as a Key Biodiversity Area, cementing its status as one of the most important places in the world for wildlife.

In Manus, one firm was granted authority to clear 18,000 hectares of the Great Central Forest to establish a rubber plantation. In response to the establishment of the logging camp on the southern edge of the Great Central Forest, a number of Indigenous landowning clans approached the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which has long supported conservation in the region.

Vanilla curing training. Photo credit: ©WCS Papua New Guinea Program

Clan members requested support to ensure that their legal rights to control activities on their land were respected. In response, WCS worked with local environmental lawyers who recommended developing conservation deeds, legal contracts between clan members within which they can create a binding compact to disallow commercial logging on their land.

In early 2019, WCS and partners began working with eight clans to design conservation deeds to safeguard their forests. The development of conservation deeds is a lengthy process that involves accurately mapping clan tenure boundaries, identifying specific forest areas for protection, and determining other environmental laws that the landowners wished to enforce.

In each clan, many discussions were held as they worked to understand and design the conservation deeds. The clans were assisted to better understanding their legal rights through training provided by the Centre for Environmental Law and Community Rights (CELCOR), a local non-government organisation.

In rural Papua New Guinea, where 97 percent of land is held by Indigenous people, there are few options for earning income. Thus, even though Indigenous landowners are well aware of the devastating impacts logging can have on their long-term livelihoods and well-being, compensation and royalty payments offered by logging companies can be hard to resist.

To support a more conservation-compatible alternative to logging, WCS has helped the committed clans to establish small-scale vanilla farming on land previously cleared for agriculture. To date, over 24,000 vanilla cuttings have been distributed to farmers in the eight clans and WCS has connected the farmers to international buyers.

In April, the eight clans signed their finalized conservation deeds. The rules in the deeds provide strong legal protection from logging to 9,400 hectares of the Great Central Forest. Local and regional government representatives participated, including the Manus Parliamentary Chairman for Environment and Conservation, Hon. Francis Kolopen.

Manus green snail. Photo credit: ©WCS Papua New Guinea Program

In his keynote address, Chairman Kolopen stated, “This is the way we should be thinking about the future, our children.” Hon. Pomelau Lagisan, president of Pobuma local-level government and Manus Provincial Government Chairman for Natural Resources, added, “Balancing natural resources in the bush and the sea must be maintained for the sustainability of our resources, ecosystems, and human livelihoods for generations to come.”

“Balancing natural resources in the bush and the sea must be maintained for the sustainability of our resources, ecosystems, and human livelihoods for generations to come.”

Sadly, this has not been enough to save the Great Central Forest. Four clans who were not part of the Conservation Deed development process now claim that one firm has illegally logged their land without their consent. One clan leader also reports that he was assaulted and detained without charges by the Manus Police after resisting logging.

Independent investigations by the international human rights watchdog group Global Witness and the conservation news site Mongabay revealed further irregularities, including that approval for the above-mentioned project by the Manus provincial forestry committee may not have been obtained.

In the meantime, while millions of dollars of timber have now been exported, there is scant evidence of any rubber plantations being established. Over the next few years, WCS will continue to work tirelessly with Indigenous landowners who wish to protect their forests, including by expanding engagement to additional communities in the Great Central Forest.

Thomas Mutton is a Terrestrial Science and Conservation Consultant for the Papua New Guinea Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

[The work described in this commentary is supported by the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund.]

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