Dealing with forest conservation

Editorial, Normal

CONCLUDING his country statement at Nagoya, Japan, on Oct 26, Minister for Environment and Conservation Benny Allan told a gathering of colleague ministers gathered for the REDD + Partnership Ministerial Meeting:  “Let me make our position very visual for you. On the one hand, we are being asked to commit to radical changes in the way our communities live and develop. We are being asked to stop logging and reduce conversion of forest land for agricultural use.
“On the other hand, there is no clarity on the funding available for these efforts. Our officers have to stand on the food market on Manus Island or West New Britain facing dozens and hundreds of landowners. Our officers have to suggest to the landowners that they should stop logging and agricultural conversion without any clarity of what we can offer in return. This is not acceptable.”
Whether or not Allan’s statement made any visual sense to his audience, it gives every Papua New Guinean, and those used to dealing with landowners, a distinctive mental image.
We can very well picture the officers from the Office of Climate Change and Development in Lorengau or Kimbe or Talasea being shouted down or knocked to the ground, punched and kicked or worse.
We can very well understand the anger of the assailants.
Since the mid-1980s, they have been promised many millions of kina in exchange for them to keep their pristine forests intact. In exchange, they have been promised tens of millions of kina by credible institutions such as the World Bank and its partners and by their own national government.
Time and again, the people have formed themselves into groups and cooperatives and whatever else they were required to do in order to draw down on the promised funds and to stop companies from logging and clearing forests for conversion to agriculture.
Repeatedly, the promised funds have fizzled out, or withdrawn and the last minute or given but were diverted to our areas.
And, so, over the years, the people have lost out. They have kept their forests but their own livelihoods has not improved one iota and, in real terms, have regressed to situations and conditions that their fathers and grand parents experienced a decade before Independence.
This is, indeed, unacceptable.
Now the same message hits Papua New Guinean landowners from the global community.
We have been told by the first REDD mission to PNG that the country has access to a multibillion kina fund contributed by Norway. This is only the beginning, PNG has been told. There would be more. As leader of the global community of rainforest nations, PNG would have a big say on the allocations from this fund.
PNG took off at a trot throwing caution to the wind as is its usual fashion.  Without legislative or policy support an Office of Climate Change was created under the prime minister’s office.
Within a year, the office was embroiled in so much controversy that its director was investigated for official corruption (later cleared).
Learning from that mistake a smaller, more technical team has been put together under the Department of Environment and Conservation. A national climate change committee, chaired by the chief secretary, oversees and guides the work of the new office.
An interim plan for action has been developed and provisions made for broad consultation with domestic and international stakeholders. Students, churches and the media will be used to create awareness in every community in the nation.
After all this is said and done, after all our communities have been sensitised to the new message, we will always return to the concern mentioned by Allan.
Will there be real funds to take our disbelieving people to the next stage; to become fully immersed in the global message to preserve their forests, because they hear, see and receive tangible benefits for doing so.
While in the beginning the funding requirements will be small, it will increase proportionally as the country moves from readiness to large scale projects and programmes.
Here, the global community will have to be clearer on what funding is available, where it is sourced from, and what the conditions are going to be for drawing down on them.
In the absence of such clarity, the usual confusion reigns into which fly by night operators are milking both the government and landowners by spreading disinformation first.