Filip Damen: An island hero

Normal, Weekender

A Madang villager has been rewarded for his fight to save his people’s rainforest, reports SINCLAIRE SOLOMON

Mi yet mi statim dispela conservation wok. Nogat wanpela bigman statim, nogat comuniti ikam insait, mi statim long tingting bilong mi”.
Dimunitive village leader Filip Damen spoke these words as if addressing his people but no, he was thousands of kilometers away, addressing an American audience of about 100, in Tok Pisin, three weeks ago.
Ten years ago, when Damen, an illiterate villager of Wanang village in Lower Ramu, Madang province, set out to conserve his people’s forest, he never dreamed it was the beginning of a journey that would take him across the ocean to San Francisco, California, USA.
On Thursday, Oct 8, Damen’s conservation initiative was internationally recognised officially when he was honoured at a reception and US$10,000 (about K37,000) award at the 17th annual Seacology Prize Ceremony at the Aquarium of the Bay in San Francisco.
What an achievement for an unschooled rural subsistence farmer with deep respect for his forest wilderness and traditions! He has never been overseas and until a few years ago had never ventured beyond Madang province.
The Seacology Prize highlights the heroic efforts of people who seldom receive any publicity – indigenous leaders who risk their own lives and well-being to protect their island’s ecosystems and culture. Since the inception of the prize in 1992, Seacology has given the award to 18 native islanders, including two Papua New Guineans, in recognition of their innovative and courageous work.
At the ceremony, Damen was accompanied by Dr George Weiblen, a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota who has conducted research in Papua New Guinea for more than a decade. Dr Weiblen served as translator, conveying Damen’s gratitude for the prize and passion for his Wanang village.
In addition to the presentation by Damen and Dr Weiblen, the audience also heard a speech on the history of Seacology by executive director Duane Silverstein, as well as remarks by Paul Cox, Seacology’s co-founder and dhairman of the board. Co-founder and board president Ken Murdock, who introduced Damen, expressed how deeply “humbled and honoured” Seacology was to welcome him and “celebrate his courage and dedication”.
Seacology development assistant Carynne McIver, writing in the Seacology Island Environment blog on Oct 16, noted that Damen’s story truly embodied the spirit of the Seacology Prize.
“Born and raised in the village of Wanang, he has spent a lifetime in the lowland rainforest of Papua New Guinea.
“Intimately familiar with the ecological, cultural, and practical value of the forest, Damen resisted the PNG Government when it attempted to turn his land over to loggers ten years ago.
“Teaching himself to read and write, he led a group of 11 local clans to sign a historic conservation deed that defiantly protected 25,000 acres of forest from interference by loggers or the government.”
Although Damen spent only a few days in California, including attending a second function in Malibu, before returning to PNG, his impressions of the United States will surely remain with him, just as his own remarkable story will continue to inspire Seacology’s mission, McIver wrote.
Seacology said in a statement posted on its website following his win, that in Damen, they recognised the same grassroots-inspired change that it funds in island projects worldwide.
It says that with the sole purpose of preserving the environments and cultures of islands, it works locally and directly with indigenous people.
“Against odds, Filip Damen preserved his forest and led his community to develop a national and regional asset in environmental sciences.”
Another bonus adding to his win, Seacology noted, was that with extraordinary vision, Damen approached the Government with support from the Bintang Research Centre (a grassroots NGO) to use Wanang for long-term forest research and conservation, on the condition that his people could engage in jobs, healthcare and schooling, developing sustainability without losing their forests, the basis of their cultural heritage.
Under Damen’s leadership, Wanang landowners have joined an international collaboration to study the dynamics of rainforests around the globe and the rainforest’s response to climate change.
A new research station is providing advancement for his community.
This year, the clans built classrooms out of bush materials, attracted two registered teachers and enrolled more than 70 students, including many from villages in the surrounding logging concession.
PNG’s lowland tropical rainforest is an ecological wonderland which, according to conservationists, is exceeded only by the Amazon and Congo basin, the third primary tropical forest left on earth. The forests play a critical role in the local environment, controlling rainfall, maintaining water supplies, and stabilising soils in addition to hosting a rich storehouse of the planet’s rare species and plants.
Southern Highlander Patrick Pate has the honour of winning the first Seacology Prize – in 2005 for his outstanding efforts to organise local indigenous communities in the Mt Bosavi area, an area which featured prominently in world media recently when a BBC team travelled into the extinct volcano crater to “discover” new species of animals and insects, including the now famous Giant Rat of Mt Bosavi.
Pate received the US$7,500 Prize on Oct 25, 2005, at a ceremony in San Francisco, California.
“It is a great honour for me to be the recipient of the 2005 Seacology Prize,” he said.
“It is a recognition for the hard work we all put to conserve the natural environment of Mt Bosavi, Southern Highlands province.
“This prize that I am receiving is not just for my work but the efforts of many others that have contributed their ideas and tremendous support towards conserving the environment against the existing threat from intensive logging.
“I feel that this prize has encouraged and shaped me to continue to work harder with my people, the Bosavians, in our struggle and effort to protect our rich environment for future generations.”
Seacology said on its Facebook: Seacology had a wonderful time with Prize recipient Filip Damen and supporters at both the ceremony in San Francisco and the event in Malibu this past weekend”.