By LULU MARK
LOCAL myths tell of the people’s connection with the lush pristine rainforest that sits on the distant horizon or just a short walk away from the village.
A walk through the forest carpeted by dead leaves, with mossed plants on the sides, vines draping down and streaks of sunlight piercing the thick foliage right to the forest floor to enable the germinated seed to grow, is a walk into a world of its own. Every matter found therein is integral to the continuity of each species of plant, animal and microorganism that call the forest home.
The forest seems an inexhaustible source of resources to all that depends on it. Our ancestors took from it, yet they guard it with reverence.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) described the New Guinea forests as “remote, pristine and mysterious” stating that “increasingly few places on earth fit this description. The Island of New Guinea, PNG to the east and the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Irian Jaya, houses the largest remaining block of tropical rainforest in the region and the third largest in the world after the Amazon and Congo basins. This island with just 1 per cent of the earth’s land area contains at least 5 per cent of the world’s species of which two thirds are unique to the island. It is indeed a biodiversity hot spot.
Conservation for future generations
Papua New Guineans have been sustainably using and managing their forest resources for generations. However, with the advent of industrial logging, mining and conversion of forests for agriculture, the forests that once seem timeless, cease to exist in a blink of an eye.
The people can only watch as their hunting ground disappear because they were told to understand that these activities were necessary for economic development for them and the country. The people know that they cannot stop it, but with time increasing number of communities are raising their voices for sustainable extraction of resources.
Communities are coming up with conservation initiatives. Their efforts to preserve pockets of natural forests and other ecosystems for future generations is a cause worthy of support, because as it is said “we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children”. It would be injustice to the future generations if the natural environment is completely destroyed or the rainforests are turned into barren lands without an inventory.
The grassland that takes over after a development activity is devoid of the animals and plants of traditional significance that the people were used to, but with the help of science that can be changed.
Dr George Wiblen, a professor at the Department of Plant and Microbiology at the University of Minnesota and Science Director of Bell Museum in the United States works with the Wanang people of Madang to conserve their tropical lowland rainforests.
Lowland tropical rainforests are typically species-rich forests with great value for conservation and scientific research but also under threat because of the value for commercial timber extraction.
The National recently met with Dr Wiblen and talked about the significance and achievements of the Wanang people conservation initiative.
Wanang Conservation Area (WCA)
Wanang is a small village near the Ramu River in the Usino-Bundi District and is 100km away from Madang town. Wanang villagers working in logging camps witnessed the disappearance of the forest in parts of Madang and they decided that theirs should be preserved for the future. So 20 years ago when the entire area of Lower Watut was designated as a logging concession, 10 village clans formed the Wanang Conservation Area (WCA) and declared their forests off-limits for logging.
In 2009 with the support of John Swire & Sons and Steamships Trading Company Ltd, the village-based protected area (WCA) of 10,000 hectares in the middle of the 140,000 hectares Ramu Block 1 Concession was established.
Partnership between the local people, academic researchers, local and international organisations and the business sector has been driving education, research, conservation and development there.
The Swire Research Station built in the conservation area is the hub for Wanang forest research. It is also used to train PNG researchers, students and field assistance.
A 50-hectare permanent forest dynamic plot was established in the WCA to study how the forests of New Guinea are changing in order to forecast what the forest would look like in the future. It is part of a global network of research plots dedicated to the study of forests functions and diversity. Wanang is the only site in Oceania participating in the Forest Global Earth Observatories network.
“It is a national asset for understanding how forest respond to change. There is so much that we don’t know that we are learning through projects like this. We need to know what’s special about the forest here and this is how we find out.
“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”
The biodiversity of Wanang
“There are more than 500 different kinds of trees and shrubs that we have identified living in the forest. Not just the marketable hard woods like kwila, but many species that we know very little about. Some of them don’t even have scientific names yet. This means many are new to science and are just being discovered. Around 143 species of birds, 200 species of butterflies and thousands of plants and animal species call this forest home.”
A powerful antibiotic called, wanangimicin, which can treat tuberculosis was isolated from the Wanang rainforest. When the discovery was revealed, it was not a surprise to the locals because they were using the plants in the forest to heal their ailments. It was a merger of traditional medicinal knowledge and science. Another important finding was that pest outbreaks were more likely to occur with conversion of mature forests than to occur in managed forests in New Guinea.
The proposal to declare Wanang as a national protected conservation area is still waiting for approval by the Government. However, the scientific discoveries made so far have placed Wanang on the world map, making it is an internationally recognised protected area. Wanang was also recognised by the United Nations Development Programme in 2015 with the Equator Prize for indigenous solutions to environmental challenges.
“A forest reserve preserves the genetic resources for the future of PNG’s timber industry. It’s absolutely important that we have some forest reserve areas that have the seed sources for the future. And our goal is to enable the people of this area to measure and maintain those resources, to support reforestation after harvest because the future of this country’s forest depend on the genetic resources that are here being maintained and being shared.
“The Wanang conservation is a project that is centered on studying how the forest of New Guinea are changing and building and enabling the resource owners to use the modern tools of science to measure this and manage this going forward,” Dr Wiblen says.
Community’s role in research
Wanang is an internationally-recognised research destination which means the local people have assisted in a lot of research work. The youths are trained on the scientific methods and are at the forefront of monitoring the biodiversity of their rainforests. These youths have no formal education but were trained to use digital technology to collect and upload data. They placed the local names of the trees together with the scientific names.
In forestry the big trees are measured because that’s where the timber volume is coming from. However, in Wanang it is not just about the big trees but the little ones as well. It’s the little trees that are the future of the forest. Every tree greater than 1cm in diameter in the plot is measured.
The base line was set in 2009 and 2010 and every five years the forest is re-measured. It takes two teams working simultaneously every day for 18 months going out mapping, measuring, and identifying, every tree in the forest. There are more than 500 species of trees so about 300,000 individual trees were measured every five years.
Applications from all over the country were received to partake in the exercise which the best people that could be found were selected and brought to work with the local people who really know their forest.
“We are seeking funds to roll out the next phase starting in 2020 which would employ 24 youths to do the job.”
Wanang Conservation School
“The world is changing and we don’t want the future generations of this country to turn their backs on the biodiversity. Studying and understanding what is in nature in schools is critically important.
“Part of the conservation project was the establishment of the school which was the first and only school (elementary and primary) in the area. It has more than 300 pupils and six permanent classrooms. We just graduated the fourth class of grade eight last year. Eight students from the school are now in high school and that’s the highest in any primary school in the whole of Ramu River area. The support from international scientists, private sector and the community leaders has enable these kids to have opportunities in the future. It started as a private school but became a government-registered and subsidised school in 2012.
Wanang is a partnership between the Wanang community and the Binatang Research Centre in Madang which has international partners. In the country, the Forest Research Institute, University of PNG and University of Technology students and staff participate in the activities as part of their training.
Funding for the project is coming from overseas partners and members of the business sector who are interested in supporting education, rural development, conservation and preservation of genetic resources for the future of the timber industry in PNG. People know that the biodiversity of PNG is very special but they need to know what is happening to it, how it is changing and what can be done to ensure that it’s going to be there for the future generation. It’s seeking a balance between the preservation of resources and the sustainable use of resources. That is where we need science and educated Papua New Guineans to really take ownership of the resources.