Riches beyond compare: Papua New Guinea is one of the most bio-diverse nations on earth, harbouring 5% of the world’s species in only 1% of the world’s land area – from insects to crocodiles, orchids to hardwood, sea-snakes and corals to fish, the Department of Environment and Conservation has the responsibility of conserving and sustaining eco-systems which are consistently under threat.
Minister for Environment and Conservation, Parry M. Zeipi is one of the world’s longest serving environment ministers. “I love nature. It beautifies the world. I am just the right mind in the right place”, he says modestly. His efforts over the last ten years have placed Papua New Guinea in the enviable position of having much protective legislation in place. “My idea was to develop a policy for sustainable development. Following on from the Rio conference, we are the first country to develop legislation and to create a permanent sustainable development commission”.Papua New Guinea was also the first country to introduce legislation against the movement of hazardous waste. “We have no intention of being used as a dumping ground by some super-power,” said Mr. Zeipi. “A US company wanted to dump radio-active waste in Oro province. We sponsored a regional treaty to ban trans-boundary movements.”
But what of the temptation to make fast bucks? The Department has a division devoted to explaining environmental matters to the people. They go out into the villages to explain what the effects of, say, logging might be so that villagers can make informed judgements.
In Papua New Guinea 97% of the land is owned by local communities who have traditionally held a strong spiritual attachment to the nature on which they depend for subsistence and survival. Ownership or the right to exploit carries social, cultural and moral responsibilities. Where the needs of families, clans or regions conflict with national or international objectives then the government takes responsibility for guardianship. A key mechanism to this end has been the establishment of partnerships, starting at the grassroots level, between adjacent clans, expanding outward to South Pacific neighbours, ultimately to the United Nations system.It is not enough for International bodies to insist on conservation. They must provide practical support. For example, how best to sustain the different forest types in Papua New Guinea. Three quarters of the land area is forest which ranges from high alpine to mangrove swamp. But the lowland rain forest constitutes the greatest wealth and is under the greatest threat. It is probably the most valuable long term natural asset the country possesses. “Uncontrolled logging is just like wild fire which catches grassland and spreads all over the place”, says Mr. Zeipi. Proper management can renew and improve forests both quantitatively and qualitatively.
All too often the forest becomes a bale of logs, a source of cellulose or wood-chips instead of a multifaceted resource used by most of the community. In a West New Britain timber area, Department of Environment and Conservation research established that hunting animals for food for the protein they provided and harvesting wild plants and the eggs of megapodes (a kind of turkey) brought immeasurably more value to the local community than selling off logging rights. As a result forest corridors were redrawn to leave precious megapode egg grounds intact.
Humans have been living in Papua New Guinea for 50,000 years. The traditional knowledge base is an asset all too often neglected by western-educated scientists. Now recognition of the efficacy of ‘fever’ cures has led to the development of a new source of anti-malarial drugs. Soil maps have been constructed using local knowledge and chemically analysed samples. Fishermen are consulted for local knowledge of the sea. Where traditional knowledge and western science are combined the potential is realised and the resource is available for generations to come.
The Department of Environment and Conservation is responsible for protected wildlife such as the famous Birds of Paradise. Of the world’s 43 species of birds of paradise, Papua New Guinea has 33. Twelve of those, including the national emblem, the Raggiana bird, live only in PNG. They come under the CITES convention to which PNG is a signatory. They may only be hunted with traditional weapons and even then they may not be sold to foreigners or taken out of the country.
The species management branch of the Department looks after, amongst other things, crocodiles and butterflies. Officers have been monitoring the wild crocodile population and declared it stable at the moment. But the biggest butterfly in the world, the Queen Alexandria Butterfly, is under threat from the extension of a nearby oil palm project. The Department is working closely with the Oro Butterfly project in Popondetta in Oro province to resolve the conflict of interests.
Finally the Department maintains an interest in PNG’s independent research institutes and privately run breeding programmes including the Wau Institute, the Christensen Research Institute and the National Botanical Gardens.
The Botanical Gardens in Port Moresby have a plan to create and restore as many PNG orchid species as possible. Director, Justin Tkatchenko claims that Papua New Guinea is a world leader in orchids. “We have over 3,000 species that are found nowhere else in the world plus there could be thousands out there yet to be discovered. Most of the other countries, like Singapore and Thailand, developed their cut-flower industries using PNG orchids as a basis in their breeding programmes. In the early days there were no regulations. Orchids were stripped out of this country and the population of at least seven species were totally devastated.”The legislation is in place which bans the export of rare orchids but conservationists are still concerned about the number of species that are being lost through logging. The Botanical Gardens is a scientific institution for research, teaching, conservation and the protection of orchids in PNG. In a joint project with the Japanese government they maintain a glass house in Goroka to propagate Highland species. Justin Tkatchenko has an eye for display. He takes his collection abroad accompanied by arts and crafts items. At the Australian orchid conference, the Botanical Gardens won the award for the best display. Now an ambitious plan for a show house, to be opened in 1997, is under construction. It is a huge tent-like structure in the shape of PNG. Visitors will be encouraged to walk through the different provinces seeing the orchids from that region. The orchids of PNG will be celebrated as never before.
The Christensen Research Institute in Madang is dedicated to marine biological research. It is a nonprofit field biology research institute established in 1985 with the support of the US-based Christensen fund. It shares premises with the Jais Aben Resort on a peninsular some 15 kilometres north of Madang town. Qualified researchers need to clear their proposals through both national and local government committees before being accepted at Christensen. Once there, they have every possible facility at their disposal, good standard accommodation, laboratories, tanks and rich forest and marine life on their doorstep.
Many scientists have come to Christensen and agree, “The Madang Lagoon is one of the best coral reef systems we have ever seen. It beats any place else we have ever been for finding the kind of animals or plants we are interested in.” It is a very young lagoon, geologically speaking. It is 15 kilometres long and 4 kilometres wide. There are more kinds of clown fish and sea anemone in the Madang Lagoon than has been found anywhere else in the world. There are more species of nudibranches – beautifully coloured sea-slugs – than any other place. At least 300 species have been named and there could be yet another 200 to be found. Over a thousand species of fish live in the lagoon. It is one of the world’s richest sites for crinoid animals, strange feathery creatures that look like plants. But the lagoon is under threat – from dynamiting, pollution, siltation and industry. The question is: will it survive?The Wau Ecology Institute is a field station which does much to promote research and education. It has a venerable history since its inception as a field station for the US Smithsonian Institution and the Bishop Museum in the early 1960’s. The present director, Mr. Harry Sakulas arrived at the Institute in 1979 and immediately began to expand both the work and the workforce. There are now a total of 65 staff, half of them with professional and semi-professional qualifications. There has been a shift of emphasis from basic research to applied research, largely as a response to concern from the PNG government to meet immediate needs.
Several important programmes are currently underway at Wau. Many staff are engaged in monitoring the effects of mining, logging and weather. One programme unique to Wau is a study of shifting or slashand- burn agriculture. One of the project aims is to persuade villagers to maintain their gardens at one site by improving soil fertility. But one of the more exciting developments has been in the medicinal plants programme. A nationwide survey collected herbarium specimens and recorded their uses by traditional healers. Important species have been propagated and in some cases sent overseas for further screening and analysis. At present all these programmes are under threat because of inadequate funding. The Institute has only one road-worthy vehicle. It will not be able to continue its extensive field operations. It has attempted to generate income from its guest house and from the sale of coffee beans and vegetables but this did little more than meet some operating costs. Furthermore the law and order problems in the local area have reduced all opportunities for income generation. Wau must have help from outside donors to continue.
The Department of Environment and Conservation is committed to maintaining the natural resources of PNG for now and for the future but the international community also has a responsibility to help PNG make a full contribution to global environmental welfare.