While much of this is on steep mountainsides or in areas that are completely inaccessible because of the impossibility or undesirability of constructing roads, 12 million hectares – over a quarter of PNG’s total land area – has been identified as containing forested land with potential for some form of timber extraction. The actual area of forest within this which it is believed could be productive adds up to nearly 8 million hectares. One million of hectares of this has already been logged, and permits and entitlements of varying degrees of status exist in relation to up to a third of the rest. It is the responsibility of the Ministry of Forests, working in conjunction with the PNG Forest Authority, a statutory body that replaced the old Department of Forests in 1991, to preserve and manage PNG’s forest reserves.
The PNG Forest Authority has one over-riding aim: to promote the management of these resources as a renewable asset for the benefit of present and future generations; in other words to ensure that the forestry industry in Papua New Guinea is a sustainable one. The main aim of government policy in recent years has been to phase out log exports in favour of processed timber products in an effort to add value and provide employment, but at present 90% of the timber exports in this K600 million industry is still in the form of crude logs. The new emphasis on sustainability, embodied in agreements signed with various international bodies and at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, has extended this agenda. Now the Government is faced with the task of setting new standards, for example in relation to the proportion of timber an area which can be cut in any year, and of monitoring the performance of the contractors involved.
White oak, rosewood, kwila, black bean, ebony and walnut are some of PNG’s most handsome woods, but the forests contain over 200 species of hardwoods, 70 of which have been identified as of commercial value. There are also softwoods such as klinki pine. Veneers are made from some of the most expensive and beautiful woods and other products include plywood and woodchips. But PNG’s forests cannot be valued merely in terms of timber.
It is only in the late 20th century that biodiversity, the separate existence of millions of life forms, has been understood to be such a vital feature of life on earth. Man’s economic activity has savaged this diversity in many parts of the world, but, for historic reasons, not in Papua New Guinea. Strong feelings are now aroused in many people by any further threats to the remaining wealth of flora and fauna in the world, wherever it might exist and whoever might be said to own it. The survival of Papua New Guinea’s forests, with their huge variety of birds, mammals, butterflies and other species is thought to be of maximum importance by environmentally aware people the world over, and somehow PNG has to live up to these hopes and expectations. This is necessary for strictly commercial reasons also as many countries are forcing the issue by banning imports from non-sustainable sources.
The Ministry of Forests has responded to this situation by putting in place a series of policies designed to guarantee sustainability. The system by which Timber Rights Purchases used to be agreed has been scrapped and more stringent conditions attached to the new type of agreement, which goes by the name of a Forest Management Agreement to recognize the wider responsibilities involved. An F.M.A. is an agreement between the traditional landowners, usually a group or tribe, and the government. Subsequently the government can lease rights to a contractor, who under the new scheme will only be able to work one thirty-fifth of the permitted volume of timber each year, leaving the rest untouched. This is calculated to permit regeneration of the total area in a period of thirty-five years – a tree ‘generation’. There are other conditions also, for instance the need to undertake a certain amount of silviculture, or tree planting, as well as managing natural regeneration.
It is the government’s aim to have in place mechanisms for the sustained management of forests by the year 2000, and also by that year to have reduced to zero the proportion of timber that is being exported as logs. These are grand aims and what PNG’s magnificent forests deserve.