Papua New Guinea - saying 'no' to Asian loggers

Posted: 1 August 2000

Author: Nicola Baird

Author Info: Nicola Baird works as a freelance environmental journalist. She is also Director of the Forest Management Foundation, a registered British charity which promotes sustainable community forest projects worldwide.

Unlike many politicians, the desperately poor Bainings people in the mountains of Papua New Guinea have found the courage to resist the bribes of Asian loggers. Nicola Baird explains how.

The pristine rainforest that covers the steep Bainings mountains of the Gazelle Province in East New Britain is looked on by its inhabitants as a mixed blessing. It may be home - but it's isolated; there are few roads, first aid posts or schools. Besides growing root crops in small forest clearings, selling off land for cocoa plots or performing their traditional fire dances, opportunities to earn cash for essentials like medicines, rice and kerosene are rare.

Nevertheless, in this remote part of Papua New Guinea, the local Bainings people have been able to resist Asian loggers' false promises of much-needed services and their offers of cash, good time girls and beer.

"Every village we have ever visited has had visits from the loggers offering grease (bribes) for trees. Sometimes they have been chased out. Often the loggers take a handful of villagers away for 'further discussions' as their guests in an upmarket Port Moresby pub. And they don't take no for an answer, returning again and again," claims Max Henderson, a naturalised Papua New Guinean.

Henderson was so alarmed by the tactics of the loggers that he helped establish the Pacific Heritage Foundation, in 1992, to provide an alternative for villagers who wanted an entry into the cash economy, but were at risk of being tricked by logging companies to give up their forests for a fraction of the market value.

CorruptionForestry in PNG has a tarnished record. Former Minister of Forests, Ted Diro, was dismissed following a judicial enquiry that found him guilty on more than 80 charges of corruption. In July 1995 the Minister of Forests, Andrew Posai, was dismissed on 26 charges of misconduct during his time as Minister of Youth and Home Affairs. As Forest Minister he lived rent-free in a house owned by a subsidiary of the largest logging company in Papua New Guinea, Rimbunan Hijau. One of PNG's most dynamic forest ministers, Tim Neville who was committed to principles of sustainability, had his life threatened twice for allegedly refusing to accept "grease" from logging company representatives.

Last year more than three million cubic metres of timber was cut by loggers - at least three times above the sustainable rate. The situation has change little since a still unpublished official enquiry in the PNG logging industry during the mid 1980s. In his report, Judge Thomas Barnett concluded: "Some of these companies...are roaming the countryside with the self-assurance of robber barons: bribing politicians and leaders, creating social disharmony and ignoring the laws in order to rip out and export the last remnants of timber."

Yet villagers like the Bainings people who own thousands of pounds of resources are persistently refused loans by local banks - even for sustainable development projects like the ones backed by Pacific Heritage Foundation.

"Large-scale industrial logging may appear to be an environmental problem," claims Henderson, "but it is really a human rights issue. An average coastal Bainings village, with a population of 150, owns 25,000 hectares of forest valued at $200 million. That they don't have a school, a hospital, a telephone a tractor or a pair of shoes is partly driving the Asian expansion. In five years their asset can be turned into an environmental and asset wasteland, and they still won't have any shoes."

Community timberPacific Heritage Foundation's main focus is on running environmental awareness campaigns, timber skill courses as well as providing a market for villagers' timber. Bainings villagers at Arabam, Riet, Maranagi, Illi, Murungu, Merai and Mu have already exported community timber to Europe. Some is on sale as part of the red hardwood mouldings range at do-it-yourself store B&Q. Indeed the Bainings Community Forest Project has been so successful that it was the first in Melanesia to win internationally recognized Forest Stewardship Council certification, after a gruelling assessment by consultants from SGS Forestry.

Selected trees are only cut after an inventory and careful planning. Once an area has been cut the community leaves it to regenerate before cutting resumes.collecting firewoodVillagers collecting firewood© Andy Crump/Still PicturesWalking through the tangled tropical bush, it takes an experienced eye to know where sawmilling took place, even a few months after the final cut. In comparison, the areas logged by heavy machinery turn to mud and then become smothered with kunai grass and vines which choke the growth of any young trees.

"We had one store before, now we have four. Everyone gets a chance to work, so the benefits are distributed throughout the village," claims George Metpes from Arabam village who spent 18 months convincing his community that they should try and work the sawmills themselves rather than hand it over to a Malaysian logging company.

School roomNearby in Riet village, the community sawmill project enabled a school room to be built, complete with desk and chairs for primary aged kids. A youth group has been set up and there is a steady, sustainable income for the villagers. Benny Rokoi smiles as he recalls his village's achievements: "High living has come to us without us having to spoil the bush."

Bainings villagers, like Martin Katole, who works on a community forest management project at the isolated coastal village of Mu, are now able to stave off the industrial loggers promises and lies because Pacific Heritage Foundation offers a sustainable, economic alternative. Katole mocks official efforts to check the loggers' activities: "Government in PNG may have the rules and policies, but government isn't behind what it says. It's relying on this forest income so it won't enforce the laws."

His assessment is echoed by Henderson: "The greed is usually from a handful coerced into accepting relatively small amounts of graft in relation to the size of their assets. They act as ambassadors for the exploiters and normally only they benefit - not the community as a whole. We can take action to change what is happening. Or we can do nothing and lose forests of incalculable value to Papua New Guinea - and the world."