Will the last Frontier, Papua New Guinea stand or fall?
Papua New Guinea is a hotpot for biodiversity and cultural heritage unlike any other place on Earth. Its richness in natural resources makes it a “last frontier” of undisturbed pristine land. However, intensified logging and mining activities during the last decades are causing a major risk of irreversible altering this land. Indigenous and traditional livelihoods are losing their subsistence when natural resources are being removed through deforestation activities. Logging and mining companies are offering basic goods and services to indigenous proprietors, during the short-term income from their activities. Yet, much more sustainable and long-term income is presented through conservation programs and ecotourism. Although developing ecotourism is not straightforward in Papua New Guinea, collaborations between conservationists and ecotourism entrepreneurs share common goals and should be motivated to join forces. A synergetic collaboration between conservation programs and ecotourism entrepreneurs could be an innovative way forward for sustaining both natural resources and communities.
Papua New Guinea and Papua West are two countries sharing the sub-continental island of New Guinea, a land of magnificent primary forests and rich biodiversity. Papua New Guinea (PNG) holds 5% of the world’s biodiversity, which only adds up to 1% of the global land area. Still, PNG is the 10th largest tropical rain forest nation in the world. The flora in all of New Guinea is highly diverse and it shares plants with both Australia and East Asia: A floral diversity that is one of the oldest on Earth, and dates back to when all these continents were joined in the ancient Gondwana continent. Endemic plant species which are unique to New Guinea include a variety of orchids, higher plants, birds, mammals and eight tree kangaroo species. This high diversity in species is supported by the great variety of habitat types – from lush rain forest, to alpine conditions in mountain areas, to coastal mangroves. Offshore the coral reefs are abundant with a variety of fish, coral and marine mammals.
PNG’s local population is also highly diverse with more than 800 local languages spoken. Indigenous tribes and local communities have preserved the biodiversity by avoiding over-exploitation of the natural resources. Traditional sustainable livelihoods have naturally supported conservation practice benefiting the reefs, forests and mountain areas. Besides supplying food and shelter, the forests of PNG holds a strong spiritual and cultural value to the locals. Almost all of PNG’s forests are under the customary ownership of local people. Today, about 80% of the population of PNG relies on the natural resources for food, traditional medicine and building material. Yet, intensified and illegal logging for timber has caused acute and imminent threats to not only the ecological systems but also to the and traditional utilization of the forest by local communities.
Implementation of a logging regulation program
Well-documented concerns have been highlighted regarding the cost and damage which the current timber industry is causing on society and environment. Changing the current exploitive and non-sustainable logging activity to sustainable management of the forests will offer long-term benefits in terms of conserving biodiversity and providing sustainable use of the natural resources for PNG’s inhabitants. Logging and mining exploitation only offers short-term income in comparison to long-term income by sustainable conservation programmes and ecotourism.
One of the critical issues with managing the illegal logging is the inability of the forest authorities of PNG to monitor and enforce the law against these illegal activities. The UN-REDD programme for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation is collaborating with the PNG forest authorities under the REDD+ initiative to improve the capacity to monitor and enforce the regulations on illegal deforestation.
In 2013, UN-REDD provided technical input to the methodological design of the country’s first national forest inventory, in collaboration with the PNG Forest Authority and PNG’s satellite forest monitoring system – the Office for Climate Change and Development. A further development of this inventory was presented in July 2014 when a set of national guidelines was completed. These include monitoring and supervision strategies, to improve the management of PNG’s natural forest resources. Currently, the guidelines are in a process of being tested on appropriate sites, to evaluate the applicability in a complex social structure of family landowners and clan leader administrators. Following the test phase and last improvements the National Executive Council can endorse the guidelines which aim at preserving biodiversity and ecological services.
Sustainable eco- and adventure tourism
PNG has a huge potential for developing its adventure and sustainable conservation tourism. The diversity on offer is attractive to a broad group of travellers with interests within trekking, wildlife, diving and unique cultural experiences
Still, the number of people visiting PNG compared to similar destinations such as Costa Rica and Fiji is below 5%. There is therefore great potential for developing a good tourism plan which will benefit both the locals as well as the natural environment – a potential which can be competitive to the non-sustainable logging industry.
Community-based Science and Conservation
Conservation programmes that apply a community-based approach and sustainable tourism aims at preserving local communities and the natural resources. The intentions are to conserve biodiversity and empower local people to benefit from the value their environment holds in itself and by avoiding exploitation.
Community-based conservation is gaining popularity. It is based on a concept where local communities own and manage the tourist operations on their traditional lands and thereby directly link the economic benefits of tourism to wildlife conservation and human welfare.
An example of a successful community based program in PNG, is The Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program (TKCP) in the Huon Peninsula in the YUS Local Level Government Area. The conservation programme is managed by Woodland Park Zoo. The Tree Kangaroo Conservation Programme applies a community-based strategy, to document the natural history and conservation status of tree kangaroos through scientific research and interviews with local landowners and villagers. It also involves indigenous landowners and community members to participate in all TKCP fieldwork, including scientific research, land mapping, community education and conservation outreach activities. These activities are improving the standard of living in the communities by expanding health care for villagers and midwife training. Schools are improved through support of teachers and development of skills, implementing and maintaining conservation education programmes. Finally, the programme encourages local villages to manage natural resources by training the Papua New Guinea University students and local landowners as field research assistants and conservation advocates.
A designated area in The Huon Peninsula in the YUS Local Level Government Area reached an official status as a conservation area in 2009. This is a milestone and an educational example of how a successful community-based approach benefits people, wildlife and environment.
Carefully planned and well-managed ecotourism can reasonably be expected to contribute significantly to both the well being of indigenous people and the conservation of the natural habitats under their custody. First and foremost, ecotourism can be expected to create long-term employment opportunities where there otherwise may well be either none or only short-term ones such as in logging and mining.
Employment of indigenous people living inside the biodiversity hot spot areas is attractive to ecotourism. It enables them to obtain basic necessities and services which cannot be achieved directly from a subsistence way of living. Providing an income through ecotourism would also reduce the risk of illegal trading of vulnerable wildlife products by local communities. Moreover, ecotourism can in a similar way as community-based conservation generate long-term spin-offs including income from handicrafts, vocational and environmental education as well as local administration of food supply. Lastly, the cultural exchange through ecotourism may empower the indigenous communities socially and politically towards the modern world, unlike an abrupt introduction where their cultural heritage is not acknowledged and respected. Ecotourism should therefore be considered as a sustainable economic activity that generates income with conservation spin-offs for both communities and environment.
Although the advantages of developing community based tourism seems evident, only a few initiatives exist in PNG, and just a few people manage them with a high status in the tribal communities. Unfortunately, this elite take advantage of their position and often look after only they’re own and their close relatives interests. Such a system creates inappropriate social stress within the local community. Reactions by the community towards this unfair management can involve active destruction of the tourism attraction, having a detrimental effect on both environment and culture. To avoid such unfortunate developments Wijaya (2010) recommends that, “a local guide would need to be attentive to the clan structure and societal positions in neighboring villages to avoid conflicts and to follow common procedure for solving problems. If the guide fails to obtain a supportive attitude towards the ecotourism product, its value may within a short timeframe be ruined and the life situation of the guide and his nearest be put at risk.” The ecotourism services in a specific area should therefore need to produce a large enough income, within a short time period, to benefit the entire society or clans of that area, and thereby limit unequal benefits of the society.
Indigenous societies of PNG have managed to guard and sustain a high biodiversity in forests and ocean reefs through traditional customary laws by applying moderation and temporary abstinence of natural resources. Therefore, traditional communities seem more receptive to long-term conservation goals through ecotourism than through non-sustainable mining and logging activities that have been poorly managed by authorities up to now. A major challenge of today, is that the tribal societies are experiencing immense pressure from outside to develop the natural resources which their traditional livelihoods strongly depend upon. As a result, there is not a strong opposition against the development of extraction of natural resources as the communities expect to reciprocally benefit from it. A natural outcome of such a deleterious development is that indigenous people end up with the largest loss of loosing their livelihood.
To develop a sustainable ecotourism industry that does not unsettle the cultural traditions, Wijaya (2010) recommends, “ to generate and uphold immediately effective cash-generating alternatives, enabling at least the landowners to procure basic goods and services that cannot be fulfilled from a subsistence way of living.” It is also recommended to approach an ecotourism strategy from the concept of “Payment for Ecological Services”. This concept suggests an agreement where buyers voluntarily pay contingent transactions to local providers of well-defined environmental service or land-use that can provide that service. Such services could for instance be administered through formalized leasing of reefs and forests from local landowners. One challenge in such a setup is that often providers of ecotourism products are by small companies that are unlikely to have a strong risk-taking behavior, under market conditions like the ones currently in PNG.
Another challenge to the development of ecotourism is that local communities often lack the understanding of the vision and philosophy behind the ecotourism concept. Especially, that ecotourism is not compatible with ongoing destructive activities of natural resources, which might be attractive to keep up additional income opportunities. A paramount task for the ecotourism entrepreneurs seems to be to distance themselves from the business developers, who destroy resources and offer communities non-sustainable compensation for their activities. In stead the ecotourism entrepreneurs need to get the message through by common and committed goals with the indigenous people – that of maintaining resources and natural beauty of the environment. However, ecotourism will still need to convince the local communities that there are long term benefits, competitive with the basic services and facilities which the mining and logging companies has offered them previously.
In spite of the obvious challenges of developing ecotourism, there are positive experiences from both community-based conservation as well as ongoing promising initiatives occurring, for instance Travel the Wild or Papua Expeditions. Moreover, the possibilities for ecotourism are vast and calls for innovative solutions that may challenge the way conventional conservation is implemented.
It’s all about synergy
Not only does the ecotourism vision share the goals of conservation programmes to preserve the natural resources and livelihoods for indigenous people, they also share the same kind of challenge in communicating the common goal to the local communities. Both are interested in having the sustainable economic value of biodiversity and natural resources managed after best practice. As seen from the REDD+ and national guidelines programme indigenous communities benefit and can sustain their traditional livelihoods. Therefore, more collaboration should be encouraged between conservation projects and ecotourism entrepreneurs. Collaborations where the commercial benefits of ecotourism are discussed openly to meet sustainable and sound business practice. A two-sided ecotourism and conservation approach that follow common guidelines from conservation programmes, could act in synergy towards the sustainable management of protected areas.