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Rainforest Information Centre Educational Supplement

Country Profile:

New Guinea is an ancient land with an incredible range of diversity of both non-human and human cultures. In a region that has been devastated by multi-national logging companies in recent decades, there are still huge areas of rainforest wilderness that remain untouched by the influences of the industrial and post-industrial age. However, with an increasing human population and a huge onslaught by resource-extracting companies, these troubled islands face an uncertain future.


1. Natural History
2. Indigenous Culture
3. Colonial History
4. The Rainforests of PNG: Present Situation
5. Australian Aid to PNG
6. Looking to possible solutions
7. Methods of Awareness Raising
Some Discussion Points for Students


Sitting only one hundred kilometres north of Australia, Papua New Guinea (PNG) holds the largest rainforest area remaining in the Asia-Pacific region. A two-thousand kilometre long central mountain range soaring to over five thousand metres has created a myriad of microclimates and an astonishing diversity of plants and animals, with the range of vegetation including mangrove forests, lowland rainforest, alpine vegetation, grassland, and savanna woodland.

There are 11,000 known species of vascular plants, 200 species of ferns and over 1,200 species of trees. Over half of these are endemic to PNG, meaning they grow no where else in the world. PNG is home to 700 species of birds, 445 species of which dwell in the rainforest areas. Twenty four bird 24 species are now under threat of extinction. PNG is home to more parrot, pigeon and kingfisher species than anywhere else in the world. There are 90 species of snakes, 170 species of lizards, 13 species of turtles, nearly 200 species of frogs, 445 species of butterflies, 250 known species of mammals including the world largest bat, many tree kangaroos and the world largest species of crocodile.


Papua New Guinea's indigenous people settled on the island as far back as fifty thousand years ago. Evidence of gardening goes as far back as nine thousand years, making Papua New Guineans amongst the world first agriculturalists. There are over seven hundred languages spoken in PNG; one-third of the world's total. There is also a cultural connection between Australian Aboriginals, Torres Strait Islanders and the Melanesians of PNG.

The rainforest provides about 20-30 % of the food supply, as well as miscellaneous raw materials for building purposes, tools and weapons, artefacts, clothing and personal ornamentation, medicinal products, and material for ritual and magical purposes. Hunting and fishing contribute another 10 - 40% to household food consumption. Most New Guineans still live in tribal societies

. Social obligations amongst kinship groups are complex, but a common characteristic is that members are obliged to assist and support others who might need help. This particularly applies to the very young and the elderly. Another common aspect of their tribal life is a system of barter and "pay-backs". PNG's population is now approximately four million, of which 87% continue to live outside of urban areas.Ninety seven percent of the land in PNG is owned by the indigenous people, with a relatively low population density of 8.4 persons/km. The aspects of foreign society that New Guineans seek -- especially those living in rural areas, are basic infrastructure, such as improvements in health care, education and roads. The government of PNG, and many of its business people are striving, however, for greater 'development', of the type found in Australia and other countries in the North*. There is also, with increasing contact with the rest of the world, a desire for lifestyle changes amongst some New Guineans, based on the myth of life in the 'western world'. Sadly, the ill effects to society that accompany many of these developments are not apparent until they have been adopted. For example, with urban drift, especially amongst young people, and high unemployment, there is a problem with "rascals" in the larger urban areas.

[* the "North" refers to the industrially developed countries, predominantly in the northern hemisphere, but also including such countries as Australia and Aotearo/New Zealand.]

"97 % of the land in PNG is traditionally held by the indigenous people"


European 'explorers' reached Papua New Guinea in the sixteenth century, but colonialism did not take hold until the nineteenth century. The main island of New Guinea was split into segments by the colonial powers, with the Dutch controlling West Papua, and the Britain and German controlling the east. In 1906, Australia took over the governance of the British territory, and following World War Two, the German colony was also taken over by Australia. In 1921 the League of Nations (a fore-runner of the United Nations) formalised the Australian control of the eastern side, known as Papua New Guinea. The western side of the main island remained a Dutch territory until 1963, when Indonesia took it over. Since the shift of control, West Papua, now called Irian Jaya by the Indonesians, has suffered harsh military repression, and the Free Papua Movement has been engaged in guerilla warfare with Indonesia since then.

The destruction of traditional ways of life, and the government policy of resettlement of people or transmigrasi from Indonesia to West Papua is continuing to cause great harm to the indigenous people and the environment. Due to the oppressive Indonesian regime, it is very difficult for 'outsiders' to assist West Papuans, or for them to raise awareness of their plight to the world. The ecologically disastrous Freeport Copper Mine has been a focus for internal and external opposition to Indonesian rule of West Papua.

PNG gained independence from Australia in 1975, but the governmental connections between the two countries remain strong. The Australian Government gives over $300 million in overseas aid to PNG each year, as well as continued support of the PNG military and police. The Australian Government has come under pressure, both internally and internationally, for siding with the PNG Government in the war on the island of Bouganville, which is predominantly a resource war.


Over the past 20-30 years there has been a crisis of deforestation in the Asia-Pacific region. This crisis has been widely publicised, due to the work of environmental campaigners.In particular, logging on the island of Borneo has received a lot of focus. Over the past decade, as the rainforests of Sarawak and Sabah are gradually becoming exhausted, the large transnational timber corporations have been moving further south, particularly in PNG and the Solomons Islands.

According to a report commissioned by the Australian Government, "the total forested area of Papua New Guinea is estimated at 34 million ha. Of this, an estimated 7.0-7.5 million ha is now widely regarded as commercial or productive forest" (Duncan, 1994). It has been estimated that at current levels of logging, all of this available forest will be gone within one generation. In 1990, the former director of the Forest Research Institute, Dr. Simon Saulei, estimated that between 2.3 and 3 million hectares of all accessible forests had been logged over (Saulei, 1990a and 1990b). In 1991 the total area of forest for which permits and licences had been granted was 4.52 million hectares (Nadarajah, 1993).

Current unsustainable industrial logging practices are stripping PNG of its rainforests, upon which the majority of indigenous land holders rely for part of their food, shelter, medicine, and spirituality. By exploiting the naivety and inexperience of remote village people, who sometimes cannot read the contracts they sign, these transnational corporations are selling a version of development that is neither sustainable nor desirable in the long run.

"Current unsustainable industrial logging practices are stripping PNG of its rainforests."

There has been much written on the situation in PNG, both by government and non-government organisations (NGOs). In 1990 the Barnett Report, headed by former judge Thomas Barnett, found overwhelmingly that the timber industry was both unsustainable and corrupt. The report caused a furore both in PNG and abroad, and an urgent government response to its findings is clearly required. In Barnett's words, "There is a fog which is casting its cloud over forestry in this country. It is a mixture of meandering intellectual neglect, bureaucratic inefficiency and lack of honest political commitment." There are ample reports and evidence that the timber companies are breaking many (if not all) environmental protection laws, and that they have scant regard for the rights of the local landholders.

The 1994 Duncan Report, "Melanesian Forestry Study", showed clearly the absurd economics of the current logging situation, which the PNG government is both allowing and complicit in. "Because tropical timber is a semi-non renewable resource (if not non renewable, as there is some doubt over the regeneration of some species), then it's sale is in the nature of the disposal of an asset." (Duncan, 1994)

"This is not so much a plan, as a timetable handing out huge areas of forest in the shortest possible time"

To date, however, there has been little concrete action taken to put an end to the theft of land, resources, and traditional ways of life. In fact, the PNG remains locked into the view of "development" so prevalent in the North, and is seeking this development without any regard for the future. When commenting on the National Forest Development Plan, Thomas Barnett stated that, "This is not so much a plan, as a timetable for handing out huge areas of forest in the shortest possible time." (Barnett,1990, page 12)

Despite the chaos that is current PNG government policy, there is, however, much positive work being performed by PNG NGOs. Small scale forestry, and "eco-timber" projects are becoming stronger in their strategies. Training in sustainable forestry, and awareness patrols to remote areas by local NGO's has been spreading the message of what exploitative logging will do to rural communities. The recent screening on PNG television station EMTV of the Rainforest Information Centres documentary Mama Bilong Olgeta on the PNG logging industry was a great success. There has since been increased interest from PNG NGOs to distribute this video and other information on the logging crisis. There is still, however, a dire need to increase Australian aid funding to the NGO community in PNG, who are currently not being supported by their misguided government.

The World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), supported financially and politically by the Australian Government, are attempting to enforce harsh changes in PNG, under their 1995 Structural Adjustment plans. Amongst these are plans to allow greater access to PNG resources for overseas companies, and cutbacks in public spending, both of which would heighten the deforestation crisis. But perhaps the biggest threat to the preservation of PNG's rainforests is the plan to introduce registration of tribal/customary land. Such registration of communal land will only open further opportunities to multi-national corporations in their bid to extract the countries resources.

[Note: While there is not enough space here to develop these issues, further reading on the World Bank and IMF is recommended.]


Australian aid makes up roughly one third of the annual budget of the PNG Government. Through AusAID (formerly AIDAB), the Australian Government has supplied funding for NGO-initiated appropriate development projects, as well as for many ineffectual environmental control policies in PNG. AusAID support of PNG Government departments responsible for protecting the environment has been somewhat blind to the fact that these departments fail miserably to perform their functions.

The form that Australian aid to PNG has taken, being mostly bulk budgetary support, has effectively propped up the misguided PNG Government. The current agreement between AusAD and the PNG Government to end budgetary support by the turn of the century, in favour of direct project support, is a turn for the better.

Many NGOs in PNG have expressed concern that Australian aid money is not reaching the rural areas, where health and education services are badly needed. The rural people of PNG need aid posts, adequate health, and schools. That the PNG government is not providing these basic needs is not only unfortunate in itself. It also means that because of their desire for such services, small communities are selling the timber rights to their land. Logging companies often promise assistance, with the building of roads, bridges, schools, etc. and a key factor in the ability of large scale logging operations gaining access to an area is the local people's need for basic services. Sadly, the companies often default on the agreements, and it is common for them to vanish as soon as the logs are removed, leaving villages with neither the rainforest nor the services that they were promised.

The effect that logging is having on the local communities is profound, and dealing with the symptoms of this are many under or un-funded Women's Councils and community groups. The urban drift, accelerating crime rate, and spread of disease, especially mosquito-born malaria, are some of the severe problems that the people of PNG face. It would seem that much of the Australian aid budget is aimed at dealing with the symptoms of these problems, rather than confronting with the unsustainable rural "development" which causes them.

The PNG Government needs to have a far greater responsibility to the rural people, whose education and health concerns are being neglected, to the detriment of the communities themselves and the natural environment that suffers as a consequence. With the population of PNG rising steadily, this problem will only get worse without a drastic change in the attitude of the PNG Government.


Timber Export Monitoring

Following the Duncan Report in 1994, AIDAB agreed to supply funding for specific monitoring of timber export practices. The renowned Swiss Company SGS was approached to fulfil this role, with the aim being that through minimum relative funding, the PNG Government would save millions of kina in revenue.

R.C. Duncan's estimate of economic surplus lost to logging contractors during the 1993-94 price boom was Kl93 million, for 1993 -- equal to $AUD28O million. Australian aid to PNG in the 1992-93 financial year was $AUD334 million. Therefore, an amount equal to more than 80 % of Australia's aid was lost by the PNG Government due to poor regulation of the logging industry. (Duncan, 1994, p. 12)

The AIDAB commitment to the SGS monitoring scheme was therefore applauded by the NGO community. However, the PNG Government has so far failed to implement this programme, despite the dire need for stricter management and regulation.

Raw Log Export Ban:

PNG remains one of the few countries in the world today that continues to allow the export of raw logs. With the myriad of problems involved with log exports, such as transfer pricing,"night ships", bribed officials, etc, it is obvious that political pressure needs to be brought on PNG to implement such a log export ban. Political sanctions are certainly nothing new, and Austalian has supported trade sanctions the world over against governments deemed politically unacceptable. Surely the mass deforestation of the South Pacific's largest wild rainforest, combined with the fact that there is considerable internal struggle against this destruction, is sufficient grounds for encouraging a log export ban, if not total trade sanctions, to "encourage" the government of PNG to address its internal problems.

Alternative Forest Products:

There are many alternative sources of income that can be used non-destructively, by the people of PNG, who are engaged more and more in the cash economy. Such alternate sources of income include foods from the forest, which can be sold both locally and internationally, traditional medicines, and traditional handicrafts made from rainforest materials. Through the promotion of such alternative forest products, the local landholders can make use of the forest without allowing logging in their area.

Tapa Cloth:
This is a cloth made by soaking and then pounding the inner layer of the bark of the paper mulberry tree until it is almost paper thin. The cloth is then painted in very beautiful traditional designs. There was an impressive exhibition of tapa cloth, made by the Maisin people of PNG at the University Art Museum, Berkeley, USA, entitled 'Jumping Lines: Maisin Art and Rainforest Conservation'. This project was co-sponsored by Greenpeace Pacific, as part of the promotion of traditional art forms that can be used to raise an income through wise use of forest resources.

Galip Nuts:
These tasty nuts grow naturally in the forests in some areas of PNG, and there is hope that schemes can be set up which will allow the marketing of locally-grown Galip Nuts to be exported to International markets.

Traditional Handicrafts:
Such items as traditional masks, and Bilems, which are fibre-string bags, can be sold collectively by villages both to tourists in PNG, and to specific markets world wide. While this type of merchandising will not be sufficient to solve all the landholder's income requirements, it will be a starting point that will enable a wiser use of the rainforest heritage.

Ecoforestry Initiatives:

The use of small scale, portable sawmills has been put forward by several environmental organisations as a possible solution to the problems that arise from industrial logging. There has been significant work, both in PNG and internationally, to implement a large-scale ecoforestry scheme in PNG, but there are a myriad of problems involved in such projects, including the difficulty of organising a workable scheme in the turbulent PNG political climate. It is hoped that through increased village awareness of sustainable forestry practices, they will be able to supply small quantities of "eco-timber" for both the local markets and also, through collectives, the international market for sustainably produced timber. For a more thorough examination of this complex issue, see the Rainforest Information Centre's 1994 booklet, 'Protecting The Rainforests of Papua New Guinea'.


Within PNG:

The work of raising awareness amongst the people of PNG, particularly those in rural and remote areas, is one of the vital keys to protecting these rainforests, as well as safe-guarding the rights of the indigenous landholders. Through education programmes aimed at informing villagers of the effects of large scale, industrial logging and mining, they will be better able to make wise decisions concerning the future of their lands. There is currently some excellent awareness work being done in PNG by local, NGOs. Since PNG has some very remote places, and the people there have been living in rainforest wilderness for thousands of years, it is difficult for outsiders to explain just what the effects of logging or mining will be. If a village person can see trees for as far as the horizon, they may not understand the consequences of logging to this environment.

Because many people in remote areas of PNG cannot read or write, the methods by which this message is delivered to the villagers is often different to the methods that would be used in countries such as Australia or the USA. Theatre performance, using traditional legends coupled with environmental and health education themes are often used. Song is another method by which environmental messages are passed on. The use of open forums for discussion is a method that is commonly used in PNG to decide village matters, and this form of discussion is likewise used by environmental organisations when Awareness Patrols visit rural areas. By engaging the whole population's interest in the campaign, whether it be a health issue or debating whether to allow logging on their land, this form of decision making takes a wider range of views into account. Often it is the case in "developed" countries such as Australia, that important decisions are made by a select minority (who are often male) and in this way it is not truly representative of what the whole population think

Unfortunately, village headmen have sometimes been corrupted and bribed by timber companies into signing over the land for logging The problem of village leaders going against the wishes of the people that they represent is a difficult one, and is found in all countries in the world. It is just that in PNG, such corruption of leaders has a direct, and fast, result on the local environment. The use of videos and photographs is also a good method of education. Through showing villagers the damage that logging has brought to other rural areas through photographs, or even taking several leaders to these hard hit areas, the people have a better concept of just what "progress", as defined by large multinationals, really means.

In Australia and internationally:

Many Australians do not realise that PNG is their closest neighbour. Many people would feel closer links with the USA. or England due to television and film. Most people in other countries around the world would similarly be unaware that PNG is the "Amazon of the Pacific", in terms of rainforest wilderness and ancient tribal lifestyles. Therefore, one key step in seeking assistance in the struggle to save PNG's forests is to educate people in the North, especially in such countries as Japan (the largest user of tropical timber), about where PNG is, what is happening there, and the loss of its biodiversity would mean to the environmental and cultural diversity of the Earth. Alerting governments to the current crisis in PNG is a vital step, since through political pressure the government of PNG can be influenced to start protecting its rainforests.


As support from AusAID for NGO projects in appropriate development and education increases, with the changing structure of aid funding to PNG, we hope to see greater emphasis on sustainable, community-based projects rather than mere support for Australian business initiatives in the South Pacific. Greater dialogue between the Australian Government and the PNG NGO community, and Australian NGOs, is required to before the problems being faced on the ground can be addressed adequately.

"Greater emphasis on sustainable, community based projects"

While the destruction of rainforest has been the focus of this supplement, there are several other major environmental threats to PNG's well-being, two of these being mining and mono-crop plantations. These are complex problems, and while they have not been discussed here, further reading on these issues is encouraged. Tensions are running high in PNG,, with many communities having suffered at the hands of commercial logging and foreign business interests, and many more currently witnessing the destruction of their natural heritage. As PNG's closest neighbour, Australia cannot hope to avoid the results of this course of events. The possibility for an explosion of violent resistance, as seen on the island of Bouganville, is alarmingly high. The question is: will the Australian Government support the work of those grassroots organisations seeking to help the people, or assist the PNG elite to merely dress it's self-inflicted wounds?

(by Kena'e Ka'au, Greenpeace PNG campaigner)

You say you are one of us
You have dark skin like ours
Your mother is one of us
And even your father is one of us
But you, we are not sure
You are one of us
And yet you are not one of us

You speak our language
It was your first language
But you also speak Moiu, Pidgin and English

We are confused
You are one of us
And yet you are not one of us

You even have a village
The same village as ours
But the last time we saw you was two years ago
And you were only here for two weeks

We are confused
You are one of us
And yet you are not one of us

You go to the supermarket and markets for your food
We use the jungles and rivers to get ours
Yes, we love our fish, sago and crabs
And we know you enjoy fish, sago and crabs, too
But that is on top of rice, tinned fish, twisties and coke

We are confused
Where are you from?
... ... ...


* What levels of value do people of "developed" countries put on forests, and are these value judgements appropriate?

* Do traditional people need to change or should they remain living as they are? What value assumptions come into this judgment, e.g. do we assume that we have a better way of life than they presently do, and do New Guineans view it this way?

* How does the cash economy affect formerly traditional living amongst tribal peoples?

* What is an appropriate form of development?

* How is colonialism represented in this age, with more and more foreign companies marketing their products in PNG?

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Barnett, T. (1990) The Barnett Report:summary, The Asia-Pacific Action Group. Hobart, Tasmania 1990

Duncan, R.C. (1994) Melanesian Forestry Sector Study ( The Duncan Report) A Report prepared for AIDAB. NAtional Centre for Development Studies The Australian National University Canberra, Australia October 1994

Saulei, S. (1990a) Forest Research and Development in Papua New Guinea in AMBIO Journal of Human Development, vol.19, no.8, Royal Swedish Academy of Science, Stockholm, Sweden 1990

Saulei, S. (1990b) The Constraints for Economic Development and Conversation of Tropical Forest in Papua New Guinea paper presented in the International Congress of Ecology Yokohama, Japan 1990

Nadaraiah, T. (1993) The Sustainability of Papua New Guinea's Forest Resource National Research Institute Port Moresby, PNG 1993

Corporate Greed and Human Need; striving for balance in PNG produced by the Rainforest Action Network Colleen Murphy-Dunning, John Moriatry U.S.A.

Other Sources:

Protecting the Rainforests of Papua New Guinea Rainforest, Information Centre Lismore, Australia Edited by John Seed and Gerrick Martin 1994

Teachers Notes by Sophie Davis, for "Mama Bilong Olgeta" - Class room Video

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