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Computers are a powerful tool for the dissemination of information. Using his work on PNG forest issues as an example, Glen Barry shows how computer based "informational technologies" can be used to their greatest advantage in the struggle against ecological impoverishment.
by Glen Barry
Significant consensus has emerged concerning the threats facing the planet's biological diversity and biological health. Scientists, activists and government officials increasingly are united in their conviction that humankind's unrestrained industrial activities in general, and the widespread and accelerating decline of forests in particular, are degrading the biosphere. Less progress has been made in communicating to the general public the consequences of the rapid impoverishment of biological systems we are now experiencing. This is particularly true in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and other Pacific island countries.
The question is, will the signal of green thought prevail in time to make ecological living the norm? How can technology be used to achieve the ends of maintaining biodiversity? This paper is meant to enable others with an interest in PNG, the Pacific region, and/or forests in general, to understand the potential for informational campaigning, utilizing a whole range of startlingly powerful information technologies, like relational databases, the internet and many other PC-based tools.
The creation of networks through which information flows on specific ecological issues is one way that individuals can make a difference. And in opinion gathering, networking and collating of environmental information which we have carried out on behalf of PNG's forests could be replicated with great benefit in most places, and for most environmental and other progressive causes. Pick a forest and save it.
Over the past several years, I have carried out research on forest informational campaign strategies; with particular attention to how to use databases, the internet, and desktop publishing for the conservation and management of PNG's rainforests and biodiversity. This forest advocacy research, largely carried out under the organisational name Ecological Enterprises, has been action oriented; building information links and educational opportunities for biodiversity and rainforest protection, within PNG, and between PNG and the rest of the world.
Salzman (1989) considers focused advocacy to be a person (or group) reporting data concerning an area in which they have expertise and deeply held convictions. This leads to action to make sure "the information is interpreted correctly and acted upon (Rohlf 1991)." Salzman adds, that "It is entirely appropriate--and crucial--for scientists to become focused advocates..." This message is important for PNG rainforest advocacy efforts. Ecological Enterprises has become a leading information center for the processing of information of and about PNG's and the World's forests, biodiversity and indigenous cultures. Our advocacy campaign's basic premise is that ecological and biological considerations need to be inserted into virtually all resource use decisions, forestry in particular, if human society is to have a chance to stop the reduction in biological functionality of the world's ecological systems.
I will not attempt to address at length the debate concerning whether conservation should or should not use modern technology for advocacy or other uses. Significant adverse ecological impact of just the resources needed to build computers and supply them are noted. Nonetheless, I am of the opinion that conservationists have no option but to embrace informational technologies at this critical juncture. Computers as a tool, not as an end unto themselves, must be the focus.
PNG's "tropical forests and freshwater wetlands are equal in biological importance to the Amazon and Congo Basins" (Alcorn 1993). Forest resources play a vital role in sustaining the livelihood of its 3.7 million people. PNG covers 46.3 million hectares, of which about 34.23 million ha are still "covered by closed natural forest" and about half of which are accessible for exploitation (Lamb 990).
PNG is in a unique position to defend its rainforests. Over 97% of the land remains under customary land ownership. PNG law protects the rights of indigenous landowners to decide land use. Many PNG NGOs and others, Ecological Enterprises included, have carried out extensive grassroots educational efforts which have brought the well-documented social and environmental costs of industrial logging to numerous village communities. Out of such awareness, both at the village level in PNG, and with many hundreds of people on the internet, inevitably comes discussion of what development options there are that don't inherently diminish biological and cultural richness.
2.1 Ecological Alternatives Exist--Forest Loss Doesn't Have to Happen
The indigenous peoples of PNG desperately desire to better their economic and material condition. Conservation in PNG will fail unless the reasonable development aspirations of the local people are addressed. Capitalizing on the customary land ownership, PNG has tremendous potential for the promotion of land use patterns that stress long term stewardship as a means of meeting these aspirations.
A promising eco-timber industry is being developed in PNG. As an alternative to industrial forestry which degrades the resource upon which economic livelihoods depend, support of small-scale, community based, ecologically sustainable forestry and other low impact forest utilization may be the most effective manner to conserve biological diversity and economic futures in PNG. NGOs and landowners are joining together as practitioners of eco-forestry (small, community based sawmilling under a strict forest management plan) using 'wokabaut somils', small portable sawmills. The light, portable sawmill can be carried into the forests.
When a tree is to be harvested, it is felled with minimal disturbance to the surrounding trees and then milled on the spot. No roads and no heavy equipment are needed. Only some of the trees over a certain girth are harvested. PNG can probably never have enough preserved land in properly distributed reserves to maintain viable populations of most endemic species. PNG's rugged geography has resulted in a vast number of microhabitats. The result was a radiation in species and cultural diversity in each isolated valley. When vast tracts of relatively unpopulated forest landscape currently exist, why presume that 90% must still be cleared to arrive at what will then be preserved? Doesn't the failure of large scale industrial forestry to bring long term improvement in local people's way of life, while decimating local biodiversity, beg for a more farsighted development strategy? While the goal of establishing National Parks and other preserves is laudable, viable management systems for natural forests must be found.
2.2 Wokabout Sawmills
Wokabout Sawmills and other small, portable mills are among the best tools in the world for "sensitive harvesting of trees" (Seed 1993). They cause less environmental destruction than multi-national loggers and ensure local people get better financial benefits. Seed (1993) estimates that a maximum of 200 new wokabaut somil operations would need to be established to exclude large scale industrial logging from all vulnerable areas of PNG. Ecoforestry efforts using portable sawmills will only be as successful as their management plans are scientifically rigorous. These management plans generally allow careful logging on 1000 acres (about 20 acres a year over a 50-year rotation) leaving the vast majority of the land untouched. Once the tree is felled, the sawmill is assembled over the trunk, and the tree sawn into planks. The small clearing is rehabilitated and seedlings of the species taken are planted. Future timber trees are identified, staked, and mulched with sawdust. The number of cut trees per hectare is strictly limited, so there will be little more damage than would occur naturally and be repaired through gap dynamics (Seed 1994). There is a pressing need to experiment with regeneration in a variety of alternate management plans with varying harvest intensities, gap sizes, and levels of mechanization.
We have detailed the extensive forest clearing occurring across Irian Jaya, Indonesia, PNG, and the Solomon Islands. Recent advances in ecotimber harvesting schemes have also been noted. The problem and solution have been identified.
The internet and other technologies offer great potential to communicate internationally and locally, to bring about a solution to this decline in ecosystem functionality. Ecological Enterprises' Internet Forest Networking Project has been actively organizing individuals and communities for six years, with email bulletins posted to conservationists, government employees, academics -- getting ecological facts and figures into the hands of people who are willing to make a difference.
Conservation materials have also been widely distributed on APC's networks (greennet, pegasus, econet) and their rich environmentally-orientated bulletin boards. These efforts have recently intensified with the construction of Gaia Forest Archives home page accessible through the World Wide Web and gopher systems.
In order to address the clearly unacceptable destruction of the vast majority of South Pacific forest ecosystem, we have developed informational campaign strategies which seek to:
1. Organize local forest conservation information in a systematic manner to serve the needs of community development and empowerment work in PNG in particular, and in a less detailed manner, the world at large. This involves the collection, selection, compilation, sorting and dissemination of information;
2. Act as support and contact center for community actions and campaigns;
3. Act as intermediary for receiving and disseminating information;
4. Provide consultation and services to the community and community-based organizations in PNG in particular, and the world in general;
5. Demonstrate to other environmental campaigners how information technologies can be used to network ecological information. The internet has provided the core tool, the development of cheap and rapid communication between forest peoples and those living in Northern countries. Such communication presents two obstacles, technical aspects and cultural differences.
The author has maintained a steady stream of information out of PNG to the international conservation movement concerning forest legislation, policy, specific forest negotiations, and local environmental campaigns. As early as 1989, we were putting out information from PNG on the internet. At first this was utilized primarily for fund raising, group writing and campaign coordination of core PNG rainforest activists around the world. Only occasionally were items systematically addressed to the larger public.
Then in 1991, while volunteering with the Rainforest Information Centre in Australia as the New Guinea Islands Campaign Director, I began to type in PNG conservation newspaper articles, NGO informational releases, and other items for a small private conference that was once again addressed primarily to a small group of dedicated activists. This was largely because at this time it was unclear whether this type of material was too "radical" for mainstream viewing; and because expensive gateways charges apply when econet emails are sent to people on other email networks.
Econet is part of the APC networks, the largest assembly of on-line environmental information and activists, which connects 17,000 activists in 94 countries. For further information on EcoNet membership, a nonprofit online system, send a message to
As the private conference png.campaign within the econet conference continued to grow, it soon became clear that any advantages to a "private" bulletin board were being lost as individuals whom the core campaigners did not know personally, scattered throughout the globe, were added to the permissions list. At this time the content of our postings changed from primarily campaign coordination to the presentation of materials that would broaden and deepen the movement. Rather than thinking that half a dozen extremely dedicated individuals were going to save the forests single-handedly, additional emphasis was placed on interesting and recruiting new activists.
"Rather than thinking that half a dozen extremely dedicated individuals were going to save the forests single-handedly, additional emphasis was placed on interesting and recruiting new activists"
Since late 1991, basically all materials that have run in the
PNG print media concerning rainforest conservation efforts have
been made digital and indexed. In 1993 we acquired a piece of
hardware called a scanner and a class of computer software known
as Object Character Recognition (OCR) which allows clear hard
copies to have their text moved directly into a word processor
where it can then be edited, put in a newsletter, or printed. It
can also be posted to email list subscribers and to the econet
conference < reg.newguinea >.
In mid 1993 we started getting more familiar with the internet, of which econet is but one domain; and realized that anyone without a paid membership in econet was not getting our information.
These early internet forest conservation efforts have continued, and branched out to become involved in the conservation struggles of various communities whose internet appeals are being collected from numerous sources for indexing, distribution and archiving. As well as econet's bulletin boards, many usenet conferences, list server discussions, and World Wide Web and Gopher databases all are inputs into what we eventually circulate and archive.
Ensuring local struggles' conservation data is collated and distributed widely is crucial at this junction as pro-industrial logging governments and businesses have increased their propaganda machines worldwide (with their relatively unlimited resources) to counter and try to discredit the support of the global community for indigenous people's struggles.
E-mail is a way by which messages can be sent from one computer to another anywhere in the world through telephone lines. It is cheaper than phone or fax and correspondences can be captured onto the computer which greatly facilitates networking and the distribution. Email has allowed cheap and rapid communication between forest peoples and those living in Northern countries.
As Brown (1994) points out, "electronic mail has become a vital tool for those who work on environmental and social issues. Thousands of activists and organizations around the world are now using computer networks to coordinate campaigns and exchange news." Generally, document downloads of 250kb a day --about 200 articles -- are sifted through in order to find the 4 or 5 items a day which not only report events, but contain information which would be useful for others wanting to become active in support of good forest policy in a particular area. About 3 items a week are sent to the Worldwide Forest/Biodiversity Campaign News email list, really the best of the crop. About another two dozen a week are uniformly formatted and put in our document database in the Gaia Forest Archives, where any individual with internet (gopher or World Wide Web) connection can access and search them.
The other type of information we frequently network is reports, documents, manuscripts from organizations and individuals. For these items, we have been granted permission to network by the authors and issuing organization. There are many dozens of groups and individuals that regularly gather and send us press releases, action alerts and various other information pieces. Most of the information in the PNG section has been made available electronically for the first time by our efforts.
4.1 PNG Rainforest Campaign News
Our "PNG Rainforest Campaign News," which now reaches approximately 300 activists, academics and government officials, provides very comprehensive coverage of efforts to conserve PNG's rainforests, approximately 2 items a week ( send an email to < email@example.com > to be added).
The PNG Rainforest Campaign contact database organizes information for over 1,000 international supporters interested in PNG rainforest protection; and for whom we research, write and circulate a significant amount of information current, activist oriented forest conservation information. We network PNG newspapers' coverage of forest issues, local NGO backgrounders and materials, and international NGO PNG rainforest information.
In addition, Ecological Enterprises typically writes a few press releases and action alerts a month; pulling together recent happenings from our other sources, and channelling public concern within PNG and the World to pressure for conservation action. Frequently we organize international actions, such as letter writing campaigns, in support of local conservation appeals. Many hundreds of environmental groups and individuals, including most major forest campaign organizations, depend upon Ecological Enterprises for a portion of their forest conservation information. National Geographic Magazine, the New York Times, EF! Journal, Rainforest Information Centre's World Rainforest Report (many times - ed.) and Rainforest Action Network's World Rainforest Report and numerous newspapers around the world (including many in PNG) have recently utilized our data and analysis for articles on the forest situation in PNG.
What is original here, is that 500 people in communities all over the world are finding out about conservation issues days or weeks after it is happening (where it used to be months or years -- if ever).
4.2 Worldwide Forest/Biodiversity Campaign News
Our PNG Rainforest conservation network lead us to spend much time on the internet, posting and viewing many forest forums. We soon came to realize that a tremendous amount of worldwide conservation material was languishing on infrequently visited bulletin boards. We decided to diversify from our PNG interests and establish a network of activists, academics and public servants interested in biodiversity and forests issues in general. Hence, the "Worldwide Forest/Biodiversity Campaign News" was hatched; as we began to amplify the best of forest conservation appeals.
Worldwide Forest/Biodiversity Campaign News scans numerous sources on the internet, including usenet discussion groups, econet's bulletin boards, popular media and the press, and list servers and other local forest conservation efforts similar to our PNG Campaign, to provide wide-ranging coverage, on average 3 items a week, of the efforts to save the world's rainforests, temperate forests, biodiversity and indigenous cultures. This list is currently being distributed to 500+ academics and activists around the world.
Recently, we have been following conservation efforts in Malaysia (Sarawak), British Columbia (Clayoquot Sound), Guyana, and numerous others ( send an email to < firstname.lastname@example.org > to join). We have been providing coverage on biodiversity decline across the globe, amplifying local efforts to address the situation. We are synthesizing down the networked information by individuals and groups in order to maximize busy conservationists information inflows. We synthesize out the few conservation gems which are being circulated from the "noise" in many conservation forums, serving the function of a filter.
Not every individual concerned about forest conservation issues is able to spend 3-4 hours a day surfing the net finding materials, and another 1-2 hours a day preparing them for distribution, and another 1-2 hours in system design (most lately setting up the archives, but many years of designing the mailing list format, adding people, etc.). Much thought has been put into the format and frequency of postings. Through repeated changes we have decided that titles that capture the essence of the piece and well written summaries before the whole item's text are crucial in allowing list recipients to quickly gauge what items are of interest.
4.3 Gaia1 Forest Archives
In addition to these two email lists, archives of materials, constituting thousands of informational pieces, have been made available on the internet through the establishment of the Gaia1 internet server. The archives, entitled the Gaia Forest Archives (check it out at URL = http://gaia1.ies.wisc.edu/research/pngfores ), provide a range of materials concerning rainforest and biodiversity.
Materials have been made of uniform format, titled, indexed and presented graphically in order to make this material available to individuals that want to become more active in the rainforest movement; and need to familiarize themselves with forest and biodiversity protection issues in a particular country.
Data logs of the number of people accessing the informational archives have been gathered since its establishment. This data shows that as the information becomes more known and linked, and thus accessible, that information utilization is increasing dramatically. In just over 6 weeks, we went from having no accesses to one hundred a day. Potentially, our ability to influence the worldwide system upscale has increased dramatically, as recent weeks have seen a dramatic increase in the numbers of people viewing these materials. The home page has been hit now some 25,000 times over an 8 month period, during which time 70,000 documents were downloaded.
Given the systems nature of society and the ideas which are put before the public, the degree to which this forest advocacy program is successful will depend on whether accurate, well targeted information flows percolate through the system; ideally becoming the dominant paradigm, and leading to more actual conservation, ecological management and restoration of forests where they have historically occurred.
The discipline of Conservation Biology pays insufficient attention to the need to better identify sociologically, politically, economically and ecologically how the the drastic lifestyle changes necessary to pull human society into sustainability can be attained. Continued presence of forested landscapes through preservation of all remaining primary forest and immediate attempts to restore forest cover where it has historically occurred is essential to insure that the ecological roles of forests and their biological diversity remains intact.
The Forest Networking project works primarily at the Worldwide scale, hierarchically, as only the internet can make possible; with a nested PNG informational campaign at a lower scale. Increasingly, we are seeing many other local groups spring up to gather and network conservation information on a particular country or forest. International support is crucial if PNG's, and these other conservation efforts, are to have a chance of success.
Modern computers allow the tremendous ability to send thousands of messages to every corner of the world. Many newbies, or people recently experimenting with the internet, respond to such power through indiscriminate sending of information, but just being able to send signals faster and in more quantity does not make for a more connected system. Information must be going to people who are willing and able to make a conservation statement through their actions.
If the goal of this forest awareness is to have the forest land conservation ethos become the norm (the dominant paradigm), critical system connections need to be identified and linked. We have begun to address the lack of dispersal of information pertaining to local forest conservation efforts through the filtering, targeting and distribution of vast quantities of forest and biodiversity conservation advocacy materials. We have done this without ever flooding anonymous people with information. Instead, we started small and identified people who wanted the information. Both lists average half a dozen new subscribers a week. "Both the number of host computers and the volume of information flowing through the system are estimated to be doubling every five months (Brown, 1994)". Many types of individuals receive these unabashedly activist writs every week.
Virtually all major forest campaign groups worldwide, the foreign service desk officer for PNG from the US and Australia, the head of FAO's forest branch, World Bank, State Department officials, numerous academics (particularly a substantial anthropologist network) -- all are receiving and acting upon the same information. Virtually all major forest groups worldwide, the FAO's forest branch, World Bank, State Department officials, numerous academics all receive and act upon our information.
We have seen numerous interesting feedbacks as a result. As the forest and biodiversity advocacy has progressed, numerous feedbacks and patterns of information flows and impact have been developing. We also show how the individual, and small groups, can have a huge impact. Such an individual can be viewed as a transmitting holon in a systems biology sense. New information technologies allow a well informed individual the ability to package and disseminate information, that is send signals to other parts of the worldwide system, in previously unimagined quantity, speed, targeted accuracy, and quality. We can continue this systems analogy by envisioning information flows through the world as being received by individuals which are receiving holons.
Successful advocacy depends upon identifying from the whole set of holons (the world's population) the subset that is concerned enough with these issues (or likely to become so if provided with the necessary information) that they are willing to become transmitting holons; or otherwise active conservationists. And further, targeted receiving holons should be in a position to make a difference. Success is measured by the extent to which forest conservation percolates through the total human controlled system; a component of the larger system, Gaia, and becomes the prevalent ethos. Many biological systems depend upon informational signals, be they chemical or ecological, to remain intact.
Having experimented with rainforests appeals and informational exchange via the internet for some time, we have slowly, and through trial and error, identified key concepts that are important for our methodology and that are communicated to recipients of our forest alerts. It is critical the essential user understandings be established immediately with the hundreds of people who allow their mailboxes to be flooded with email appeals.
This informational service is free. All we ask of list recipients is that they try to contribute an item or two to the list when possible. Recipients can send items through email to us to be distributed, or you can send a high quality hard copy to us to scan into digital format. We network numerous public domain items, which we scan in from hardcopy and/or find posted around the internet. These include newspapers, magazines and other public domain sources. These items, we stress, are to be viewed as photocopies. Recipients are encouraged to use them as a resource in their own work, be it academic or activist, keeping in mind we are just passing items along as is--we are "amplifying" these stories, and thus acting as a messenger. If you want to actually publish the item, in contrast to our "photocopying", recipients need to approach the source listed for permission.
This is all put forth in an email sent to new list recipients, and in the disclaimer accompanying each item. We are not doing this for profit or commercial reasons, but rather out of a deep love for all natural things and distress over the vast destruction being wrought on rainforests, biodiversity and indigenous cultures in PNG and other tropical and temperate forested areas. We are bearing witness to what is happening to biodiversity worldwide.
Once the recipients of the list receive the information, they must decide what to do once they have become aware--hopefully deciding to act upon their knowledge, and take responsibility for doing so. During my tenure with the Institute for Environmental Studies' computer lab, I was instrumental in the actual design, and configuration of this Gaia1 server. In addition to basic UNIX installation, this included gathering different modules which provide different internet server functionality. We had to install Gopher software, World Wide Web software, and Swish Indexing software to provide the core functionality of these hybrid gopher/WWW indexed databases of forest conservation documents.
By far the easiest way to get a WWW page up is having an in at a University which has the big, fast links to the internet to serve all the hits that will come in. WWW documents are in hypertext, which is really just a very simplified wordprocessing sort of language with simple control characters (remember wordstar?). There are a number of $10 books with simple style suggestions (ie how to boldface, etc.).
There seem to be two approaches to getting a web site going; one is to make it really flashy but little substance, and the other is to first work on having something of worth when people stumble in. I chose the latter and only recently have added the flash. The page should load quickly (not be too big).
There are starting to be a vast number of choices for people to commercially subscribe to internet services. The big ones in the US, such as Compuserve and America online are now offering internet connectivity. Most people can get lots of internet time for say $20 a month. Increasingly commercial providers for making your own web page available on the internet are springing up. Then all that is necessary to get your message across is writing the hypertext documents in a wordprocessor.
PNG's forests, as an intact landscape bound by evolutionary history and ecological singularity, will be gone within ten years if current logging continues. In 1993, log export levels increased by four times in a single year (Henderson 1993) and more recent import figures (Saturday Independent 1995) show logging appears to have slowed its rate of growth, but is still growing while being well above the generally accepted sustainable yields. Conservation needs to occur now, or we will lose this startling display of evolutionary diversification forever.
Inserting what we already know about ecology and biological diversity into land use decisions is essential if a transition to sustainable livelihoods is to occur in PNG, and also in the already overdeveloped world.
Alcorn, Janis B. 1993. "PNG Conservation Needs Assessment". The Biodiversity Support Program, Washington, D.C.
Aplet, Gregory H.; Johnson, Nels; Olson, Jeffrey T., and Sample, V. Alaric (eds.) 1993. Defining Sustainable Forestry. Island Press, Washington, D. C.
Brown, Lester. (ed.) 1994. State of the World. Chapter 6, "Using Computers for the Environment." W. W. Norton & Company, New York.
Grumbine, R. Edward. 1994. "What is Ecosystem Management?", Conservation Biology. 8(1): 27-38.
Hartshorn, Gary S. 1990. "An Overview of Neotropical Forest Dynamics." Four Neotropical Rainforests. Yale University Press, New Haven and London: 585-599.
Henderson, Max. 1993. Ol Draipela Diwai I Lus Pinis. PNG NGO report.
Lamb, D. 1977, "Conservation and Management of Tropical Rainforest: A Dilemma of Development in PNG", Environmental Conservation 4 (2).
Leslie, A.J. 1977. "Where contradictory theory and practice coexist". Unasylva 29: 2-17.
Primack, Richard B. 1993. Essentials of Conservation Biology. Sinauer Associates, Sunderland, Massachusett.
Mabberley, D.J. 1992. Tropical Rain Forest Ecology. Chapman & Hall, New York.
Rohlf, Danial J. 1991. "Six Biological Reasons Why the Endangered Species Act Doesn't Work--And What to Do About It." Conservation Biology 5(3): 273-282.
Salzman, J.E. 1989. "Scientists as advocates: the Point Reyes Bird Observatory and gill netting in central California". Conservation Biology 3(2):170-180.
Seed, John. 1990-95. Personal communications, emails.
Wilson, E.O.1988. Biodiversity. National Academy Press, Washington,D.C
Wilson, E.O.1992. The Diversity of Life. The Belknap Press, Cambridge, MA.
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