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By Dr. Glen Barry, Ecological Internet
Earth Meanders come from Earth’s Newsdesk

Yet another paradise lost?

Prime Minister Michael Somare of Papua New Guinea is ruling as a Mugabe like thug bent upon becoming a tin-pot dictator. Once a great man that led his country to independence, Mr. Somare is now using his “Grand Chief” status for corrupt personal, family and tribal gains – illegally and immorally allocating huge swathes of his great nation’s forest and marine resources without landowners’ prior and informed consent. On the bidding of Somare’s increasingly despotic and erratic leadership, Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) natural assets are being sold off to invading Asian business interests – destroying rainforest, ocean, water and land – as well as the resource and ecosystem rich nation’s future development potential. Will one man – big man Sana or not – single-handedly destroy Earth’s third largest remaining contiguous old rainforest expanses for personal gain?

Nowhere is this more evident than in Madang Province, PNG, which contains some of Earth’s last remaining mostly intact tropical and marine ecosystems in the world. The “Jewel of the South Pacific” includes large ancient rainforest tracts, huge tuna and other fisheries, and barely explored mineral deposits; as well as beautiful, loving and peaceful people. Madang’s rainforests and oceans feed and house all its citizens, regulate national and regional climatic patterns, and make the Earth habitable by providing global ecosystem services. As Somare flits about in his new high-end private jet (who paid for that?) signing illicit business deals with Asian cartels and otherwise stealing Madang and the nation’s resources (including attempts to corner nascent carbon markets), Madang and PNG’s infrastructure including schools, hospitals, police and roads are in shambles.

As Europe and the U.S. have and continue to do elsewhere, Asian over-developed countries are falling over themselves to liquidate Madang’s intact ecosystems as “resources” for “development” – though for who is unclear. One of Earth’s most richly endowed countries is being traded away for the equivalent of beads and trinkets, with many nationals’ basic needs continuing to go unmet. China, the Philippines and Malaysia are literally invading Madang, threatening to destroy this tropical paradise while realizing essentially all the gains and bearing none of the costs, for what amounts to a few months worth of Asia’s resource use. Asian business interests’ conduct is absolutely abysmal – relying on intimidation, violence and corruption to destroy local cultures, their habitat, and future sustenance. Corruption is at the root of PNG’s troubles and the government has been bought.

Nothing appears off-limits as Somare and cronies would sell the shirt off a villager’s back if it benefited well himself, his family and/or his tribe. Dodgy Filipino tuna interests want to build another tuna cannery along Madang’s special north coast? Why stop at one? Somare wants to give them ten, against local wishes, and to the same existing company long cited for allowing birds to crap in their tuna cans. China needs minerals including nickle and cobalt to continue its ecocidal over-development that threatens to enslave and ultimately destroy being? Sure, take all you want without paying landowner royalties (we’ll figure out who they are later), and just dump those millions of tons of toxic waste untreated directly into Madang’s spectacular Astrolabe Bay. These atrocities are done in the name of development, allegedly to help materially lacking people enjoy a consumptive lifestyle including rice and tin fish. Yet we know it is simply common greed, and once completed, PNG’s indigenous peoples will be left in despair, destitute and dying.

CAPTION: Sustainable Forest Management Papua New Guinea Style [more pictures]

And then there is the scourge of industrial liquidation of huge swathes of ancient primary forests for throw away consumer crap, at the expense of equitable and ecologically sustainable indigenous traditional living, and our shared ecosystems. Tragically, within the past couple years Rimbunan Hijau of Malaysia – violent, brutal sociopaths willing to stop at nothing to hack down millions of year old rainforests wherever found for ill-gotten, easy profits – has gotten their tentacles into Madang. Against provincial government wishes and with numerous other irregularities the Somare government granted a 158,000 hectare (~375,000 acre) logging operation in the heart of the Ramu river valley – well placed to later access up to a million hectares of additional primary lowland rainforests. Their tremendously damaging and illegal logging practices have commenced, referred to as “sustainable forest management” by the government and industry, the same language used to describe FSC’s certified logging supported by Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace.

In fact, this and all industrial rainforest logging in PNG are illegal and ecologically devastating because there is no National Forest Inventory, or National Forest Plan; there has never been any evidence of sustainability for future generations; and logging activities are in breach of the Constitution and National Goals. But most shockingly, as a case before the PNG Supreme Court makes clear, Forest Management Areas (FMA) have been and continue to be acquired without clan landholders’ prior and informed consent, often even without their knowledge through forged signatures. In the Ramu, many clan leaders signed the agreement after being told “these are Michael Somare’s rainforests, and he wants them to be logged” – a Grand Lie from their Grand Chief.

Exactly 20 years ago I fell in love with Madang, its peoples and PNG as a Peace Corps volunteer. I married locally and for over a decade I worked as a PNG rainforest activist – helping stop many dodgy timber deals. My tribe’s ancestral land lies in the Sogeram, the entry point to Ramu logging, and an area that has been partially logged. Recently, on the basis of a hand-shake with German NGO Rettet den Regenwald (Rainforest Rescue), I had the opportunity to have my personal expenses covered to research the situation, and to find local and international campaign opportunities, as we visited and holidayed with family. There have certainly been many adventures, successes and failures – some of which I will relate here.

For the past six months, in addition to Ecological Internet’s other activities, I have assisted in the founding of a new PNG rainforest campaign group called “Asples PNG” (people of PNG). Working in PNG is extremely difficult –prohibitively expensive cars and housing, incessant power outages, limited Internet, and very real personal security concerns. Yet speaking the language fluently, following closely local customs, and with my tribe as backup; I gave it all I had to stop these atrocious development policies. It took nearly two months just to get a house, office and Internet connection established – deeply stressing the patience of funders unfamiliar with the vagaries of PNG. EI’s first contribution was to help the very capable national staff of the leading local NGO campaigning against the tuna factories to internationalize the issue.

By providing advice and other support, Ecological Internet was able to help local landowners in their struggle to shutdown Rimbunan Hijau in Madang Ramu Block I. Early on we became aware of an existing initiative by Ramu landowners to petition the government to revoke the FMA, and Sogeram landowners were actively pursuing against long odds having Rimbunan Hijau removed in court. Both groups of landowners were generally against logging if REDD carbon payments for intact forests were available, and if they could find funds to maintain a road to allow them to market their goods. Upon bringing this to the attention of the leading local NGO, it was decided given my family ties, I would be the primary liaison with landowners, and the local NGO would provide assistance for transport and modest legal expenses.

CAPTION: Landowners Want the Logging Stopped [more pictures]

In dozens of meetings with landowner leaders a three part strategy to end industrial logging in Madang was formulated. It stressed building coalitions of those against logging (though they may have differing views after that), stressed outreach to unemployed local youths whose jobs were being exported, and sought to empower landowners to retake control of their land which had been stolen from them. We patrolled the area, going directly to the scene of the logging, taking stunning pictures of ecological destruction and massive infrastructure that was clearly intended to log the entire Ramu [1]. And we informally carried out socially appropriate ecological and social justice awareness activities with thousands of local youths and community leaders, successfully seeking to broaden and deepen the movement.

Things were looking hopeful as we were informed by Ramu landowners they would be imminently presenting their petition to government, and blockading and evicting the loggers themselves. These Ramu landowners had a petition of some 70% of landowner leaders asking for the FMA to be withdrawn, and legal documents to administratively pull out of the FMA were being produced courtesy of the local NGO and skilled attorneys. Then in early December, against all odds and before this plan unfolded, Rimbunan Hijau’s logging was stopped by court order by the Sogeram landowners’ court challenge. It was found that indeed the FMA had been illegally granted to Rimbunan Hijau by Somare’s government with massive irregularities. Together we had managed to facilitate the cobbling together of a strategy on the cheap to get the disease of industrial logging out of Madang before it became permanently entrenched.

Then – demonstrating that indeed PNG is the land of the unexpected – in quick succession our effort suffered numerous though not necessarily permanent setbacks. Rimbunan Hijau has a proven methodology to put down dissent. In quick succession, idled loggers came to Madang and began terrorizing the town, including personally issuing me a death threat. Two youths guilty of minor theft against Rimbunan Hijau were rounded up by bribed and drunken police and shot at point blank range with M16 rifles in the leg, in a clear warning meant to silence the community. And then just before the penultimate moment when landowners were waiting for the simple legal documents to withdraw from the FMA, the local NGO reneged on their promise to cover these minimal legal expenses (< $1000). It was up to me to give the landowners the bad news. A couple weeks later the international community failed to deliver upon REDD mechanisms to pay landowners to protect their forests.

Much hope remains as logging remains stopped, a considerable local and international protest movement has been built, and the basis is set for ending industrial primary rainforest logging in Madang and PNG permanently. Personally I did the best I could with limited resources to cobble together successes to date. My part as informal advisor and chief international cheerleader has left me $20,000 in debt. I became deeply frustrated as poor communication and unrealistic expectations meant I was rarely received funding on time, and am still owed for the last month of expenses. I must admit, I lost my nerve and was frightened for my life, thousands of miles from home, not knowing who I could depend upon. Yet these primeval rainforests are my daughter’s birthright and these forests make all life possible, so you do what you can do. And this is only the beginning as Ecological Internet’s seeks funding for a prolonged local, national and international ecological information campaign on behalf of PNG’s rainforests.

I have a profound respect for local PNG rainforest and social justice groups that daily have to fear violence including constant harassment, physical attack and even targeted rapes. Yet sadly, the violence of the economic system and ruling elite has worked, leading to the resistance to Madang’s ecosystem destruction being fragmented, fragile and failing. Always the case with local NGOs, there is much territoriality, a reluctance to collaborate to build a movement, and lack of variety in tactics. Funding from foundations for staff paychecks remains the overwhelming concern, and thus elite foundations dictate the strategies and tactics. In PNG they have paid for NGOs to successfully pursue legal strategies to stop a project here or there, but it is inadequate and uncoordinated. Foundations are averse to risk, unconcerned with ecological sufficiency, and are providing inadequate resources for other campaign activities.

With Earth perilously close to global ecological collapse because of past and ongoing ecosystem destruction, why is humanity unable to correctly value Madang and the other last precious ecosystems powering our shared biosphere? What does it say about the state of humanity and Earth that places like Madang continue to be destroyed? How can it be made known that continued industrial development based upon destruction of Earth’s last relatively intact ecosystems means the end of Earth? After 20 years of ecological education and activism, one thing I know for sure is that what is being done to date is orders of magnitude inadequate, and our shared survival depends upon escalating revolutionary protest activities on behalf of Earth and being.

Madang’s rainforest and marine bounty could employ – through small and medium scaled community based ecoforestry and a local purse seine tuna industry – many of its citizens and country persons for perpetuity. But there is no path to ecologically sustainable, equitable and just development for PNG that does not immediately end industrial scaled timber and tuna harvests. Otherwise PNG is just another has been rich country that wasted their wealth. The time has passed where any country can be said to be pursuing national advancement in-country or overseas by claiming destroying fisheries and old forests is somehow progress. Doing so in Madang ensures that these proud, independent people will be left as ecological refugees amongst a burnt over landscape and lifeless ocean. Ecological imperialism continues unimpeded.

For the sake of all of PNG’s people (and not just his tribe), Michael Somare must step down immediately, stop all efforts to have his son succeed him in office, and a new government must thoroughly review the timber and other resource project approvals granted under questionable circumstances. It is vital that a new PNG government commit itself to ending first time industrial logging of old primary forests, and ensure resource development advances the nation and its people as a whole. And China, as a totalitarian country practicing not communism, but autocratic capitalism, must be contained from utterly wreaking havoc upon its neighbors. In fact, by amply bribing Somare and violently stifling dissent, China is invading Papua New Guinea, making it likely PNG will once again become a colony. But this time PNG’s religious beliefs, freedom of expression and ecologically sustainable livelihoods will be lost forever.

[1] Papua New Guinea RH Ramu Logging 2009

Correction: As originally published, the Ramu Nickle/Cobalt mine was mistakenly referred to as a zinc mine.


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