Deforestation for rubber stirs fear in PNG

This article first appeared on the Mongabay conservation and environmental news website and is republished with permission.

Since 2018, a Malaysian timber company called Maxland has been clearing primary forest on an island off the coast of Papua New Guinea. The plan is to develop a rubber plantation that proponents say will bring income and provide jobs, but skeptics of the project say it’s likely just another example of a foreign operator circumventing Papua New Guinea’s forestry laws to access valuable tropical hardwood. By Mongabay's John C. Cannon.

* The project, ostensibly for a 125-square-kilometer rubber plantation, began in mid-2018.

* Satellite imagery shows that Maxland, working with a local landowner company, has built logging roads and deforested patches of the Great Central Forest on Manus Island.

*Like Papua New Guinea as a whole, Manus is home to a wide variety of unique wildlife — just one aspect of the forest on which human communities have depended for thousands of years.

*Government forestry and environment officials were aware of the importance of the forest and a local forest management committee protested the project before it began, but it’s been allowed to continue anyway.

The upstart deforestation over the past year and a half that’s sidling up to Pochon Lili’s land has him worried.

“As a landowner, I’m concerned about the environment in which my land is located and has been affected,” Lili said.

The 67-year-old environmental science professor’s property sits just to the southwest of a new “so-called agroforestry project” on Manus Island, part of Papua New Guinea and sitting in the South Pacific’s Bismarck Sea around 320 kilometers from the country’s mainland. The project has already begun to cut into the 700-square-kilometer Great Central Forest, one of the last remaining blocks of high-quality forest on Papua New Guinea’s outlying islands.

As a leader of the Machom clan, Lili feels obligated to look out for the interests of his fellow community members. His clan did not sign on in support of the project spearheaded by a local landowner company called Pohowa Agriculture Ltd. and its partner, a Malaysian timber outfit called Maxland Ltd. The project is called the Pohowa Integrated Agro-forestry Project, though there are few indications that the “agroforestry” the project intends is the sort that aims to grow a mix of trees and crops in a way that maintains vital ecosystem services.

Instead, the loss of forest and replacement with a monoculture of rubber could spell trouble for the communities living nearby, Lili said.

“I wanted to see that the project does not end up in all sorts of problems for us,” he said.

Crews began clearing the way for a 125-km2 rubber plantation in mid-2018, an area equal to nearly one-fifth of the Great Central Forest. But since that time, questions have swirled around whether the benefits to the communities that are part of the Pohowa company, such as timber royalty payments, road construction and a lasting source of employment in the form of nursery and plantation jobs, would materialise.

The deforestation so far has left behind a patchwork of bare land and splintering logging roads cutting into the Great Central Forest. Though small in comparison to the forests that blanket Papua New Guinea’s mainland, Manus’ forests host a dizzying array of species, many of which live only on the island. They’ve also sustained local communities, like the Machom clan, for generations. The story of how the project has been able to proceed follows a murky trail from Manus’ highlands out to the Topol log pond on the island’s southern coast and through the government offices in the capital city of Port Moresby hundreds of kilometres away.

The story’s end? It hasn’t been written yet, as three more years of the project remain. But skeptics remain concerned that the tale will follow a familiar pattern in Papua New Guinea, one in which foreign companies extract and export wholesale the country’s valuable hardwood timber, leaving once-forest-rich communities without the purported economic engine of an agriculture plantation as a replacement. And along the way, opaque legal processes involving the national and provincial governments seem to ease the process for the companies involved.

A community on Manus as seen from above. Image by Elodie Van Lierde.

The facts of the case

Satellite data from the University of Maryland (UMD) visualised on Global Forest Watch show Manus lost nearly 4 percent of its tree cover between 2001 and 2018. Preliminary data for 2019 indicate deforestation continued at about the same rate this year compared to 2018, intensifying in the project area in the southern part of the island where satellite images show kilometres of new logging roads pushing into the rainforest. Clearance of the forest continued in November and into December, with satellites picking up new areas of deforestation as recently as December 7. The forest cleared since August 2018 — when Maxland first received permission to begin clearcutting — is largely classified as intact, primary forest, according to UMD data. Records and photographs reveal that the timber company has exported several shiploads of the harvested timber. Meanwhile, Lili, along with a number of other sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to concerns about reprisals, worry about the environmental impacts of the project.

The Great Central Forest of Manus Island epitomises the country’s value as a treasure trove of little-known species — according to one scientist, Manus is “a hotspot within a hotspot.” Also like many parts of Papua New Guinea, Manus’ growing human population and corporations like Maxland looking to access valuable resources have levied a toll on the forest through logging, small- and large-scale agriculture, mining and hunting.

In a country known for staggering numbers of unique plant and animal species, Manus Island still stands apart. Papua New Guinea occupies roughly half of the world’s second-largest island, as well as a smattering of some 600 smaller islands radiating out through the Solomon and Bismarck Seas of the South Pacific. The islands’ habitats range from coral reefs to lowland rainforests to equatorial highlands that have contributed unique species by the dozens to the roll of life on Earth, with many more likely awaiting discovery.

Satellite data from the University of Maryland and visualised on Global Forest Watch shows the extent of primary forest on Manus Island, as well as the boundary of the project area and location of recent logging activity. Source: Turubanova et al., 2018.
Satellite imagery shows the proliferation of logging roads and eventual deforestation around the project site on Manus Island (indicated by the red inset on the map above). Imagery source: Planet Labs.

In 2014, a biodiversity survey carried out by the Wildlife Conservation Society and Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund highlighted the importance of maintaining the intact Great Central forest to protect a number of threatened animals endemic to Manus Island, including a bird called the superb pitta (Pitta superba) and the Manus Island mosaic-tailed rat (Melomys matambuai), both listed as endangered by the IUCN.

In 2016, scientists also just described a species of rat on the island that’s new to science, calling it Rattus detentus. The species name “detentus” refers both to the rat’s isolation and Australia’s recent use of Manus Island to detain asylum seekers. The survey turned up a new species of damselfly and two new species of frog that likely exist only on Manus Island, as well as a bonafide Lazarus species — the Manus woolly bat (Kerivoula myrella) that had last been seen more than a century before the survey.

Hunting by the country’s human residents occurs across Papua New Guinea, as protein sources are often hard to come by. Around the country, several species of cuscus, a cat-size marsupial, are frequently hunted, often because they’re the largest mammals around and are a ready source of protein, especially for communities living away from the coast’s ready access to fish.

An Admiralty cuscus. Image by Anonymous.

Manus has one species of this animal, the Admiralty cuscus, and it’s no exception: It’s been a sustainable source of meat for humans for thousands of years. Without the forest, scientists say, there would be no cuscus. But maintaining what remains of the Great Central Forest, as well as its connectivity, is critical to ensuring the species’ survival under continuous hunting pressure.

With so few large-bodied animals available to hunters, people living in and around the forest could have easily caused the cuscus’ extinction. But a unique practice has helped the species avoid that fate, at least to this point.

The practice of tambu involves the periodic closure of certain areas to hunting. During the open periods, hunting of these tree-dwelling animals is swift and efficient, write WCS ecologist Nathan Whitmore and his colleagues in a 2016 study published in the journal Pacific Conservation Biology. It’s typically enough to wipe out the species in a local area. But when tambu closes off an area to hunting, cuscus are able to move from the surrounding forest into the area once again. As Whitmore and his colleagues pointed out in a subsequent paper, however, this is only possible if the forest habitat remains relatively unbroken. If patches of land have been cleared — as with the rubber project on Manus — surviving cuscus begin to lose their access to areas from which they’d been extirpated.

The permitting process

The results of the biodiversity study, which was supported by Papua New Guinea’s Conservation and Environment Protection Authority (CEPA), first came to light in late 2014, capturing the attention of both the national and international press, and the report itself has been available online since mid-2015. It recommended that the government of Papua New Guinea formally recognise the Great Central Forest because of its importance to biodiversity and work with local communities to keep it standing.

But just a few months later, in August of that year, CEPA signed off on Maxland’s environment permit. Mongabay asked CEPA why the permit had been approved when officials knew about the high biodiversity values in the Great Central Forest and indeed had supported the very study. A CEPA representative responded in an email that “all necessary and due environmental [impact assessments] and approval processes are fully complied with to get the permit for that project and Manus Provincial Government and all relevant stakeholders including the landowners were involved in that process. Any objection for that project should have been raised at that time … even the issue of conservation was never brought up during the public hearing CEPA conducted.”

However, a number of communities in the vicinity of the proposed project site had signed onto conservation agreements aimed at protecting the forest in 2014 and 2015.

Environment permits typically require that companies mitigate their environmental impact, for example, through wastewater and erosion management, biodiversity offsets and reforestation plans, often within a timeframe shortly after the permit’s approval. Despite calls and emails to the telephone numbers and addresses listed for Maxland, Mongabay was unable to confirm whether the company carried out any such activities. Several listed numbers were out of service. A representative did answer the phone at an office in the city of Sandakan of Priceworth International Berhad, another Malaysian timber company. A recent annual report shows that, at least until recently, Maxland was a Priceworth-operated company. The representative confirmed that it was a Maxland office in Sandakan but said the “senior manager” would be unavailable to answer questions until 2020.

An apparent rejection

According to documents and interviews with people with knowledge of the process, the Pohowa Integrated Agro-forestry Project’s application for what’s known as a forest clearance authority, or FCA, had been rejected by a body known as the Provincial Forest Management Committee (PFMC). An FCA authorises the wholesale clearance of a block of forest, usually to make way for an agricultural plantation. Under the law, the PFMC considers proposals for forest-related projects and then presents their recommendations to the National Forest Authority.

The indication is that the legally required process for bringing together the local communities that would be affected by the project had not been adequately followed. Lili and other sources contend that the FCA was not legal because the incorporated land groups hadn’t been properly formed and therefore, the internationally recognised principles of free, prior and informed consent hadn’t been properly followed. The PFMC reported that the landowner company had not used the mechanism within the law to demonstrate that it had the authority to turn over customarily held land to an outside operator — in this case, Maxland.

“Incorporated land groups,” or ILGs, serve as a way to verify that affected communities are aware of the project and the possible benefits and consequences. The communities that are part of the ILG must agree to the company’s proposal. But Lili said that Pohowa Agriculture Ltd. “purported to have the support of all the clans. They invited in [Maxland] and cut down the trees,” Lili said. But, he said, “Not all clans” — including his own — “decided to go with the project.”

The Manus Island woolly bat hadn’t been seen in more than 100 years before a 2014 biodiversity survey. Image by Stephen J. Richards.

“That process is not complete,” Lili added. “They’re still in the process, and these guys have gone ahead with chopping down the trees.”

The committee’s rejection appears not to have been respected, or it may have been overturned at some point, suggesting that someone in the National Forest Authority overrode what amounted to a veto of the project by the provincial committee.

In July of 2018, the construction of what would appear to be logging roads in the project area begins as evidenced by the satellite imagery. Then, in August 2018, forest clearance begins. Mongabay also obtained a series of documents showing that the Forest Authority approved various aspects of the FCA in multiple memoranda between May and August of 2018.

It is unclear what happened between the PFMC’s rejection of the project in June 2017 and the National Forest Authority signing off on the FCA later that year. Several sources have suggested that political pressure was applied to the PFMC to withdraw their concerns. Mongabay’s requests to government officials for documents that demonstrate how the PFMC’s June 2017 rejection of the FCA was superseded have gone unanswered.

A small, slender damselfly (Drepanosticta sp.) This new species is known only from a series of streams between sea level and the summit of Mount Sabomu in the forests of southern Manus Island. Image by Stephen J. Richards.

A familiar tale

Under Papua New Guinea’s Forest Act of 1991, accessing the country’s vast timber resources requires a 34-step process aimed at ensuring that sustainable forestry and community consent practices are followed before a forest management agreement is issued. Then, once a timber harvest plan has been approved, the law only allows for selective logging on a 35-year cycle. Such sustainable management principles, in theory, should allow the forest to regenerate naturally.

But since the early 2000s, evidence shows that timber producers, likely in concert with willing government officials, have looked for ways to get around these requirements, often through the use of special agricultural business leases, or SABLs.

SABLs enable companies to lease the land, in some cases, for terms of 99 years. Typically, SABL holders would then seek permission to clearcut an area of forest — ostensibly to make way for an agricultural plantation — through a mechanism such as an FCA. Created in the 1970s, SABLs effectively allowed the trading of the forest for plantations in these locations based on the notion that the operations would provide a long-term source of employment and development for communities in a country struggling to pull itself out of poverty.

But in reality, companies have used SABLS throughout Papua New Guinea to quickly harvest the timber in a given area and then close up shop or sell their stake in the SABL once the logs have been exported. According to reports by watchdog groups such as Global Witness and the Oakland Institute, companies might then argue, for example, that moving forward with a plantation would be too costly. Perhaps the price of the commodity to be grown at the location — rubber, say, as is the intention for the Manus project — dropped during the clearance phase of the project. Or, representatives might contend that harvesting the timber had been too expensive, leaving behind little profit to invest in agriculture.

Timber, ready for export, harvested from the project site at the Topol Log Pond. Image by Anonymous.

The Papua New Guinea-based NGO ACT Now estimates that 50,000 km2 of customary land has been taken since 2003 using SABLs. (About 97 percent of Papua New Guinea’s land is customarily owned.) Amid criticism of the SABL process, the government appointed a commission of inquiry to investigate the use of SABLs in the country. The results, published in 2013, were damning and led the prime minister at the time to halt the further issuance of SABLs.

But now, critics say that the way FCAs are currently being used is, in fact, just a repackaging of the SABL process that has allowed companies to harvest timber without following the stepwise process laid out in the Papua New Guinea Forest Code.

In an October 2019 presentation at a forestry conference in Port Moresby, Colin Filer, an anthropologist from Australian National University who studies the social effects of resource extraction, shared an analysis showing that the area of land covered by SABLs and subsequently granted FCAs has indeed diminished since 2013. However, the area covered by FCAs “without prior grant of SABLs” has rapidly filled the void. What’s more, Filer said that timber continues to be exported from FCA-licensed areas.

“It’s not about sustainable logging anymore,” Filer said of the application of Papua New Guinea’s land-use laws.

In the wake of the logging

Lili’s dissenting clan will see none of the promised benefits from the plantations, if and when they do arrive. But the environmental problems from such rapid deforestation have already begun to materialise on their land.

Water flowing off the deforested project areas upstream has sullied the Puian River (sometimes spelled “Pwian” on maps) that flows through Machom land, and it has made fishing in the river more difficult of late. Satellite images show that a logging road has been built very close to the river’s edge.

“Here we are suffering as a result of those sediments and everything that is coming downstream to us,” Lili said, even though his clan never agreed to the project.

“The problem is … the road line is drawn up the mountains of the ridges near the headwaters and up in the hills and the mountain ranges out there,” he added. “All the erosion and the sedimentation is coming to the waters where we live downstream.”

Amid the questionable circumstances of the project’s liftoff since mid-2018 sits perhaps the most pressing for the communities — how will the loss of the forest impact them? As often happens in Papua New Guinea and more broadly throughout the world, the clearance of nearby forests leaves the people who once depended on it without access to its wood for their homes and cooking fires, to the rich habitat that once supported the animals they hunted, and a buffer securing and clarifying the water they require.

A ship ready to load the logs for export at the Topol Log Pond. Photo: Elodie Van Lierde

A rubber plantation would replace those needs with “development,” so the theory goes. The company would bring jobs that pay cash and finance the construction of schools and health clinics; as a result, its presence would elevate the quality of life for these communities. Their members would no longer have their forests, but a rubber plantation would be a hive of economic activity for decades to come.

Nowhere in the country is this sentiment for development more apparent than in Port Moresby. The struggle to bring the more than 85 percent of the country’s eight or so million citizens who live in the rural, disconnected hinterlands into the 21st century permeates the city’s atmosphere.

Papua New Guinea’s capital is a bedraggled sprawl of flashy, overpriced hotels, their shimmering glass façades reflecting the blinding equatorial sun. Nearby are the ramshackle slums, tenements and squatter settlements tucked against the city’s many hillsides. The city is at once a beacon for international investors intent on the profits to be made from the country’s myriad natural resources, and for Papua New Guineans eager to grab for their share of that largesse.

“Over the last six or seven years, we have almost doubled our GDP,” Peter O’Neill, Papua New Guinea’s then-prime minister, said in 2018, according to a publication aimed at investors called Business Advantage (a glossy journal that is ubiquitous on the coffee tables and nightstands of Port Moresby’s mid- to upmarket hotels.) O’Neill, speaking at a 2018 investment conference in Brisbane, Australia, went on to say, “I have absolutely no doubt that over the next 10 years we will double it again. I don’t think many countries around the world will achieve that.”

Njeckal village on Manus Island. Image by Elodie Van Lierde.

To be sure, according to the World Bank, Papua New Guinea’s gross domestic product has grown from $3 billion in 2002 to more than $23 billion in 2018, largely on the back of its natural resource sectors and the development of the land that entails.

But critics say that the benefits of such resource extraction rarely trickle beyond the reach of Port Moresby elites. Papua New Guinea remains in the “low human development” category of the U.N.’s Human Development Index, just below Syria and ranked near Rwanda, Nigeria and Tanzania. Though the per capita share of the gross national income is nearly $3700 per year, more than the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea lags behind its South Pacific neighbour in key indicators such as life expectancy and mean years of schooling.

Perhaps most tellingly, Papua New Guinea scored a 28 out of a possible 100 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. That’s a slight improvement compared to its score in 2015, but it’s still tied with Russia and ranked 138th out of 180 countries. (The lower on the list, the more corrupt the country’s public sector is perceived to be.)

Another Malaysia-based timber company, Rimbunan Hijau, has invested millions of dollars in the capital, financing Port Moresby’s shining shopping mall, Vision City, as well as the Stanley Hotel, a glitzy glass-and-steel behemoth in the city’s Waigani district, home to government offices and company headquarters.

Logging road construction on Manus. Image by Elodie Van Lierde.

Meanwhile, examples of communities left with little more than landscapes stripped of forest and polluted water wonder where the promise for their development, in the form of royalties from the resources or employment on plantations or in mines, went off track. For those concerned about the project in Manus, that’s the fear.

Lili said that there’s little evidence of more than a handful of plants at the company’s rubber tree nursery. The paltry number of seedlings falls far short of the several million that will ultimately be necessary to fill the 125-km2 plantation, even though the project is well into its second year. The company’s own development plans indicate that the nursery should be able to churn out 139,000 rubber seedlings every quarter.

“There’s nothing in sight to say that they will start to plant rubber,” he said. In Lili’s view, “They just want to continue to fell trees and export the timber.”

“By this time, you would expect that they’d be planting something, but they’re not planting anything,” he added. “It’s a mess.”

For Lili, he sees speaking out about what’s happening as his duty for the next generation.

“I’ve got a responsibility now to look out for the land and take care of it.”

John Cannon is a staff writer at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

Morgan Erickson-Davis contributed reporting.

Banner image of the forest on Manus Island by Elodie Van Lierde.

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