Mountain Clans in Papua New Guinea Plan Their Future, Save Their Forests

Written by Erin Myers Madeira on . Posted in Learn

Her tattooed cheeks added purposefulness to Mother Jones’ intensity. She clasped my hand and forearm so tightly it hurt and stared into my eyes with a seriousness; this moment erased the day’s long hike up to the village and made me think hard about what it means to be the clan mother in a time when customary welcome ceremonies co-exist with pop music ringtones on mobile phones.

Mother Jones leads dancers on the drum; Photo by: Erin Myers Madeira

We began this January day at the lower village of Urumarav in the Adelbert Range of Papua New Guinea where we met Martin who had made the trip down from the main village in order to lead us back up. Just when I thought we were ready to start walking, someone whipped out a table, and we had a “light meal” of root vegetables in a delicious sweet coconut sauce, fish, chicken, cooked greens, mashed winter squash and more root vegetables. If this is a “light meal,” I can only fathom what a regular meal might entail.

With the sun high in the sky and “food coma” making me look for a shady spot for a siesta, one of the village elders rose to lead us in prayer. He asked “Papa bilong mipela” to give us strength, and we hit the trail. There was just enough gentle terrain to lull me into thinking this wouldn’t be too bad when the trail suddenly got steep with no end in sight.

The Nature Conservancy has been working with Urumarav in Madang Province and other villages in the Adelberts Range for more than 10 years to develop plans for productively using their lands while helping to sustainably conserve their natural resources and sacred areas. These communities rely on a combination of local gardens and hunting and gathering. In the 1990s, they saw a decline in important wildlife and didn’t like the looks of alternatives. Unsustainable timber on nearby lands had irreparably disrupted the customary way of life. They had a sense of what they wanted, but needed help to pull it together.

The Conservancy has worked with Urumarav and other communities to identify their own long-term vision for their land and develop a management plan that helps realize that vision. The plan belongs to the Clans that make up the community and includes agreements to set aside portions of the land for specific purposes including conservation. Through this process communities delineate their community boundaries and identify different areas for different land uses: Village Development, Hunting, Forest Use, Agriculture, Garden, Areas protected for Culture and Conservation. By helping the plans to get official recognition from the local government, these plans become a milestone for legal recognition of customary lands and community-based conservation.

The three clan leaders in Urumarav with their official land use plans and maps; Photo by: Erin Myers Madeira

This work has led to a community-based integrated land use management plan for 123,500 acres of forestland, including 37,050 acres of forests dedicated to conservation. This work will not only help the communities maintain their connections to the land but also help address the global deforestation problem (roughly 15% of all carbon pollution annually) in the process.

The community members’ commitment to conservation quickly became evident to me. After a day of hiking up a steep, slippery foot path, down to the river, and back up to the village, our bedraggled group was jolted out of our plodding final push up to the village by a fast-talking, spear-wielding, barely-clad man covered in red. The chief of the community asserted their opposition to mining and then welcomed us to the village.

Ceremonial welcome; Photo by: Lex Hovani

We were led into the village by a dancing troupe of many of the village children dressed in beaded masks and costumes. Stomping and shaking, they escorted us up the hill as Mother Jones signaled the step changes with the beat of her drum, with the look of a proud and demanding coach leading her flock.

Clan leader and ceremonial dancers in front of Urumarav village, Papua New Guinea; Photo by: Lex Hovani

At the village common area we were greeted by another “light meal.” As we washed pumpkin down with coconut water, village men took turns standing and with a preacher’s conviction welcomed us to the village and shared with us their most pressing concerns. One man talked about his evolving understanding of the conservation agreement. As a child, he thought conservation just meant money, but now he has seen the birds and other wildlife come back and understands that conservation is about keeping the forest so that it will continue to support them.

These people are deeply rooted in their village and their clans; the land use management plans have helped them find a way to manage their resources to maintain the way of life they want. As the “tok-tok” dragged into the night, we came to understand that while conservation is an important value in their community, families have to send their kids away to school, and there is a need for cash income for this and other expenses.

As a result of TNC’s work, Urumarav has clean water right in the village for drinking and washing, saving the women from an arduous walk to the river and back; Photo by Erin Myers Madeira

The communities grow cocoa to provide cash incomes for school fees and other basic services. These cash crops are an integral part of their land use and are clearly delineated in their land use plans as well as garden, hunting and conservation areas. In recent years, the Conservancy has helped establish three cooperatives in the area. Because of this commitment to sustainable land use management, the cooperatives have earned organic cocoa and Fair Trade Certification, which can provide a 70% price premium and demonstrates to the community a clear financial incentive for conservation and sustainable land use planning. In order to realize that price premium, the cooperatives need to increase production so that they have a large enough volume to export.

In late 2010, the Papua New Guinea National Forestry Board also selected the Adelbert cocoa cooperatives as an official pilot project for REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation). In addition to demonstrating how community-based forest conservation can work on the ground in PNG, the pilot project will test tools and experiences in forest land management at different levels of government.

Erin Myers Madeira and John Kosi, a board member of the Adelbert Cooperative Society, who worked with the Conservancy to create the cooperative; Photo by: Lex Hovani

There is a lot of work to be done with new communities to develop land use management plans, identify community-based conservation areas, and expand the cooperatives. “It is like the parable of Thomas,” Martin explained. “It is hard to recruit members now. But everyone is watching us. If we get one sale to fair trade, everyone will join.”

Top photo by: Erin Myers Madeira (Troupe of children Urumarav dancers)

Erin Myers Madeira is a forest carbon senior advisor for The Nature Conservancy

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Planet Change is a Nature Conservancy blog site designed to share stories about actions the Conservancy and others around the world are taking to fight carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change, and to help people feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives and understand actions they can take.

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