ROBERTA STALEY | Corporate Knights
MADANG - Eight members of the Kimadi tribe stand, crouch or sit on the hard ground, knotty with exposed tree roots, enjoying the relative cool offered by a verdant canopy of leaves overhead.
Just a few metres away, the quiet clear waters of a Bismarck Sea lagoon, filled with small schools of striped tropical fish, lap against the grassy bank.
The setting is tranquil and bucolic – but not for the Kimadi, who have travelled from their traditional territory in Madang Province to consult with an NGO, the Bismarck Ramu Group (BRG).
Founded in 1996 and headquartered just outside the town of Madang, BRG provides consulting services and advice to Indigenous groups like the Kimadi who are fighting ever-growing threats from logging and palm oil development on their lands.
The word ‘Kimadi’, says tribe spokesperson Matheu Lawun, is a word encapsulating three clans – the Matev, Dibaren and Kimbu – which make up a community of about 400 people living 80 kilometres north of the town of Madang.
Lawun describes how the clans have lived there since time immemorial – gardening, hunting and relying upon the sacred forest “for building purposes, for our drugs and, during droughts when food is low, we look to the forest for food.
“There is breadfruit, wild yam and nuts like aila [chestnuts] and walnuts,” says Lawun, a lean 51-year-old Matev-clan member. And, if water supplies run low, the rattan cane vine provides copious amounts of water accessed by cutting a section of the vine and pouring out the refreshing liquid, he adds.
The forest is also a source of health and well-being. If someone contracts malaria, which is endemic to much of the country, a tea made from the bark and leaves of the Alstonia scholaris evergreen is drunk as medicine.
Other tree brews assuage gastro-intestinal upsets, while some plants act as analgesics or antiseptics, staunch blood flow and even provide birth control, says Kimadi tribal member Anna Tome.
Signs that the Kimadi’s subsistence lifestyle is under threat first appeared last July when Malaysian company Woodbank Pacific began logging about 10 kilometres upstream.
Roads were cut into the steep, hilly wilderness to allow logging-truck access. Then, clear cutting began of softwood and hardwood trees, such as the kwila, which grows up to 50 metres high and is used in a variety of products, from furniture and musical instruments to building bridges.
But the loggers were cavalier as they felled these forest giants, letting some logs fall into the waterways and leaving them to rot, contaminating the water flowing downstream to where the Kimadi villagers live, says Lawun. “All the communities downstream are being affected.”
This past February, members of the Kimadi tribe were shocked to find signs posted in their traditional territory by Woodbank Pacific.
The signs stated that parts of their land were a ‘no-go zone’, says Lawun. Two of the clans, the Dibaren and Matev, responded with a letter opposing all logging and surveying operations on their territory.
The letter concluded by stating that refusing to comply could result in a delay in operations and possible legal action. If the letter is ignored, says Lawun darkly, “we will go and burn one of their logging vehicles.”
The Kimadi have reason to be worried about the pernicious ubiquity of logging in their home province. In 2010, Madang province had 2,000,000 hectares of tree cover extending over 76% of its land area. In 2017 alone, it lost 15,900 hectares of tree cover, Global Forest Watch reported.
Papua New Guinea is one of the world’s most culturally diverse nations with upwards of 850 languages, each representing a distinct cultural group.
These communities, no matter their isolation, hold something as dear as the land that gives them life. PNG’s unique system of landownership called gives land resource management to clans, tribes or communities based upon ancestral occupation of the territory where they live.
Customary landowners have the freedom to sell their land, lease it or enter into agreements with companies that will generate income in order to pay for infrastructure projects such as schools, health centres, water and electricity services, roads and ports, according to ‘Making Land Work’, published by the Australian aid agency.
The Kimadi’s troubles are a microcosm of the impact of development in PNG, an ecological gem just north of Australia in Oceania that has some of the richest biodiversity and unique flora and fauna in the world.
Roberta Staley is a magazine editor and writer specialising in medical, science and business reporting. The Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada helped fund this reporting endeavour