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Is sustainable forestry a fantasy?

ForestDAVID KITCHNOGE

PORT MORESBY – I’ve been reading about guys in the forestry business and thought I might share some of my own experiences.

Cloudy Bay Timbers, owned and operated by the Papua New Guinea Sustainable Development Program before the expropriation of Ok Tedi Mine, was a perennial loss-maker although it was operated with all the right intentions and using 'industry best practice'.

It was a fully vertically integrated business running a  'log to furniture' business model using selective logging harvesting methods.

A great concept except it could not sustain itself commercially.

Two years ago my tribe in the Prince Alexander range of East Sepik Province obtained a Roadline TA licence from the PNG Forest Authority.

The intention was to commercially harvest logs along a 40 metre road corridor as a way of enticing private investors to build a main road into our hamlets and open up access to the outside world.

I produced an investment flyer of the opportunity and shared it with one investor from the United States and another from Australia who was a former colleague with connections to wealthy Indian business people.

We also met with a wealthy Chinese businessman to discuss the opportunity.

All three investors looked at the proposition from a disinterested point of view and considered only the commerciality of the available volume.

All three said the volume was not commercially viable.

So the response was a unanimous no.

None of them knew each other so could not have possibly colluded against us.

Given these two cases, can we harvest our forests in both a commercially viable and environmentally sustainable way?

Indeed, should we even attempt to harvest them on a large scale at all?

Comments

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David Kitchnoge

Paul, your summation of why my proposal fell is mostly correct. The proposal was that we would control our forests and only give up the trees standing along the permitted 40m corridor and nothing more. This was explicitly stated in the document.

We do understand the value of the forests for our sustenance and will not engage in self imposed genocide. But we are willing to give up the minimum required to get a main road into our hamlets and then use that to progressively better our lot over a number of generations.

We had our disagreements among the many members of the tribe depending on which age curve everyone was at. Some older people almost reluctantly advocated for the slash and burn model but luckily they were very few of them.

Paul Oates

I think that I will never see, a poem lovely as a tree…..

So goes the poem by Joyce Kilmer, as it was sung to me by my grandmother when I was very small. All my life I have tried to plant trees ever since. When I operated a small farm, I allocated 10% of the farm to growing trees. Not just the ones that grow easily but one’s that once stood where the farm was established many years ago.

When Australia was being developed, people came from places like Britain and thought they knew how to manage the environment. We have now discovered they mostly made the wrong decisions and cut down all the trees they could and the environment suffered and is suffering to this day.

Humans have altered the world’s climate and environments wherever we have gone, primarily to live and then to try and prosper. The problem that many businesses face is that trees often don’t perform in a commercially viable time frame. The benefits of trees are long term and are often closely integrated into a complex web of a natural environment that includes countless other life forms. These life forms are often not able to be closely controlled. That makes it very hard to build a business plan based on many unknowns.

The natural environment of a forest differs markedly from a grassland or savannah that is grazing land. One of the first challenges I had was to understand how the area I had reserved for a tree plantation had been substantially altered by removing the trees and growing grass for animals to graze on or ploughing and planting crops.

A forest’s flora and flora is primarily a fungal dominated process that works to recycle the nutriments of the forest back to the soils where they can be used by new trees to grow. To do this, the existing forest must protect the soils from erosion as the fugal processes take a long time to act.

A grass land that is used for grazing is a bacterial community that seeks to return the nutriments, of the animals who graze on the grass, back to the soil. This can often be a shorter process since the grass takes a lot less time to grow and bacteria work quickly on animal waste.

When you cut down a tree, you are removing part of an entire ecosystem that extends well beyond the tree. When you cut you grass, it grows quickly back and you have to cut it again.

Managing a forest is a complex operation and not one that can be done quickly or sustainably unless a great deal of time and effort is first undertaken.

PNG has only to look at where neighbouring countries haven’t taken the time to understand how forest should or could be managed and only look to making a quick buck. Often those who make to ‘quick buck’ quickly disappear leaving those who have agreed to sell their forest with little of value in return.

The lesson to learnt is that all complex operations concerning nature involve time and effort to understand what effects a change, be it ever so small, will make to the overall environment.

Perhaps your proposal David, was not sufficiently broad enough to appeal to those people you put the proposal to? The ongoing sustainability of the forests to the traditional owners and their overall control over the trees may well have been an impediment to business?

Great subject for further discussion.

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