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Fighting off bulldozers in sacred kwila forests

The kwila trees are considered to be ancestors and are never cut down. The Tivia clan only use the wood when the trees fall naturally. "Our belief is that when the masalai touch that sap, humans come out from that. It is the creation of our clan”


| The Guardian | @jo_m_chandler

MADANG - In mid-May, a bulldozer began clearing a logging road into an area of largely untouched rainforest near the village of Suburam, on Papua New Guinea’s north coast, between the mountains of the Adelbert Range and the Bismarck Sea.

Towering kwila trees were among those locals say were felled by loggers. This is a coveted, high-value species that yields the rich red timber familiar in Australia as merbau.

Landowners in the area say these trees are historically never cut down by them.

They are considered ancestors, and the local Tivia clan say they only use the hardwood when the trees are ‘given’, falling naturally.

Tivia means ’blood’, Lawrance Omben, a clan leader from Arenduk village explains: “Blood because it is red – the tree sap is red.”

Locals say the bulldozer felled 18 kwila and 100 mixed hardwoods.

They say the bulldozer also levelled a sacred area – a matmat, the burial site for five generations of chiefs from three clans, surrounded by tall kwila that were the daughters of the clan’s mother tree.

“Our belief is that when the masalai [spirits] … touch that sap, [humans] come out from that,” says another Tivia member, Bryan Lavate. “It is the creation of our clan.”

When one of the local chiefs heard what had occurred, he says he lay down in his hut grief-stricken, and stayed there for days.

Others ordered the young men of the clans not to retaliate with violence.

Instead, on 19 May, Lavate, the secretary of a collective of local clans known as the Yikmol Landowners Association, was dispatched with a letter advising the loggers they had caused damage to the external border of a designated conservation area, that they had no right to be there and should withdraw immediately. And they did.

Sandu Ovot, a chief from Suburam whose great-grandfather was buried in the matmat levelled by the loggers, explains that kwila timber is imbued with spiritual powers, providing medicines and digging sticks for planting garden crops.

Logs are only used for building when they are given – when trees or branches fall naturally. They are then also transformed into weapons that hold the strength of ancestors.

Omben, the chief from neighbouring Arenduk village, says that since the letter to the loggers at Suburam in May, the logging crews have moved away.

Meanwhile the Tivia landowners say they have been struggling with the fallout.

Because the landscape of their creation story has been desecrated, and the remains of the chiefs of three clans disturbed, it has damaged people’s physical and mental health, says Lavate.

But the Tivia have continued to fight back, seeking justice of some kind, although Lavate says their loss can never be compensated.

And so it is that when they hear a reporter from the Guardian is in Madang town, a delegation of 21 men, including seven chiefs, walk hours overnight to catch a ride into town and tell their story.

Dubious – in some cases illegal – incursions by loggers into forests across the country are so common as to be unremarkable, according to Peter Bosip, executive director of PNG’s Centre for Environmental Law and Community Rights (Celcor).

“In most cases in PNG there is no such thing as due diligence, so the PNG Forest Authority will just go ahead and accept whatever application that is brought by the loggers.”

He says he hears countless variations of the Tivia clan’s story – far more than his stretched team of advocates can ever take up.

As extraordinary as it is, what happened in the forest near Suburam in Sumkar district appears to be an all-too-ordinary reflection of the realities playing out as global corporations push deeper into the world’s third-largest remaining rainforest.

Just three weeks before the bulldozers arrived, Suburam village had been the site of a 20-clan, five-pig feast and extravaganza, as the community celebrated the creation of a conservation area covering nearly 10,000 hectares of forest.

Hundreds of locals were joined by guests representing the partnerships supporting the conservation project – Australia’s Dfat, USAID, the World Conservation Society, PNG’s MiBank and Kamapim, a local sustainable agriculture project that has helped village farmers produce vanilla beans of such quality they are sought out by European chocolatiers.

“The thing about vanilla is that you can grow it, make it, and it’s easy work without cutting your rainforest down, and so we can do conservation, and we can have livelihoods with vanilla,” says Lavate, who represents about 4,000 people across two language groups involved in the project.

For decades, forest communities in PNG have fallen back on selling their trees as one of the only ways to earn income in a country where basic services are scarce and households struggle to cover school fees.

It has rendered communities vulnerable to exploitative deals. Loggers are offering K35 a cubic metre for prized kwila trees, but often pay less, locals say.

These same trees often sell in China for K1,800 a cubic metre, according to a 2021 PNG government report.

Rather than sell their trees, Lavate and other landowners are trying to safeguard them for future generations, negotiating fraught clan politics, agreeing terms and mapping boundaries for a patchwork of locally controlled conservation areas.

All this action has unfolded remarkably quickly by PNG timelines – within two years.

In a nation notionally still almost entirely held under customary ownership, wrangling over land use can take years with no resolution.

“We’re not rich people,” says Lavate. “We’re not the kind of people who can pay for water, pay for our food, pay for housing. We get these things from our forest. So for us, forest is life.”

According to mapping done by locals and seen by the Guardian, the logging crew that arrived near Suburam in May carved their road hard along the boundary of the new Yikmol conservation area, despite regulations requiring a 100 metre buffer zone around protected areas, before pushing inside it at least once.

Perhaps they were unaware of the new conservation area, or unpersuaded of its authority.

The paperwork formalising the new conservation area could not be lodged with provincial authorities because they were on a protracted strike.

Meanwhile, legislation enshrining new protected areas across PNG has been stuck by political inaction for years.

But there are also questions around what rights the Malaysian-owned logging company, Woodbank Pacific Limited, had to be operating in the area at all.

The company has not responded to questions, and neither has the PNG Forest Authority.

It appears from log export data that Woodbank’s activities in this region of Madang province rely on colonial era logging concessions called timber rights purchases, or TRPs, that expired decades ago.

Created in 1951, these provided a mechanism to purchase timber rights from customary owners and control the harvesting.

The Yikmol landowners delegation is adamant that the company had not been given consent to be working near or within the conservation area or the matmat.

“The logging company didn’t ask us landowners,” Lavate says. “We did not have an agreement with the logging company that they could come on our land but they came in anyway.”

In a soon-to-be-published analysis for the ANU Development Policy Centre drawing on 40 years of insight and data, veteran PNG forestry expert Prof Colin Filer observes that outdated TRPs have produced more log exports than any other type of licence for the clearing of PNG forests, and that almost two-thirds of exports in the past three years have come from areas where TRP agreements have expired.

Filer argues these operations are all illegal, citing a 2017 PNG state solicitor’s opinion which came to a similar conclusion.

Celcor’s Peter Bosip argues that if the licences are not valid, then loggers who use them should be held accountable.

But he has concerns about enforceability, speaking generally and not about Woodbank, “Even when there is a court order stopping them … the court is in Port Moresby.

“The logger in the remote location doesn’t really tend to recognise what the court says, and keeps on cutting down trees, and this has been an ongoing issue here.”

Bosip has broader concerns about the potential for corruption in the industry, saying that government officers, elected officials, from top to bottom, “might accept [a] bribe and say OK, everything is in order and issue the logging permit”, says Bosip.

Again speaking generally and not about the logging near Suburam he says that if some loggers have paid police to escort them on site, landowners “might get caught by surprise, and the police go in with arms and threaten them – if you want to dispute the logging company, go to court.

“They realise they don’t have the money to get legal assistance. They feel intimidated, they feel suppressed, but how can they speak?”

What’s missing, says Paul Barker, executive director of PNG thinktank the Institute of National Affairs, speaking generally, is a commitment to the principle of adherence to law. “There is big money to be made out of this.”

This is shaping as a particularly dangerous moment for PNG’s forests, Barker warns, not least because of the growing global momentum to save the country’s vast, vanishing, wildly diverse landscape as the climate emergency escalates.

Speculation around lucrative carbon markets is attracting some genuine players but also unscrupulous ‘carbon cowboys’.

The PNG government declared at Cop26 in Glasgow last November that it would ban log exports in 2025 and end all logging by 2030.

Similarly welcome promises have been made and delayed for 15 years, and while cynics anticipate they may well be pushed out again, loggers are nonetheless “under pressure to extract as many bloody logs as they can over the next two or three years”, says Prof Filer.

“Logging companies are realising they need to move fast just in case some of these carbon agreements, or even biodiversity agreements, actually do get established,” says Barker.


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Lindsay F Bond

Science emerges. Who has heard of 'bioreactor walls'?

This story flies on from the Godwit bird report.
Not to continue doing dumb stuff of the past, it is heartening to see examples of intellectual endeavour that moves to sustain life and such ecosystems as might benefit from human knowledge and action in a variety of communities.

Lindsay F Bond

This comment is in support of science-based understanding and management and guardianship of forests for yet undiscovered wealth of and in such resources.
By example, monitoring activities and achievements of fauna, in this instance, of birds, there is report of magnificent achievement of a migratory species, by a young bird, only five months of age, flying a truly remarkable distance in a time that is astonishing.

Philip Fitzpatrick

The thing about kwila is that it cannot be successfully grown as a plantation timber. All of the kwila coming into Australia comes from old growth forests.

All the kwila in Indonesia has been cut down. PNG remains one of the few places where it grows wild. Soon that will be gone too.

I've got a kwila outdoor setting made in Lae (Barbecues Galore used to sell them in Queensland). I thought I was doing a good thing buying a PNG product.

Instead I was contributing to the extinction of a species.

John Greenshields

Every time I go to Bunnings or some timber yard, and see Merbau [Kwila] sold for outdoor decking, and folding chairs etc, I weep inside.

In the mid 1970’s I flew from Lae, Madang, Wewak on work, and was astounded to see thousands of acres of jungle clear-felled.
This scarred yellow landscape was cleared within five metres of all watercourses, with not a tree standing.

Who knows what if any approvals were obtained, or what has happened to the land since. Palm oil smallholder blocks maybe, just modern serfdom?

These rainforests give off moisture, forming clouds, which reflect radiant heat. They are an essential defence against climate change.
They absorb massive amounts of carbon dioxide, and produce oxygen.

Forests need to be treasured, but to do that we need to put a value on them, and pay custodians to protect them.

Therein lies the dilemma. Before the last PNG election, a minister went overseas sensing a pool of 'green' money to be directed towards saving the forests.

Any royalties for doing so would be have the national and provincial governments wanting control - to clip the ticket.

I suspect very little would get to the traditional owners.

So, perhaps NGO’s and overseas agencies need to start at the Local Government level, as Stephen Charteris has written many times in PNG Attitude.

Perhaps the new US Global Fragility Act can make a start at this level.

The planet and PNG is doomed if we don’t stop this destruction now.

However, with foreign logging companies now bigger than government, threatening it legally, and controlling the main PNG newspaper, you won't read any anti-logging stories there.

I can totally understand why frustrated landowners take to violence.

Their governments, the courts and police have totally failed them.

Arthur Williams

Meanwhile many of the SABLs that were found to be illegally acquired continue to clear fell.

Marape and Oh'Neill both promised to stop them but some clever idiot loggers said, "Only if you compensate us!" I learnt some law over the years and one I recall was to do with being in possession of stolen goods. "You cannot sue for loss of illegally obtained things."

Yet the PNG Attorney General lawyers allowed the compensation claim to stand thus causing the government to allow the illegal clear felling to continue.

Most of these SABL are free of any fees to the government and have given tenure to the loggers for 99 years.

In theory any villager wanting to even cut a tree for a garden, a canoe or to make a house should obtain permission from the logger first.
It also means that even if prevented from exporting logs for the rest of the 99 year lease the logger could conduct carbon trading deals with no benefit to the traditional owners.

Of course under the clear felling it meant the loggers got their filthy hands on undersized trees and could export prohibited species such as rosewood all at export prices often deliberately low as the clever companies arrange transfer pricing scams, first revealed in the earlier 1990 Barnett Forest Inquiry.

In the event of a mining project in their SABL land area they, the timber companies, would be the negotiators with the mining company and would eventually be receiving royalties etc.

The inquiry into the terrible SABL forest rapists was in 2013. It was stopped mid-way through and so never gave a final report for all 75 SABLs issued.

Of the 46 investigated the Commission of Inquiry had recommended:
•30 SABL leases be revoked
•3 be suspended
•2 be surrendered
•4 be amended (and/or other remedy)
•4 be retained

Another 3 of the 46 leases reviewed have already been revoked by the courts.

O'Neill lied about stopping the illegal SABL, and Marape now avoids the issue.

Shame on these elites who over the last 40 years have appeared to have colluded in allowing the forest rape to continue.

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