KANNI WIGNARAJA & DIRK WAGENER
| United Nations Development Programme
PORT MORESBY - Papua New Guinea’s natural beauty is undeniable. Home to lush tropical rainforests, magnificent mountains and pristine islands and seas, PNG is one of the world’s 17 megadiverse countries, accounting for about five percent of global biodiversity.
A little-known fact is that the country’s rainforest is the third largest in the world.
PNG also lies at the heart of the Coral Triangle – a region that is home to 76% of all known coral species.
Climate change and unsustainable growth threaten these natural assets, ones which the people of PNG have enjoyed for thousands of years.
Generations to come should enjoy them too.
Sipora Naraga, a resident of Aromot Island – an atoll off the coast of Umboi Island in the Vitiaz Strait of Morobe Province, laments what has come to pass.
“Our island is smaller now than it was before,” she says, referring to rising sea levels.
“The soil isn’t fertile like it used to be, we can’t grow anything here.”
Sipora’s story speaks directly to the impacts of climate change, deforestation and degradation of land and water, on lives, homes and livelihoods. Repeated resettlement is often part of this reality.
PNG’s abundant natural assets underpin its potential to manage and use these assets to generate an ‘ecosystem services’ economy – based on fisheries, tourism and renewable energy.
And yet, much of the country’s recent growth has been fuelled by hydrocarbon-based industrialisation and the extractives industry.
In 2019, extractives made up over a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and accounted for 88% of its export revenues.
Yet much of the population have not benefitted from these revenues.
It is the mostly subsistence-based agriculture, forestry and fishing sectors, that account for a quarter of the GDP, and supports over 80% of the population.
Recognising the threats to its marine and terrestrial environment and acknowledging its global role as a frontier nation in the fight against climate change, the PNG government has made several strong international commitments and has advanced its domestic legislation and policy statements.
Implementation, however, has fallen short of this commendable intent and ambition.
The report ‘Making Nature’s Value Visible: Valuing the Contribution of Nature to Papua New Guinea’s Economy and Livelihoods’ recently published by the PNG Conservation and Environment Protection Authority (CEPA) and UNDP offers some clear insights.
The data and evidence is clear - highly concentrated extractive-based growth, combined with insufficient enforcement of environmental standards, cannot sustainably and inclusively increase a country’s prosperity.
Unpacking the data of the report - the country invests approximately K112 million each year toward environmental protection.
This is 0.5% of current government spending.
The total economic value of its natural environment, on the other hand, is estimated at K1 trillion a year, or 13 times the country’s 2020 GDP.
For every Kina invested in environment protection, nature provides K9,800 in ecosystem services, say the report authors from James Cook University in Australia.
The development imperative for PNG is clear.
The country will gain significantly in both the short and long run, by pivoting its economy toward its most abundant resource: the natural environment.
Moving rapidly to renewable energy, introducing sustainable agriculture and fisheries practices at scale, restoring and regenerating the country’s marine and terrestrial environments, are all essential investments in the country’s future.
These sectors employ the majority of Papua New Guineans and will therefore have a direct impact on their lives.
Sustainably produced agricultural commodities such as coffee and cocoa, for instance, may offer improved livelihood opportunities for people like Sipora Nagara.
And importantly, for young new entrants to the labour market, who would now see new opportunities that offer more hope in the future.
In this context, implementing the Protected Area Policy, in full, and expanding the country’s Protected Area network to achieve PNG’s international targets under the Convention for Biological Diversity, will pay big dividends.