Forestry in Papua New Guinea

February 28, 2011

Lying just south of the equator, 160 km north of Australia, Papua New Guinea (PNG) is part of a great arc of mountains stretching from Asia, through Indonesia and into the South Pacific. With a vibrant and colourful culture, it consists of more than 600 islands and 800 indigenous languages.

by Michal Brink, Forestry Solutions

Papua New Guinea forestry Papua New Guinea forestry 2

A bridge built from logs in the PNG forest must be strong enough to bear the weight of big timber trucks. It is made from species such as Kwila (Intsia bijuga) and Taun (Pometia pinnata), and should last about three years, depending on the amount of traffic passing over it.

This excavator couldn't escape the clutches of the rainforest. This is what happens when you get 3 000 mm of rainfall per year.

The island of New Guinea, the second largest in the world, has one of the last great expanses of tropical rainforest. Although much of this area is still untouched and in some remote regions native peoples may have never seen a white-skinned person, the rainforest is rapidly being developed in more accessible regions. Today the island is divided into two parts: the independent country of PNG (eastern half), and the Indonesian province of Papua and West Papua forming the western half.

New Guinea has been inhabited by various peoples from throughout Asia for some 10 000 years. Its recorded history began with the visits of Portuguese explorers in the early 16th century, followed by Dutch traders. The Dutch East India Company took control of the western half of the island, which became a colonial possession attached to the Dutch East Indies in 1828. The territory was then split between the British and Germans in the 1880s until after World War I, when it was transferred in its entirety to the control of Australia, endorsed by a United Nations mandate. Most of it was occupied by the Japanese during World War II. Japanese successes in New Guinea were short-lived. Australian troops fought back an advance along the rugged Kokoda Track, which the Japanese were using in an attempt to reach and take Port Moresby, the only remaining Australian stronghold on the island.

Cannibalism and head hunting may still be occurring in the remote areas of the island, although many sources say the practice has been stopped since the 1970s. Two tribes that practiced cannibalism are the Kombai and the Korowai, tribes numbering in the thousands and who decorate their bodies with bones. In September 1975, PNG achieved complete independence from Britain.

This excavator couldn't escape the clutches of the rainforest. This is what happens when you get 3 000 mm of rainfall per year.

Vegetation, geography and forestry

Papua New Guinea is located six degrees south of the equator and thereby falls within the moist tropical rainforest zone. Due to its location, the country achieves an average of 3 000 mm of rainfall per year, which influences the vegetation to a large extent.

Papua New Guinea has a total land area of 46 million hectares, of which some 29 million hectares is estimated to contain forest cover – some 65% of the country. There are estimated to be between 15 000 and 20 000 plant species, of which over 2 000 are tree species. Over 400 of these are utilised in one way or another, including as non-timber forest products as well as being harvested commercially.

Commercial forest plantations started in the 1960s and currently PNG has a total of 62 000 hectares of forest plantations. The main species planted are Acacia mangium and Eucalyptus deglupta, while Araucaria spp. and teak (Tectona grandis) are also common.

Forest resource ownership is closely associated with the land tenure system, where land is owned and managed by customary landowners (tribal clan groups). It is estimated that 95% of the total land area of the country is owned under this system. In order to carry out any forest-related operations, such as timber harvesting, extensive consultation is required between concessionaires, State agencies and the landowners.

As in many other parts of the world where tropical rain forests are found, the PNG forest resource is also shrinking. Some estimates show that some 350 000 ha of forest is lost every year – 1.4% of its land area. Since the late 1990s, the government tried to place restrictions on logging operations, but efforts to curb deforestation have failed due to corruption and poor policing. One of the causes of the deforestation is illegal logging activities, related to concessionaries that harvest logs for export.

However, the most significant threat to the PNG forests is agricultural expansion. The country's high population growth rate means increasing areas are converted for subsistence agriculture. Typically, fire is used for land-clearing and at times (especially during dry el Niño years) agricultural fires can burn out of control.

As Papua New Guinea's forests are lost and degraded, there is a concurrent loss in biodiversity of plants, animals and indigenous people.

In recent times, there have been positive developments as some of the leading companies with forestry concessions in PNG have embarked on the process of becoming FSC certified. It was interesting to see that there are a number of South African foresters involved in driving this process. Becoming certified in the context of the complexities of forestry in PNG is no easy task, but the leading companies have come a long way in complying with the requirements of the FSC. It seems likely that several companies will achieve certification over the next few years – with South African foresters, once again, taking the lead!

Published in February 2011

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