Protection Not Working for PNG's Forests: Papua New Guinea's Forests Are Not as Pristine as Previously Thought and If Current Rates of Destruction Continue, by 2020 Their Area Will Be Reduced by Half, According to a Recent Analysis of 30 Years' Aerial and Satellite Imagery of the Region. Disturbingly, Much of the Damage Appears Due to Unsustainable Practices by Local Communities, Sometimes Inside Nominally Protected Areas

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Papua New Guinea (PNG) is one of the world's most forested countries. In 2002, 33 million hectares--71 per cent--of the country was covered in forests, ranging from rainforest to swamp forest, evergreen forest and mangroves.

Over the last 10 000 years, PNG's people have developed a system of agriculture based on clearing patches of forest for gardens then moving on after a few years, allowing the forest to reclaim the area. Communities have also come to rely on the forest for building materials, food and shelter when crops fail or natural disasters strike.

Environmentally, the forests have provided watershed protection, water filtration and coast and reef protection, and also helped stabilise the climate.

But the value of PNG's forests does not stop there.

'New Guinea has one of the richest assemblages of biodiversity on the planet, some six to eight per cent of the world's total,' says Dr Allen Allison, Vice President for Science at Honolulu's Bishop Museum. 'New Guinea probably has more species than Australia and rivals the biodiversity of the Amazon Basin.'

It's this biological diversity that has sustained PNG's human population for the last 40 000 years according to Dr Phil Shearman, an Australian researcher who heads the University of Papua New Guinea's Remote Sensing Centre.

Dr Shearman is also a senior author of the report 'The state of the forests of Papua New Guinea', a collaboration between scientists from the Remote Sensing Centre and the Australian National University. The report compared detailed Australian Army aerial photography and mapping imagery from the 1970s with high-resolution satellite imagery taken between 2000 and 2007.

'The forests provide subsistence food--plants, animals and fungi--and building materials for a large proportion of the nation's six million people,' Dr Shearman says.

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The last 30 years, however, have seen logging become the main industrial activity across many parts of the country. Today, declared forest product exports are worth about AU$350 million to the PNG economy and the industry employs about 7500 people.

According to the report, 3.8 million hectares of PNG's forests were degraded or cleared by logging between 1972 and 2002, earning a mere AU$1340 per hectare (adjusted for CPI).

'Until the new study, there was a persistent belief amongst biologists, based on dated, anecdotal evidence, that the biodiversity of New Guinea is in far better shape and facing fewer threats than biodiversity in other parts of the wet tropics,' comments Dr Allison. 'This has tended to divert the world's attention to other tropical areas.

'The careful, painstaking land cover analysis performed by Shearman and his team convincingly demonstrates that the globally significant forests of Papua New Guinea are being degraded at an alarming and unsustainable rate, exceeding that in many parts of the Amazon, and that current conservation practices are inadequate.

'This is a clarion call for action to improve the management and protection of PNG's precious forest resources.'

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A grim picture

The study found that by 2000-2007, 15 per cent of PNG's rainforest present in the 1970s had been cleared and nearly nine per cent had been degraded to secondary forest. Overall, nearly a quarter of the forest had been lost in less than 40 years.

Logging wasn't the only culprit. In the last 20 years PNG's population has doubled. The growing population largely depends on subsistence agriculture, which has led to the clearance of 11 per cent of PNG's forests since the 1970s.

Overall, 48.2 per cent of the total forest change was due to logging, 45.6 per cent to agricultural clearing, 4.4 per cent to forest fires, 1.2 per cent to plantations and 0. …