How well do community-managed lands promote nature conservation?

When it comes to conserving nature, how well do the vast expanses of land managed by local and traditional communities fare compared to formal protected areas?

Red pandas are small and wary enough to survive in community-managed lands

Red pandas are small and wary enough to survive in community-managed lands

This is becoming an increasingly topical and key question, with some arguing that community-managed lands garner local support for conservation and are therefore a better long-term strategy for protecting wildlife and ecosystems.

Others, however, assert that formal protected areas -- such as national parks, World Heritage sites, and other kinds of reserves -- are generally the best strategy, protecting vulnerable species and populations that rarely survive outside of such areas.

Who is right?  The answer, it seems, is (1) not so simple, and (2) clouded by a serious lack of reliable data.

Advocates of community-managed lands often blend at least two different arguments together: such lands are seen as socially and economically beneficial and important for securing the land rights of traditional or rural landowners, while also benefiting nature. 

Such advocates often assert that, because community-managed lands produce tangible local benefits, they are likely to be more viable in the long term than protected areas -- a sizable number of which are being imperiled to varying degrees by human encroachment.

The devil, however, is often in the details. 

For example, in a recent study in northeastern India, Nandini Velho and colleagues (including ALERT director Bill Laurance) found that Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary -- a protected area famed for its rich biodiversity -- protected quite different sets of species than did nearly lands managed by resident tribes.

The study, based on animal-sign surveys, camera-trapping, and interviews of local residents, concluded that:

- Eaglenest harbored much larger numbers of large-bodied wildlife species, such as Asian Elephants and Gaur, a species of wild cattle, that are vulnerable to poaching. 

Big animals like Gaur get hunted out of community-managed lands

Big animals like Gaur get hunted out of community-managed lands

- However, the community-managed lands supported a number of smaller species, including several of high conservation significance such as the Red Panda, Clouded Leopard, and Golden Cat.

The Velho et al. study is notable for being one of very few that have compared matched protected areas with nearby community lands, using carefully standardized sampling in each area.  Clearly, more rigorously-designed studies like this are much needed.

In addition, when assessing the effectiveness of community-managed lands for nature conservation, other issues can become very relevant.  For instance:

- Are community-managed lands being used to augment protected areas, or replace them?  The latter could be a much higher-risk strategy for nature, whereas the former is likely to be beneficial.

-  There could be a big difference in environmental impacts when long-term local residents or indigenous peoples are involved, versus recent immigrants.  The latter may much more environmentally destructive, as evidenced by massive deforestation in government-sponsored agrarian settlements in the Amazon and transmigration programs in Indonesia.

-  Rapid population growth can defeat community-based conservation.  Many areas can sustain sparse to moderate populations but become unsustainable when human numbers swell.  This is a serious issue in many developing nations.  For instance, in Papua New Guinea, escalating human numbers are increasing a range of social and environmental pressures on traditional lands.

Some highly preliminary conclusions: Community-managed lands are no panacea but under the right circumstances, they can clearly help to augment traditional nature-conservation efforts such as protected areas.  Determining just when and how community lands become part of the solution is an urgent priority.

Will 'Godzilla' mega-drought cause global crisis?

Will this year’s El Niño drought turn into an eco-catastrophe?  In an article published today, ALERT's Susan and Bill Laurance say there are lots of danger signs already:

- because of its exceptional intensity, NASA experts have already labeled this drought "Godzilla", arguing it could be the strongest El Niño in living memory

- previous mega-droughts driven by El Niño have degraded large expanses of the Amazon, with a single fire consuming over three million hectares of drought-choked rainforest, farmlands, and indigenous territories in 1997-98

- fires spurred by past mega-droughts have rampaged across Indonesia and burned huge expanses of Borneo

- in New Guinea, the frequency of wildfires has already risen dramatically in recent months, currently running at about triple the rate of previous years

Fires are already spiking in Papua New Guinea  (Philip Shearman)

Fires are already spiking in Papua New Guinea (Philip Shearman)

- worldwide, seven of the ten hottest years on record occurred during or immediately after an El Niño year

- Australia's Daintree Drought Experiment suggests that severe droughts could potentially devastate the region's rainforests

Daintree Drought Experiment suggests rainforests could suffer greatly  (Yoav Daniel Bar-Ness)

Daintree Drought Experiment suggests rainforests could suffer greatly (Yoav Daniel Bar-Ness)

- rapidly expanding land-use changes, such as habitat fragmentation and logging, are making ecosystems far more vulnerable to droughts and fire

- as new roads proliferate almost everywhere, so do the number of human-caused ignition sources, greatly increasing fire risk

The article on the "Godzilla drought" -- which you can access here -- argues that we must take urgent action if we're to avoid battling a fire-breathing monster.

 

The corruption scandal engulfing Papua New Guinea

Hearing about a bad deed is one thing.  Seeing it with your own eyes is something else altogether.

Cross the right palms and you can get whatever you want.

Cross the right palms and you can get whatever you want.

Think, for example, about the riots that engulfed Los Angeles following the acquittal of the police officers who were filmed viciously beating Rodney King

Or the firestorm that engulfed National Football League star Ray Rice in the U.S.  Rice reported to his team that he and his wife had had an altercation and that he'd struck her in an elevator.  The NFL was inclined to fine and forgive Rice until a video of the actual incident emerged.  It now remains unclear whether Rice will ever play NFL football again.

Alas, we are now seeing a comparable scandal in Papua New Guinea.  Everyone in the know is aware that corruption is a serious problem in PNG

But this shocking tape -- filmed with a hidden camera -- shows in graphic detail just how bad things have become.  Indeed, one of the most alarming elements of the video is just how matter-of-fact those interviewed are about how one actually goes about bribing high officials in PNG.

It's worth a few minutes to watch this short documentary -- it's well produced and more than compelling. 

And here's an intriguing teaser: One of the main 'bad guys' in the tape actually has an intimate financial and personal connection to one of the world's most popular rock bands. 

Ever hear the hit song "Go Geronimo" by the Australian rock band Sheppard?  

After seeing this short documentary, I doubt you'll ever think of that song the same way again.

 

The next big environmental crisis: Indonesian New Guinea

We had a bit of fun with our 'Drop Bears' blog last week -- which was based on a legitimate scientific paper but was entirely in jest -- but we're being deadly serious now. 

In brief, the Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea -- one of three great remaining tropical wildernesses on Earth -- is under dire assault.  This is an issue that should light up the radar of conservationists throughout the world. 

Rampant oil palm development in Indonesia New Guinea  (photo (c) Ardiles Rante, Greenpeace).

Rampant oil palm development in Indonesia New Guinea (photo (c) Ardiles Rante, Greenpeace).

The other half of the island of New Guinea -- the nation of Papua New Guinea -- has certainly suffered its share of environmental ills, with rampant industrial logging and mining development, severe fires in the highlands, and the notorious SABLs -- Special Agricultural and Business Leases -- that have often been snapped up by foreign logging firms and now span some 11% of the nation's land area.

But the situation in Indonesian New Guinea -- the Provinces of Papua and West Papua -- is, if anything, even worse.  And it is likely to become one of the major rainforest crises of our time.

People in the know say its only a matter of time before environmental chaos descends in Indonesian New Guinea.  First, the government there places little emphasis on the rights of the island's many indigenous communities, who have lived on their traditional lands for millennia.

Second, the Indonesian government has transmigrated millions of Javanese and other Indonesians to New Guinea, displacing traditional peoples and destroying native ecosystems in the process.  This program has been enormously unpopular with native New Guineans.

Third, oil palm is exploding across Indonesia New Guinea.  The Indonesians have a saying, "Sumatra was yesterday, Borneo is today, and New Guinea is tomorrow", reflecting their wildly ambitious plans to expand oil palm, logging, mining, and other developments across the island at the expense of native ecosystems.

Indonesia now has the world's highest absolute rate of forest destruction  (from Mongabay.com).

Indonesia now has the world's highest absolute rate of forest destruction (from Mongabay.com).

And finally, Indonesia President Joko Widodo has just announced a scheme to build a 4,000 kilometer-long 'Trans-Papuan Highway' across Indonesian New Guinea.  This has the potential to open up the island like a flayed fish, exposing it a range of new environmental pressures -- the results of which are often fatal for forests and biodiversity

We've been accustomed to hearing about environmental crises in Borneo, Sumatra, and the Amazon.  Unless the international community can convince the Indonesian government to change its tack, get ready to start hearing a lot more about environmental crises in Indonesian New Guinea too.

 

PNG Forestry: weak governance & corruption hurts local people and the environment

Andrew Lang is a farmer and forester, and Vice-President of the World Bioenergy Association.  He's had a great deal of experience in the Asia-Pacific region and weighs in here on his concerns about forest issues in Papua New Guinea:

Traditional landowners worried about PNG's future  (photo by William Laurance)

Traditional landowners worried about PNG's future (photo by William Laurance)

Around the world tropical forest are being cleared at an appalling rate.  In Papua New Guinea, sections of the 1996 Land Act facilitated much forest clearance (adding to the previously mostly illegal logging) supposedly to help customary landowners convert their forested land into agriculture, in partnership with investors.  But logging companies mainly from Malaysia and Australia saw it as a potential bonanza.

According to a 2012 Greenpeace report, between 2003 and 2011 over 5 million hectares of land, mainly along the Papuan coast and the islands of New Britain and New Ireland, was leased under Special Agricultural and Business Leases (SABLs).

This equates to over 11% of the country’s land area and over 16% of its accessible forests.  Exports of logs grew by 20% in 2011 alone, mostly from within these SABLs and mostly heading to China.  Up to 50% of the cleared land was to be planted to oil palm under the 55- and 99-year leases of the SABLs. 

Because of growing international concern over the improper processes in leasing of customary lands, the PNG government in early 2011 issued a moratorium on issuance of SABLs and ordered a Commission of Inquiry.  This Inquiry made recommendations but left existing SABLs in place.

The improper leasing of customary land -- referred to by many in PNG as 'land grabs' -- is still playing out.  One example is the 200,000 hectares of Musa Pongani land in eastern Papua.  This area was gazetted as Special Agriculture Land in 2010, so opening it to initiation of an SABL.

While the legal SABL process required full and informed consent by all customary landowners, this was not done in this area.  Two customary landowner-incorporated bodies and their Asian development partners are now wrangling for control of the title to the whole area in the courts. 

A third group called the Iris Cooperation has surveyed 100,000 hectares of land within the overall area and is reported to have mortgaged it on the Malaysian Stock Exchange for ~US$300 million.

The majority of the customary owners in PNG are illiterate or nearly so and have no understanding of the future impacts of an impending multimillion dollar 'development'.  Many can be pressured into signing papers in light of glib promises of good roads, education, health services, and cash in hand.  

In short, the prognosis for these lands and their customary owners is bleak.  The world needs to pay close attention to the dodgy dealings going on in PNG.

 

Export markets are driving much of tropical deforestation

Why are tropical nations cutting down their forests?  Is it to feed and house their people?  To provide goods for their domestic markets?

Who's benefiting from forest destruction?

Who's benefiting from forest destruction?

Not so much.

In fact, a lot of deforestation is happening so that tropical nations can export stuff -- especially agricultural goods, timber, minerals, and oil -- to consumer nations. 

And who are the big consumers?  At least for major commodities such as palm oil, beef, soy, and timber, the European Union and China rank as the biggest importers.

That's the conclusion of a recent analysis by the Center for Global Development, an independent think-tank based in London and Washington, D.C.

The analysis focused on six of the most important tropical nations -- Bolivia, Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea -- as well as Argentina and Paraguay.  These countries produce a big chunk of the four internationally traded commodities (beef, soy, palm oil, timber) that were the focus of the study.

The study found that about a third of all deforestation could be directly attributed to those four export commodities.  And if one includes beef production in the Amazon, which is mostly 'exported' to the major population centers in southern Brazil, then exports of the four commodities account for a whopping 57% of all deforestation.

In all of the studied countries except for Bolivia and Brazil, export markets were the dominant drivers of deforestation.  Moreover, for most of the eight countries, the importance of export markets as a driver of deforestation and greenhouse-gas emissions increased over time.

What this says is that much of tropical deforestation is being driven not by the needs of local people, but by growing global demand.  The E.U. and China are big sinners, but there's plenty of blame to spread around among other nations.

A lot of the food and timber we consume comes from tropical nations.  We all want to live well, but there is no free lunch.  Somewhere, a chainsaw is roaring and a bulldozer growling so that we can have cheap food and timber.

 

A plea to stop the land-grabbing in New Guinea

ALERT is reposting here parts of a recent blog by Lester Seri, a traditional landowner in Collingwood Bay, Papua New Guinea. 

Lester belongs to the Wo Ari Kawo tribe.  He is a Coordinator for Oro Communities Environmental Advocacy Network (OCEAN) Inc., which campaigns against illegal land, logging and oil palm issues in Papua New Guinea.

Earlier this week ALERT began a campaign against the massive land-grabs in Papua New Guinea known as Special Agricultural and Business Leases.  Lester's tribe is being plagued by one such land-grab.

A vista from Collingwood Bay  (photo by Erik Wakker)

A vista from Collingwood Bay (photo by Erik Wakker)

My name is Lester Seri, and I have been mandated by the Wo Ari Kawo Elders to speak on behalf of them on Tribal land matters.

I am writing to you today because the people of Collingwood Bay urgently need you to support our struggle. 

My people -- the Maisin people -- along with our neighboring communities in Collingwood Bay have been fighting to protect our customary lands from illegal land grabs for logging and palm oil development for nearly three decades.

In 2002 we won a four-year court battle against the government for illegally leasing our land for logging and palm oil projects without the consent of the customary landowners. 

Yet, in 2012 this SAME land area was leased again to suspect middlemen landowner companies and ultimately sold to Malaysian palm oil company Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhad (KLK).  When I and several other landowners heard that our lands had been leased without our consent again, we took our case to court once more.

In May of this year, the National Court of Papua New Guinea declared the two leases claimed by KLK illegal again and ordered them to be cancelled.  While this court victory was important, KLK has not yet left Collingwood Bay and our struggle continues.

The people and the forests of Collingwood Bay need your support now more than ever.  Please stand with us now and tell KLK to leave Collingwood Bay immediately! 

KLK was forced to give up two leases on customary lands through the court case, but the company still claims a third lease in Collingwood Bay called Lot 5.  In recent communications, KLK has stated that it has no intentions to leave Lot 5, despite the fact that it is within Maisin customary lands and holds primary forest and small patches of ‘kunai grass’ that our people use annually for game hunting.

As a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and through its own voluntary commitments, KLK has also pledged not to clear primary forests, High Conservation Value Forests, or High Carbon Stock forests, so there is absolutely no way KLK can develop palm oil on Lot 5.  Therefore, there is absolutely no reason for them still to be here, yet they are.

Rainforests being cleared for oil palm in New Guinea

Rainforests being cleared for oil palm in New Guinea

Join me in telling KLK it’s time to pack its bags and leave Collingwood Bay for good. 

Our people have been fighting companies like KLK for too long, and we are fed up with their attempts to undermine our local economies and culture and rob us of our rich natural resources.  Our paramount chiefs have said no to these forms of development, and they have said no to palm oil development in Collingwood Bay.

The forests and cultures of the Collingwood Bay people are at stake if KLK proceeds.  We urgently need your voice to send this message to KLK loud and clear: No palm oil development and no KLK in Collingwood Bay!

In solidarity, Lester Seri.

ALERT's campaign to defend Papua New Guinea's rainforests

Today, ALERT is launching a press release to highlight a serious peril to the rainforests and indigenous peoples of Papua New Guinea

Not happy about land-grabs  (photo by William Laurance)

Not happy about land-grabs (photo by William Laurance)

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a South Pacific nation with one of the world's largest surviving tracts of tropical forest.  And it is among the most culturally diverse regions on Earth, with more than 800 distinctive tribes, each with their own unique language.

But in recent decades the forests of PNG have come under assault from predatory logging, land-clearing, and mining.

Some of the worst offenses are known as 'Special Agricultural and Business Leases' (SABLs).  SABLs span a vast expanse of PNG -- more than 5 million hectares -- over 11% of its entire land area.

The SABLs are notorious not only for their serious environmental impacts, but also because they are seen as corporate land-grabs that are robbing indigenous groups from their traditional land rights. 

Most of these leases are for 99 years in duration -- an eternity for an indigenous group that relies on its forest and traditional lands for survival.

The PNG government initially set up the SABLs as a way to encourage large-scale development, such as oil palm plantations.  But many of the SABLs have been snapped up by foreign logging corporations that are using them to dodge PNG's forestry laws -- to log the rainforests illegally.

In response, there has been an outcry in PNG, especially from indigenous groups.  This eventually forced the government to launch a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the SABLs.

The Commission found so many problems, abuses, and outright illegalities that it recommended the government cancel or phase out most of the SABLs.

But the PNG government has so far failed to do so -- at least for the biggest and most damaging SABLs.  Why?  There is a distinctive whiff of something not right here.

ALERT's press release, on the eve of the World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia next month, underscores a critical peril to one of the world's most biologically and culturally diverse regions.

 

ALERT's campaign to save island paradise from loggers

ALERT today is launching a campaign to help tell the world about Woodlark Island -- a small but important paradise off the eastern coast of Papua New Guinea.

At least 42 different species -- including the beautiful Woodlark cuscus, a native marsupial -- are endemic to the island, living nowhere else on Earth.  And the island has harbored traditional cultural groups who have lived there sustainably for thousands of years.

The Woodlark cuscus -- worried about loggers

The Woodlark cuscus -- worried about loggers

That's alarming because a Malaysian logging company is about to assault Woodlark Island, with plans to log up to half of the island using heavy-handed industrial extraction methods.

Many of the island's native landowners are worried, because the foreign logging company, Karridale Limited, has evidently secured logging rights to the entire island.

Much remains unknown about Karridale Limited's intentions.  The company has been far from forthcoming about its plans, and has been accused of consulting inadequately with the island's traditional inhabitants.

This is an issue to watch closely.  Careful, small-scale logging is one thing.  But far too often, aggressive Malaysian logging corporations have run rough-shod over native forests and peoples

Today, ALERT is issuing a press release to over 800 media contacts about Woodlark Island -- urging those who care about nature to watch over and defend this small but unique corner of the world. 

The future of an island paradise is at stake.

Please share with your networks.

Logging chaos in Papua New Guinea

How bad is illegal logging in Papua New Guinea?  Pretty awful, if you believe the Asia-Sentinel, which claims the illicit timber trade is "raping" the country.

The perils of payoff...  raw logs destined for China

The perils of payoff...  raw logs destined for China

Those are strong words indeed, but they're backed up by an in-depth report from Chatham House, a respected UK think-tank that's widely regarded as an authority on illegal logging. 

According to the report, around 70% of the timber harvested in the country is illegal--the result of extensive breaches of harvesting regulations by loggers, and abuses of licenses that are supposed to support commercial agricultural plantations

The report's author, Sam Lawson, said the biggest problem is frequent collusion between loggers and corrupt government officials.  Lawson told the environmental website Mongabay.com that "The logging industry in Papua New Guinea is very powerful, while the government is extremely weak."

For instance, the largest logging firm in Papua New Guinea, the Malaysian mega-corporation Rimbunan Hijau, owns one of two national newspapers in the country.  It's newspaper, The National, is notoriously biased in its coverage of logging issues.

Who benefits from illegal logging?  Most of Papua New Guinea's timber ends up in China, which has become a virtual black-hole for timber supplies globally.  China usually buys only raw timber, often at bargain-basement prices, which is the least economically beneficial way for a country like PNG to exploit its forests.

And with rampant corruption, even these meager economic benefits are being squandered.  Profits from logging end up concentrated in the hands of a few, not benefiting most of the country's citizenry.

Perhaps the rape analogy, while brutal, isn't entirely inappropriate for Papua New Guinea.  It's one of the reasons that ALERT works actively to highlight the scale of illegal logging and to support anti-illegal-logging legislation worldwide.

 

Papua New Guinea's growing forest scandal

Top investigative journalist Jemima Garrett continues to ferret out scandals surrounding the notorious "Special Agricultural and Business Leases" in Papua New Guinea.

Cut and run... (photo by William Laurance)

Cut and run... (photo by William Laurance)

In brief, around 5 million hectares--some 11% of PNG's land area--has been given over to long-term industrial leases, typically for 99 years in duration.  Ostensibly the leases are intended to promote long-term agricultural development, but in fact most been snapped up by foreign timber companies more interested in cutting and running than anything else. 

Many of the quick-buck timber companies are from Asia but, in her latest story, Jemima shows the seedy side of an Australian company that's right up to its neck in the growing land and timber scandal.

The SABLs are now the focus of a major Commission of Inquiry.  The outcome of this inquiry could have big implications not just for the environment, but also for the many tribal groups that have deep links to their traditional lands in PNG.