Our legacy in Lake Murray

Feature story - 26 May, 2006
After three months, our Global Forest Rescue Station (GFRS) in remote Papua New Guinea has come to an end.

Volunteers travel around Lake Murray, to assist in the boundary marking of tribal land. The Global Forest Rescue Station began after Lake Murray landowners invited Greenpeace and our partners to help set up sustainable ecoforestry practices in the area.

The GFRS was established when Lake Murray tribes invited Greenpeace to help protect their ancient forest.  Volunteers from around the world took up the invitation, and went to live and work alongside the Kuni, Begwa and Pari tribes. 

Together, they set about 'boundary marking' an area of over 300,000 hectares of remote forest.

Logging companies, mainly from Malaysia, have already acquired 70 per cent of Papua New Guinea's available forest resource. The livelihood of forest communities - who rely on the forest for food, clean water and medicines - is under immediate threat. Less than 1 per cent of these communities have any form of official protection.

Boundary marking is the first step towards gaining official recognition of the ownership of land under state law. Throughout the process, two worlds collided. Landowners called upon the stories of their ancestors to help them identify areas and features of their land. Land use 'maps' were made out of string and different types of leaves.

The landowners and volunteers, with guidance from highly skilled foresters from Foundation for People and Community Development (FPCD), walked the boundaries and placed demarcation ribbons at selected points along the way. The foresters collected GPS readings of these points, for later calibration.

The boundary marking was a precursor for the local people's dream of establishing their own eco-forestry businesses. Eco-forestry is the opposite of large-scale, destructive logging. Trees are harvested using portable equipment and milled on the spot, before the wood is carried or floated out of the forest. Eco-forestry causes minimal damage, and the money made from just one tree can pay a child's school fees for a year.

Local community development organisations, including Barefoot, held workshops explaining the concept of 'sustainable development' and the benefits it could bring to the 6,000 people in Lake Murray.

In the past, some tribes have been duped into handing over their land to logging companies, for very little financial return. They are no longer willing to lose their forest for someone else's gain.

The ten foresters from FPCD trained the landowners in forest management, business skills and the use of a portable sawmill.

The GFRS culminated in the felling of the first eco-forestry tree. The tree was milled using the portable sawmill, and loaded onto a barge the landowners had retrieved from the bottom of the lake. This eco-timber was shipped locally. In future, eco-timber will be milled for local and international customers.

Greenpeace campaigns director, Danny Kennedy, said the GFRS was an example of "mass networking", PNG style. "Working from village to village, always in alliance with half a dozen community-based organisations, we have demarcated clan lands and prepared them for ecoforestry, trained five clans in portable sawmilling and business skills and begun training members of a dozen more clans," he said.

In doing so, the GFRS has turned Lake Murray into an "island of resistance to the industrial logging that plagues the province around it".

 "Over 4 million hectares are at risk in Western Province, but with this beach-head and the commitment of the communities here to sustainable ecoforestry we aim to stop the spread of logging from the east," Kennedy said. "This is a direct challenge to the industrial logging industry in PNG."

"We have done all this as equals," he added. "Not as some big company coming in with a development model to foist on people here, but as friends in common cause to save the magnificent forests in the area with some tools and ideas about how to do that."

The people of Lake Murray offered untold hospitality, warmth and friendship to the GFRS participants. They were kind, generous and patient with each of the 26 volunteers - all of whom wanted to learn every little detail about life on the lake.

Strong connections were forged; friendships were made that won't be forgotten. Sep Galeva, who initiated the project on behalf of landowners, said the community would always remember the volunteers.

In the final weblog to be posted from the GFRS, Sep wrote that Lake Murray felt empty and lonely without the volunteers. "Today I could not hold back my tears any more," he said.

Although the GFRS is over, the real work for the landowners is just beginning. So far, one clan village has used the portable sawmill. Now, each eco-forestry business must set up a camp for the foresters. When this is done, the foresters - who have returned to their homes in the PNG highlands to visit their families - will return, moving from clan to clan and supervising the start of each new sustainable eco-forestry business.