The woman from the Salvation Army who sat next to me on the plane wanted to know where I planned to visit in Papua New Guinea. When I told her, she drew her cardigan a little tighter around her and said: “Of course, you know there’s terrible malaria where you’re going. Two of our missionaries died there.”
Two of our missionaries died there? I could already see the rude litter on which your correspondent would be borne, insensate and gibbering through the illimitable jungle, by faithful but ominously silent bearers. In the little travel literature about Papua New Guinea that you can lay your hands on, the colony that was briefly – and, you are given to understand, barely – “civilised” by the Australians is invari-ably described as “the last frontier”, a byword for remoteness, the sine qua non of the goose-flesh-raisingly exotic.
A leathery expat told me, with an unexpected quaver in his voice, of the spider that traps birds merely in order to decorate its web with their feathers, a kind of octopod Jeffrey Dahmer. The woad-slathered inhabitants of the highlands, in their gourd codpieces, have recourse to their bows and arrows at the slightest and least likely provocation. And then there are the insatiable mosquitoes of the coastlands, their proboscises twitching at the first whiff of fresh prey. Assuming that this is how mosquitoes work. I leave that kind of thing to the boffins, who, in their dispassionate way, take an altogether sunnier view of the environment of Papua New Guinea than did my trav-elling companion from the Sally Army. The mangrove swamps, the biggest on the planet, remain virtually unexplored, a cause for astonishment at the turn of the 21st century. They stretch for mile after mile – or, to put it another way, for hour upon hour of flying time by gnat-like Cessna. From this vantage point, Papua New Guinea appears like a try-out for an alternative Earth, where the only look or finish or effect available is “jungle”. Experienced at zero feet, from the bilges of a dugout, the mangrove reminds you that the original sense of the phrase “up the creek without a paddle” was a terrible threat. Our beaming helmsman assured us that we would certainly be lost for good if we took a wrong turn or shed an oar.
The mangrove is particularly interesting to the boffins who are retained by oil companies. Chevron has struck black gold in these parts in the past decade, and has since been pumping out roughly 85,000 barrels a day. The company has signed a deal with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Under this openly profit-oriented joint venture, the world’s largest conservation organisation, as it likes to style itself, has been receiving more than $1m a year in return for a kind of landscaping exercise. It set up a “community-based sawmill company”, Kikori Pacific Ltd (KPL), named after the mighty river delta in the oilfields. One of the curiosities of Papua New Guinea is that most land is owned by smallholders; and, under the KPL scheme, more than 1,000 of them reportedly supply the mill with raw material. The idea is that, through the good offices of the WWF, sustainable forestry is carried out while the prospectors cleanly and greenly siphon the oil. According to the WWF’s publicity, timber from Papua New Guinea was used in the construction of the Olympic village for last year’s Sydney games, the most avowedly eco-friendly to date.
The only trouble is that the loggers have been chopping down the wrong trees. Specifically, they have been felling mangrove. An internal WWF report spells out the bad news. Harvesting mangrove is illegal in Papua New Guinea, says the report. This follows pretty universal agreement that the practice of felling mangrove sets off a sequence of events that ends in the despoiling of the surrounding rainforest.
The Duke of Edinburgh, a long-serving figurehead to the WWF, was due to give a keynote address on sustainability and diversity in London on 22 February. To prepare a special report on the same subject, I travelled on behalf of Channel 4 News into the isolated Gulf province of Papua New Guinea, taking the light aircraft that is the nearest thing the locals have to a bus service. (The cabin safety drill was conducted in Pidgin, the official tongue of the country, so that the familiar rubric about donning your own oxygen mask before helping your children began: “Suppose you got pickaninny belong you . . . “) We took a boat up the brown Kikori River and filmed the felled mangrove, the logs lashed together into rafts for their journey to the KPL sawmill. At the mill, the workers confirmed to us that they were processing mangrove.
To the layman viewing the Gulf province from the air, the depredations of the loggers look like little more than a pin- prick in such a vast swamp. But the impression of resilience and superabundance is deceptive. Logging by foreign companies unconnected with the WWF has stripped out more than 1 per cent of Papua New Guinea’s forests every 12 months since the early 1990s. It is a trade worth $250m a year.
When it comes to tropical ecosystems, overlooking the rules can have calamitous consequences. That was the burden of a lecture given a few days ago in a stockaded hotel in Port Moresby, the crime-ridden capital of Papua New Guinea. The speaker was Dr Jared Diamond, a Pulitzer prize- winning author, who sits on the WWF board in the United States and is a voluble apologist for the Chevron tie-in. Diamond told me he had just spent a month on the island as a guest of the oil company, and had recorded 40 hours of birdsong. He has called Papua New Guinea “a conservationist’s dream”.
It was his remarkable contention, if I understood him aright, that the blame for just about every grim event you could think of – up to and including the Rwandan genocide – could be laid at the door of environmental factors. (Naggingly, however, what Diamond actually spoke of was “the envirment”, dispensing with the traditional third syllable.)
When we caught up with the good doctor for an interview, he declared himself sublimely untroubled that the WWF had, by its own admission, broken the law. For him, the big picture was that the Chevron-WWF partnership, whatever shortcomings it might have, was preferable to the ad hoc forestry that has tended to be the norm in Papua New Guinea. This view was not shared by local environmentalists, who told us that they were appalled to hear that mangrove was being extracted.
The WWF’s own report states: “There are very few conservation benefits to be gained from continuing KPL’s logging activities in mangroves . . . KPL’s logging activities in mangrove forests are illegal.” It goes on: “In future WWF should not provide support to KPL for logging operations in mangrove forests.”
Was Diamond concerned by allegations that the KPL operation, perhaps sensitive to the alarm sounded by the report, was now marketing the mangrove as “mahogany cedar”? Not a bit, replied Diamond, before asking us to turn off the camera.
We traced the timber through to an end-supplier, the Woodage lumber-yard two hours’ drive outside Sydney, where it is being sold in good faith by Peter Musset. A former builder who has become a passionate champion of sustainable forestry, he told us he was standing by for two substantial deliveries from the KPL sawmill. The product is awaiting the equivalent of a Kitemark, a clean bill of health from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the international industry watchdog. But it looks as though the WWF is going to have to whistle for it. The FSC isn’t in the habit of awarding its seal of approval to people who chop down mangrove.
Prince Philip will get to his feet to declaim warmly on the WWF’s defence of biodiversity. But in Kikori, the world’s largest conservation organisation is in danger of becoming what the locals might call a pickaninny in the woodpile.
Stephen Smith’s report (a Catma production) is shown on Channel 4 News on 22 February