"As thunder rumbled across the valley, the children assured me it wasn’t going to rain.  “Oh, that noise? It is the big trees being loaded onto the ships.” A few minutes later we met several naked children playing in front of enormous felled trees. Their inheritance, now neatly stacked and labeled for export.  As the rampant deforestation of Papua New Guinea for palm oil continues, it is putting their future - and the climate - at risk."  - Sarah Fretwell

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Before I stepped into the small garden that had been carved out at the edge of the tropical jungle, “Ruth” put her hand up to stop me.  She needed to ask the ancestors of the land for permission to bring me there. Papuans hold special respect for their ancestors, so permission was necessary. They also hold special respect for future generations, which “Ruth” simply referred to as “the next.”

“Ruth” showed me native plants she is working to preserve before they go extinct, victims of deforestation.  Eventually, I broached the idea of me going further into the jungle to see what was really going on. She looked me squarely in the eyes,  “Just don’t let them see you taking photos or asking questions. They [private armed thugs hired by a corrupt local politician] can do whatever they want if they find you.”

 

The forests of the Island of New Guinea comprise one of three of the last remaining “lungs” of the planet.  They contain the largest swaths of entact rainforest on the planet and they store higher amounts of carbon than other forests.  Keeping these forests intacted is critical to help mitigate climate change because they sequester carbon and help reduce greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.  Large swaths are being wiped out to be sold as cheap timber on the world market and the land is cleared for industrial agriculture – much of it for palm oil.

 

Even with many warnings, the risks seemed worth the adventure because the health of the planet – and everyone on it – is intrinsically linked to this island.  Its forests contain seven percent of the world’s biodiversity and the ocean touts the highest marine biodiversity on the planet. It is an important place that is changing forever but at unknown long-term costs to locals and the world. I wanted to understand what was happening firsthand.  

Near the timber staging area where the logs are brought down from the rainforest to be loaded on ships and sold overseas to be made into furniture and other goods, “Ruth”, the local Greenpeace activist, tips me off to a conflict going on in the remaining primary jungle above her town.  And I set off in search of a woman named “Francis” whose clan (family) land is being illegally logged.

Near the timber staging area where the logs are brought down from the rainforest to be loaded on ships and sold overseas to be made into furniture and other goods, “Ruth”, the local Greenpeace activist, tips me off to a conflict going on in the remaining primary jungle above her town.  And I set off in search of a woman named “Francis” whose clan (family) land is being illegally logged.

As we drive up the only road for hundreds of miles, they tell me just a few years ago the only way to get here was on foot. Now a Malaysian logging company has built a “free” road on private land to cut high-value timber in the area.  Local clans have struck deals with the company and are paid for the value of the timber, but not use of the land.In most areas after the primary rainforest is logged and then plantations and mining operations come into the area. With little environmental oversight, this pristine rainforest is being wiped out –  forever. “White Stone” (the white triangle on the hillside) is the highest homestead encampment in the area and the end of the road.

 

As I talk with people it becomes apparent the “Wild West” of development in Papua New Guinea is full of land grabs, logging, mining, natural resource extraction, violence, government indiscretion, multinational corporations, and the oppression of women.  And these indiscretions now often come at the hands of their own family.

On this logging road outside of Vanimo, Papua New Guinea the lower portions (originally primary rainforest) are now logged, with plantations of cacao and palm oil moving in. The local politician for the area struck a deal with the palm oil company, but the community has seen none of the profits. Community water sources are now polluted with pesticides.   Families are deeply divided over the best use of the land and resources.

When I show up to their remote jungle village unannounced, several people eyes light up when they heard I am from California.  “The Governator!”, they say back to me. I am surprised to learn they are apparently huge Arnold Schwarzenegger fans. From that moment on I am “in.”  As I investigate further, locals confirm what I had been told, the palm oil company was removing the high-value timber clear cutting the primary jungle and building the first road in the area without full permission of the clan (family) or proper compensation to the community.