Where the Rainforest Meets the Road

Community-led conservation has taken root in a remote corner of Papua New Guinea. Now the plan’s architects must ensure that ecological protection and economic prosperity can coexist.

It’s the heat of the day on the Managalas Plateau in northeastern Papua New Guinea and there are no birds-of-paradise to see. Every morning and evening, Raggiana birds-of-paradise (Paradisaea raggiana) perch in the trees behind a small village next to the plateau’s main road and display for potential mates. They’re big birds—about the size of a crow—and their mating display is an acrobatic flurry of flips and tail-feather flutters. But we have arrived too late in the day to see it. This self-evident fact distresses Raynald Pasip, a slight man wearing a dark blue polo shirt who shows his displeasure in sweeping hand gestures.

Pasip, a board member of the Managalas Conservation Foundation who lives nearby, speaks insistently to the village residents in Tauba, the local language, as I look on. As they discuss the birds’ absence, I stare into the jungle that looms over the village. In the raised clearing where we stand, the heavy, hot air presses down, and an earthy smell drifts over the deep trench that separates us from garden plots and coconuts. Beyond that, a wall of jungle looms, the trees festooned with vines.

Birds-of-paradise and other rare fauna are sometimes hunted for use in ceremonial dress, but the ones here are largely left alone. A bench stands at the center of the grove, for people from the village and the occasional visitor to watch the birds display. But today, the forest creatures we can see play more prosaic roles: food and pets. A young man carrying a cuscus, or natul in Tauba, approaches me and my husband Ethan, who is along as photographer and translator. As Ethan points his camera at the small mammal, it makes a bold leap from its keeper’s arms to Ethan’s leg, attempting to bite his thigh and provoking an eruption of laughter from the people standing in the hot sun. It also distracts Pasip, whose relatives in the village have finally convinced him to accept that the birds won’t be visible for hours.

“We walk around and come back,” Pasip says. As we leave the village, the drooping leaves of shoulder-high pandanus trees (Pandanus amaryllifolius) rustle against each other in the wind, making a sound like rain. This village, and the patch of forest where the birds-of-paradise take up nightly residence, is part of a vast network of protected land on this high plateau. For decades, community leaders like Pasip and others across the plateau led fraught discussions about how to protect the area. Many community members wanted to continue their traditional land-use practices and to protect the birds-of-paradise and other rare species. But they saw an urgent need to earn money for school fees and medical expenses.

For 32 years, community leaders debated whether to lease their lands for logging, gold mining, and oil palm plantations, or to conserve it, restricting many of these destructive uses. Finally in 2017, the community leaders voted in favor of conservation, and the government of Papua New Guinea declared 360,000 hectares of the plateau—nearly its entire reach—as a legally designated Conservation Area. The move blocked mining, large-scale logging, and other activities that threaten its biodiversity, but allows sustainable agriculture and limited construction of roads and other necessary infrastructure. It was a rare conservation success story in a region increasingly shaped by the twin forces of resource extraction and climate change, and it offered a unique model of local, community-driven conservation.

But now, nearly a year after the designation, leaders like Pasip are still grappling with the future of conservation on the plateau. For the decision to last and to mean anything, they will need to find a way to connect their community to a market for their cash crops, and to provide access to medical care, or risk having the residents turn against the conservation area and its inherent restrictions.

In short, they have to figure out how, in Pasip’s words, “conservation can build us a road.”

The Managalas Plateau occupies a remote corner of Papua New Guinea’s northeast coast; high mountains guard it on three sides and to the north, steep walls of jungle drop to the sea. Several colonial-era airstrips have fallen into disrepair, so the main way to reach the plateau these days is to follow a winding road from the provincial capital of Popondetta for five hours to reach the nearest edge of the conservation area. At first, the road out of Popondetta is remarkably unblemished by the potholes and fractures that have become typical of Papua New Guinean highways, as it passes through oil palm plantations and enormous logging operations that have chewed into the coastal forests.

But where the road to Managalas splits from the main highway, it disintegrates quickly into a rust-colored dirt track cut by tire-deep ruts. When it rains, this becomes little more than a mudslide. The road climbs steeply past a succession of villages, through low-lying jungle that bears the marks of heavy cultivation and up the vertical walls of the plateau’s edge, where hornbills fly out into the open air, making their grunting calls. Once on the lower reaches of the plateau, the jungle opens to reveal stretches of sunny kunai, native grasslands that offer a home to a distinctive community of birds, insects, and mammals.

The jungle then closes its green ranks once again, as the road makes its rough way through a succession of braided rivers that periodically flood and change course, taking the road with them; in this mid-elevation forest, the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterfly (Ornithoptera alexandrae), the largest in the world, makes its home. The butterfly, whose wings can span the length of a human’s forearm, has gradually disappeared from other parts of Oro Province, as its habitat makes way for oil palms and logging roads.

Finally, the road reaches Afore, a government station and town on the eastern edge of the plateau. Several dozen houses and gardens sit at the edge of a large grassy opening, an abandoned airstrip cut during the British Empire’s brief occupation of the plateau before independence. Here, the bustle and high rises of Papua New Guinea’s capitol, Port Moresby, and the new towns near Popondetta that vast oil palm development has funded, seem immeasurably far away.

On a clear evening in September, brahminy kites (Haliastur indus), birds of prey that are a common sight in the region, fly high arcs across the sky, and the dark-winged bat hawk (Macheiramphus alcinus) hunts above the airstrip. A last, cacophonous chorus of cockatoos, parrots, orioles, friarbirds, and more rises from grassy clumps and from trees at the edge of the clearing. Small farms and gardens filled with vegetables and flowers line the dirt footpaths that crisscross the town. A market every week brings together people from within a few hours’ walk to exchange corn cooked with coconut and bush herbs, greens and sweet potatoes, and betel nuts, known as buai, which people chew as a mild stimulant. Just beyond the market, a small medical center provides residents with basic care, and a daily shuttle in a rickety Land Cruiser takes people to Popondetta for more serious treatment.

In every direction, the plateau’s high peaks, the Owen Stanleys, rise above the cloud bank, cutting into the blue sky. From the town of Afore to those peaks, the road worsens still, and most travel between here and there happens by foot. Villages dot the plateau beyond the road’s terminus, connected by people walking back and forth and by the occasional flight into remote, grassy airstrips. Residents pride themselves on the plateau’s abundant fauna: Allen Allison, a biologist from the University of Hawaii, conducted a pair of field expeditions between 2015 and 2017 and identified a new species of snake in the mountains that edge the plateau’s western side; more new species of amphibians and reptiles likely remain to be identified in the area. Biodiversity surveys conducted by Partners with Melanesians, the Port Moresby-based nonprofit which has backed conservation efforts since its inception, identified a healthy list of forest and grassland dwellers, including the long-beaked echidna, mountain wallabies, the New Guinea harpy eagle, two species of tree kangaroo, and five species of birds-of-paradise—most of them considered threatened or endangered as development in Papua New Guinea continues.

“I don’t like the term protected area. It sounds like you are putting everyone behind a fence.”

— Damien Ase, environmental lawyer 

While the swath of forest from Afore to the mountains is overflowing with some of Papua New Guinea’s rarest species, it is far from uninhabited by humans: As in the vast majority of Papua New Guinea, nearly every square foot of the plateau is owned by members of 152 different clans—kinship units that form the plateau’s governance structure. There is nearly no “empty” land in Papua New Guinea, which has been continuously inhabited for some 50,000 years and is one of the oldest agricultural areas anywhere in the world. All land, from the market center in Afore to the “big bush” at the tops of the far peaks, is held in a traditional ownership system that dictates its use and prevents its easy sale.

The conservation area is not intended to bring an end to residents’ longstanding ownership and practices, including farming and hunting. “I don’t like the term protected area,” says Damien Ase, an environmental lawyer born on the plateau who is one of the conservation movement’s primary leaders. “It sounds like you are putting everyone behind a fence.”

As Pasip and I walk down the rough road away from the birds-of-paradise’ patch of jungle toward Afore, he describes the patchwork of land uses that blanket the plateau. “This is my land down to the river,” he says, looking out at the half-mile wide sweep of grassland, edged by forested hills. Beside it is his brother’s land, stretching back the way we came. He points out a particular tree far away on the skyline, with vines dangling off it. That marks the far boundary of the land he holds, as well as a sacred site, where his ancestors are buried. That area, and areas like it, are considered tambu, or forbidden, and are off limits to all uses. In some cases, people don’t even enter them except for ceremonial purposes. It’s part of the plateau’s traditional land management system, which designates a use for nearly each parcel of land: market places, home sites, garden plots where people grow their food, territory where people hunt cuscus and tree kangaroos for meat, and tambu areas.

Those practices have loosened over the past several decades. The plateau’s population is growing rapidly, doubling in the decades since Papua New Guinea’s 1977 independence to roughly 22,000—many of whom are under the age of 30. As the youth population grows and traditional beliefs change, prohibitions on how to use tambu lands, which are the highest priority to conserve, weaken, too. Increasingly younger plateau residents see them as part of their gardening and hunting areas, as well potential sources of tourism dollars.

“They are making gardens in places they were not making gardens before, because of the population,” says Ase. In response, the Managalas Conservation Foundation plans to build a traditional learning center, where senior members of the community will teach younger ones about traditional cultural and land-use practices, reinforcing the need to protect tambu lands. Surveyors employed by the Managalas Conservation Foundation are beginning to map current land use patterns, with the intention of formalizing them and limiting expansion. And the foundation has begun difficult conversations about family planning to slow the plateau’s rapid population growth and reduce the need to continue creating new gardens.

If the conservation area can’t meet the needs of that growing population, it risks falling apart. The process to designate the conservation area splintered the plateau. The more remote western reaches, where Ase and many of the effort’s leaders come from, were overwhelmingly in support of the effort. But in the east, which has a larger and rapidly increasing population, the idea of locking up more land wasn’t widely embraced. In 2016, government representatives in one of the plateau’s eastern districts filed a petition with the federal government to halt any consideration of a conservation area on the plateau. Today, threats of a lawsuit still linger.

“The designation of the Managalas is the first step,” says Rune Paulsen, the Papua New Guinea coordinator for the Rainforest Foundation Norway, which helped fund the push for the conservation area beginning in 1996.

The conservation area is governed by a group of community leaders selected from the clan groups and the different regions of the plateau. “We have been entrusted to manage the forest,” says Malchus Kajia, the chairman of the Managalas Conservation Foundation. He is trained as a pastor and sees caring for the plateau as a religious duty. “People see the forest as being the life.” These leaders are tasked with addressing their regions’ concerns, which have centered on the precarious condition of the road that leads onto the plateau, and the lack of a cash economy without palm oil or another major industry. If those concerns aren’t addressed, people may choose to ignore restrictions on garden-building, logging, or other uses; the designation could even be revoked if the situation significantly worsens. A year into the project, Kajia says, “I am anxious.”

Community leaders have turned to unusual tactics to maintain people’s faith. A theater troupe, led by a local performer, travels the plateau and puts on plays about conservation, the environment, and biodiversity. And youth leaders host World Environment Days, where they teach community members about environmental concerns and write poems about the plateau’s non-human inhabitants, including the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterfly and the Raggiana bird-of-paradise.

To address the economic concerns, community leaders are working to develop a market for the plateau’s cash crops. They hope this will ease the desire to convert more forest into farmland and satisfy the need for better revenue streams that could be used to fund road repairs and other community projects. It’s a bold move, and a risky one: Residents are wary of plans that would rely on fluctuating global markets. In the 1980s, a project to cultivate the almond-like okari nut was profitable for a few years. Then “the good market in Port Moresby just turned off,” says Edrick Ninimiro, Ase’s brother and a local government representative. Today, vanilla is on the rise. Though it’s sold for 2,000 kina (roughly $700) per kilo in Jayapur, on the plateau the price is much lower, says June Toneba, an MCF board member. Some farmers are beginning to plant vanilla now, but they’re wary of committing too much time and land to the crop.

Still, many continue to place their hope on another cash crop: coffee, which has been grown on the plateau for 60 years. Pasip has worked in coffee production most of his life, as a quality control inspector and farm manager, and as we walk the road that bisects the plateau, he points out overgrown coffee and cacao plantations. The cacao is ripening and hangs from branches in heavy, red-purple pods. In the coffee plots, just a few red berries dot the bushes; the big harvest is still several months out. At each farm, people mention the road: Without a more reliable way off the plateau, these crops offer them little in terms of cash.

What the area’s leaders intend to fend off is the enormous extractive and agricultural projects that have left deep scars on other corners of the country. In the Highlands, for example, a massive liquefied natural gas pipeline operated by Exxon has led to the clearing of entire hillsides and sparked widespread violence, cutting off access to healthcare and threatening the stability of the Western Highlands province. In Collingwood Bay, east of Managalas, large swaths of low-lying forest have fallen to logging operations, which are currently fighting complaints in the courts that the timber, most of which will likely be exported to China, was harvested illegally.

In Managalas, the primary threat is oil palm, which multinational corporations cultivate in enormous plantations that replace tropical forest and displace Papua New Guineans from their land. Western energy policies that pushed the use of palm oil for bio fuels, as a way to lower carbon emissions, have caused a massive boom in its cultivation. Once heralded as a potential tool for fighting climate change, oil palm is now one of the primary driving forces in deforestation worldwide, along with beef, soy, and timber; globally, more than 16 million hectares (60,000 square miles) are now being used for palm oil production. A New York Times investigation found that clearcutting for oil palm cultivation made Indonesia the fourth-largest emitter of carbon worldwide. In nearby Popondetta, oil palm plantations have swept over much of the landscape. “(People) no longer follow their traditional practices,” says Ase. “Most of the arable land is now covered by oil palm and they can’t grow their traditional food. They mostly rely on the store food.”

In Managalas, local leaders have fought for decades to avert a similar outcome and to maintain their sovereignty, either by negotiating fair compensation for logging and oil palm leases or by shutting out development. In villages here, Partners with Melanesians facilitated forest assessments, sending residents into the forest to gather samples of every plant, animal, and natural object they made use of. In the village center, the communities would lay these out and calculate what it would cost to instead buy each thing in the store, to assess what a reasonable cash compensation would be and to put a dollar value on conserving lands; if they had instead chosen to lease their lands for palm oil cultivation, these calculations would have informed the price of a lease. And with money from the Rainforest Foundation Norway, Partners with Melanesians flew community leaders to Sarawak, Borneo, where clearcutting for oil palm and wood products has left just 5 percent of the original forest standing and facilitated widespread corruption and human-rights abuses.

This proved instrumental in the decision to conserve the area. Most clan leaders wanted to avoid becoming reliant on cash payouts and on stores. “They want to have ownership of their own land, own resources,” Pasip says, so “nobody comes and becomes the owner and the landowners become laborers.”

Under the designation, small-scale agriculture is allowed, including the cultivation of cacao, vanilla, and coffee. Cultivation is restricted to garden plots and other heavier use areas, with hunting areas and tambu areas set aside for habitat. Partners with Melanesians is beginning to train rangers, hired from within the plateau’s villages, to patrol and cite people for cutting down forests or otherwise violating the conservation agreement.

“If people don’t follow those rules, they’ll be penalized with fees and other things,” says Ase. But he’s wary of enforcement that’s too restrictive on how people use their own land. “We don’t want to create conflicts between us and local people.”

Kenn Mondiai, of Partners with Melanesians, estimates upwards of 900 tons of coffee could come off the plateau annually. If they can sell it for a high enough price to specialty coffee producers, this amount of coffee could produce the revenue that plateau residents need. Mondiai and others hope to allay fears about market fluctuations by finding a partner outside the country who is interested in a steady supply of high-quality coffee beans. But right now, the price for a kilo of coffee on the plateau sits between two to four kina, about $1.20. And even if they could get a higher price in Popondetta or Port Moresby, the condition of the road prevents them from reliably taking the crop to market.

If coffee fails, conservation leaders are discussing other options: The state has proposed stocking local lakes with tilapia to ease some of the need for outside protein sources like tinned beef. Some villages with bird-of-paradise leks or butterfly breeding areas hope to draw local and foreign tourists, making cash off guesthouses and tours. For the more remote villages, there’s discussion of developing a trail, called the Ghost Mountain Trek, that would follow the path that members of the U.S. 32nd Division took during World War II. The Kokoda Trek, which follows an Australian war march, has grown in popularity over the past several decades and some believe its success could be replicated on Managalas. But like so many things here, this, too, depends on a more reliable road.

If they are able to find a way to find a way for residents to make money, without clearing their forest or giving up their traditional ways of life, it would be a huge win for the plateau, as well as for the country. “There is the potential for it to be extraordinary,” says Paige West, an anthropologist who wrote the book Conservation is Our Government Now, which chronicles the collapse of another conservation area in Papua New Guinea. Several other large-scale conservation projects, led by international NGOs, have splintered after failing to maintain relationships with local leaders. Local groups have led small-scale conservation projects, but Managalas Conservation Area would be the largest of its kind anywhere in the country. “You have local folks saying, ‘We’re going to do this and it’s going to be big,” says West. “Something this large, this is exciting to me. I’d really like to see this work.”

In the still-harsh early evening light, we return to the village where the Raggiana birds-of-paradise display. Pasip stands at the edge of a grove of coconut trees and stares intently into the jungle beyond. Villagers cluster around us, all of us quietly waiting. After a few minutes, a male flies in, its rusty red feathers mostly hidden in the deep green of the tree tops, followed by another male and then, a few minutes later, a female. Birds-of-paradise are closely related to crows, and the slightly hooked beak and long face of one male is visible in a gap between branches, silhouetted against the pale, dusk sky.

In a window of sky formed by the branches, one of the males begins to dance, flipping upside down, shaking its elaborate curtain of feathers as if to dry them, righting itself momentarily, and then dipping down again. We have only one pair of binoculars and we quietly and urgently pass them around, from Pasip to one villager and then another and finally to me. As I raise them to my eyes, the bird flips its rump feathers up once more and then hops deeper into the bush. In the impatient quiet after it disappears, its clanging call splits the air.

We turn to leave as darkness falls. Walking along the road back to the guest house, Pasip explains that he rarely leaves the plateau. “There are just seven people representing the 22,000 people on the plateau,” he says, including him and Toneba. Each week, he has to sit down with landowners to sort out boundary disputes, to explain once again what the conservation area is intended to do, to discuss concerns over gardening and the visitors who come to see the rich biodiversity here. Others may be tired, he says, but he keeps going. “It’s the first year of the conservation…. It’s not the end.” He falls silent and stares at the road beneath our feet. Lightning bugs dance in the air above the high grasses that line the road and the sound of the cicadas forms a howl in the night; from the darkness, a Papuan boobook (Ninox theomacha)—New Guinea’s omnipresent jungle owl—calls. “In two, three years’ time, if the gods allow, you’ll be back here,” he says. By then, he hopes, the road forward will be much clearer, his community’s progress along it much surer.

Kate Schimel

Kate Schimel writes about the intersection of people and the natural world, as well as education and technology. She is based in Seattle, where she leads coverage of the Northwest for High Country News. Her work has appeared in Mother Jones,Chalkbeat, Seattle Magazineand Catalyst Chicago, among others.

Ethan Linck

Ethan Linck is a freelance writer and photographer based inSeattle, where he is also a PhDcandidate in the Department of Biology at University of Washington. His research focuses on the evolution and genetics of mountain birds, particularly in New Guinea. You can find him on Twitter at @ethanblinck.

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