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Big damage in Papua New Guinea: new film documents how industrial logging destroys lives

 Douglas cutting tree in Papua New Guinea. Photo by: David Fedele.
Douglas cutting tree in Papua New Guinea. Photo by: David Fedele.


In one scene a young man, perhaps not long ago a boy, named Douglas stands shirtless and in shorts as he runs a chainsaw into a massive tropical tree. Prior to this we have already heard from an official how employees operating chainsaws must have a bevy of protective equipment as well as training, but in Papua New Guinea these are just words. The reality is this: Douglas straining to pull the chainsaw out of the tree as it begins to fall while his fellow employees flee the tumbling giant.



The new film Bikpela Bagarap (‘Big Damage’) documents the impact of industrial logging on the lives of local people in Papua New Guinea. Filmed over three months by one guerrilla filmmaker&#8212David Fedele&#8212using a simple handheld camera, the movie shows with startling intimacy how massive corporations, greedy government, and consumption abroad have conspired to ruin lives in places like Vanimo, Papua New Guinea.


“The whole industry is corrupt from the highest level downwards. The entire system is broken, and people have no other choice than to participate in this system—it is basically an unregulated industry,” Fedele told mongabay.com in a recent interview.



The corruption starts at the beginning, when tribal groups sign over land for logging without being able to read the documents they are signing while being told little more than sign this and we’ll pay you.



David Fedele making his film in Papua New Guinea. Photo courtesy of: David Fedele.

“The local landowners have no idea about the value of their trees—so when a company comes in and offers them a little bit of money, or even offers to pay them with other things such as water tanks or roads or houses, most of the time they just jump at the offer and sign whatever is put in front of them,” Fedele says.



Then what the locals call ‘The Company’&#8212in this case a corporation known as WTK Realty&#8212takes over the community. While the forest is destroyed, Fedele says the logging company takes advantage of locals by paying them pittance for their work while making sure they run all the businesses in town.



“[The company] owns the only supermarket, the hotel, the gaming machines and control the fuel and shipping. Local people are treated like slaves in their own country, made to work long hours for little money. […] So people try to get money in whatever way that they can. Violent crime is a huge and increasing problem, particularly related to alcohol and marijuana. Prostitution is a big problem, and AIDS is an issue that not many people are aware of, but is increasing at a great rate.”



As societal ills expand, the natural resources, on which the locals have depended for centuries, are destroyed for raw logs to be shipped to China and then processed, likely into furniture.



“I wouldn’t say having natural resources is a curse in itself—it’s the exploitation and greed of the modern world that is the curse,” Fedele says.


Bikpela Bagarap can be watched in two versions free online. The first is ‘more cinematic’ and runs 47 minutes, while the second is ‘more journalistic’, running nearly 24 minutes. Fedele urges people to sit-down and watch: “If you are interested in the world that you live in, and care about the environment and the welfare of your fellow human beings, watch this film to see how we are creating an unsustainable future through corruption and greed, and destroying the culture and lives of indigenous communities in the process.”



In an August 2011 interview David Fedele discusses his documentary Bikpela Bagarap, including the systemic corruption in forestry in Papua New Guinea, the impact on communities, and possible solutions.



To contact David Fedele: david@david-fedele.com
To see Fedele’s website: www.david-fedele.com




INTERVIEW WITH DAVID FEDELE







Boy at Pai Pai: some of the most tragic victims of the logging crisis in Papua New Guinea are the next generation. Photo by: David Fedele.





Mongabay: Can you give us some background on the history of logging in Papua New Guinea?



David Fedele: My film is set in Vanimo, Sandaun Province, is one of the most remote provinces in Papua New Guinea. In 1967 and 1968, while Papua New Guinea was under the administration of Australia, the first logging agreements and permits between the state and customary landowners were signed, for a period of 40 years. All of these agreements were written in English, and with such high levels of illiteracy, most (if not all) locals were just forced to sign documents that they did not understand.



In 1975, Papua New Guinea was granted Independence from Australia. In 1984, the Papua New Guinea Government issued a permit under the existing agreements to Australian company Bunnings Brothers, and logging commenced.



In 1990, Bunnings Brothers sold their logging operation to Malaysian company WTK Realty in extremely controversial circumstances, without the knowledge or consent of customary landowners. Large protests in Vanimo followed, but to no avail. WTK were already in Sandaun Province operating in a separate logging area, and they just increased their existing operation.



While logging under these existing agreements, WTK obviously saw and realized the potential to continue and expand their logging operation deeper into the forest. Hand in hand with the State of Papua New Guinea, new agreements with customary landowners have been signed over the past 30 years, and logging permits continue to be issued.


Mongabay: What companies are logging in the area you documented?




Vanimo is located on the north western coast of Papua New Guinea, near the border with Indonesia’s Papua province, where logging is also rife. Click image to enlarge.

David Fedele: This is very difficult question to answer, as the identity of most of the companies running the operations is shrouded in mystery. However, it is commonly acknowledged that most of the major logging operations are run by Malaysian-owned companies, but there is also suspected involvement with Indonesian-owned companies and also local Papua New Guinea businessmen.



The main logging operation is run by WTK Realty, which is a Malaysian company, and they have been operating in Sandaun Province since 1990 under the name “Vanimo Forest Products”. WTK Realty is closely linked to Malaysian logging giant Rimbunan Hijau, but I don’t have any evidence that they are operating in Sandaun Province.



The local people have absolutely no idea of who is actually doing the logging—they just refer to all of the different companies as “The Company”.




Mongabay: How are these companies taking advantage of locals?



David Fedele: In every possible and conceivable way&#8212too many to respond to here. My film Bikpela Bagarap hopefully reveals some of the ways in which the local people are being exploited.


Mongabay: Your shots of the logging basecamp reveal terrible and dangerous living conditions for locals as opposed to Malaysian employees. Were you surprised?



David Fedele: I wasn’t surprised, as I had heard about what was going on in these logging camps, but I was still shocked and saddened to see with my own eyes how the local people were being treated like second-rate citizens in their own country.


Mongabay: How did you get access to logging operations?



David Fedele: I just risked it and entered. The only roads leading to the logging operations were roads built by the logging companies for their own operations. So from Vanimo town, I would just jump in the back of a logging company vehicle with the local workers and village people, and go with them to the camps. When I arrived at the logging camps, the security guards were always local workers that were being unfairly treated by the company, so once I explained my project to them, I was always welcomed inside the camp. I just tried to keep as low a profile as possible! I was in Papua New Guinea alone making this film, and just with a small hand-held camera, so that helped.


Mongabay: Given that it appears the logging companies do not pay locals enough for food, clothes, and children’s school fees, how else do people get money?



Man with chainsaw. Photo by: David Fedele.

David Fedele: Vanimo has now become almost a “one company” town. They own the only supermarket, the hotel, the gaming machines and control the fuel and shipping. Local people are treated like slaves in their own country, made to work long hours for little money. Local people sell things on the side of the road and in the market, but most of the time can’t compete against the supermarket.



So people try to get money in whatever way that they can. Violent crime is a huge and increasing problem, particularly related to alcohol and marijuana. Prostitution is a big problem, and AIDS is an issue that not many people are aware of, but is increasing at a great rate. People just try to get money whatever way they can.



Mongabay: One of the people you film asks the big question: ‘All of our resources have gone, but where is our money?’ Can you answer that question?



David Fedele: The money goes straight into the pockets of the companies that are running the logging operations, and the corrupt politicians and local businessmen that facilitate the logging. The Forestry Department is supposed to be acting in the best interests of the local communities, but corruption, bribery and collusion ensures that the same logging companies continue to be awarded new logging permits.



The local landowners have no idea about the value of their trees—so when a company comes in and offers them a little bit of money, or even offers to pay them with other things such as water tanks or roads or houses, most of the time they just jump at the offer and sign whatever is put in front of them.



A lot of the time, whatever money they are given is spent irresponsibly by only the men of the village, and most of the time it is the women and children that go without. Then before long they realize that all the trees have gone, they have spent all of their money, none of the services they were promised have been provided, and their environment has been destroyed…and there is nothing they can do about it.


Mongabay: Would you say Papua New Guinea is suffering from a ‘resource curse’?



David Fedele: I don’t think having natural resources is a curse in itself. Up until recently the indigenous population have lived in total harmony with their natural resources and their environment. It was when the Australian government realized the value of these resources in dollar terms that it became a potential curse, and now that big business and corrupt politicians are involved, it is absolutely a curse. But I wouldn’t say having natural resources is a curse in itself—it’s the exploitation and greed of the modern world that is the curse.


Mongabay: What products are these logs being made into?



David Fedele: The main timber logged in Sandaun Province is called kwila, which is commonly known as merbau. This is an extremely hard and strong timber, and is in great demand worldwide, but particularly in Australia and New Zealand. Over 60 percent percent of all kwila/merbau logged from Papua New Guinea ends up in Australia and New Zealand as outdoor furniture and timber decking.


Mongabay: What do you see as solutions to this ‘big damage’?



Local cutting tree up. Photo by: David Fedele.

David Fedele: It is a very complex issue. The most common response to this is one of two things—the logging companies should be forced to leave Papua New Guinea, or countries should stop importing this timber (which would force the companies to leave). But personally I don’t think this is the best long-term solution at all.



Though it makes me extremely sad to see that traditional cultures and ways of life have disappeared in little more than a generation, it is too naïve to think that if the company packed up their operations and left Papua New Guinea, all of the local people would go back to their traditional life back in their villages living off the land. The logging companies have created a situation where the local people are totally dependent on them for employment, transport and money, so I do not believe that the logging companies just leaving Papua New Guinea is the answer. This would leave people with an absolute dependence on money, but no way in which to obtain this money.



It is also naïve to say that all logging should be immediately stopped in Papua New Guinea. We live in a world where there is a demand for exotic timber, and Papua New Guinea happens to be rich in this resource. But logging MUST be undertaken in a sustainable way, and the local people must benefit from these natural resources on their land.



At the moment, Papua New Guinea is one of the only countries in the world that still allows the export of raw logs, which means logs put straight on a ship and processed in China, rather than being processed in Papua New Guinea. This is banned in most other parts of the world, and should be banned in Papua New Guinea. Processing logs in Papua New Guinea would create many more opportunities for local employment and opportunities, rather than outsourcing cheaper labour in Asia.



There are lots of opportunities for local Papua New Guineans to harvest their own trees using mobile saw mills, but unfortunately many of these operations have been unsuccessful due to lack of appropriate training or business skills.



There are thousands of dramatic improvements that should and must be made, and ways that the logging industry could be improved, but the basic principle is that the people of Papua New Guinea, who own this natural resource, should be the ones that actually benefit from it.



But basically the whole industry is corrupt from the highest level downwards. The entire system is broken, and people have no other choice than to participate in this system—it is basically an unregulated industry.



Local loggers. Photo by: David Fedele.

I put the whole blame and responsibility on the Papua New Guinea Government. They have a duty to act for the people, on behalf of the people. The logging companies are the ones that are physically causing all of the problems, but they are only operating within a system that allows them to do basically whatever they want.



It is disgusting to think that a country so rich in natural resources, has become so poor. And the Government of Papua New Guinea not only allows this to happen, but also facilitates it.




Mongabay: What would you say to convince people to watch your film?



David Fedele: If you are interested in the world that you live in, and care about the environment and the welfare of your fellow human beings, watch this film to see how we are creating an unsustainable future through corruption and greed, and destroying the culture and lives of indigenous communities in the process.





bikpela bagarap from David Fedele on Vimeo.




Logging ship at port. Photo by: David Fedele.






Loading logging truck. Photo by: David Fedele.








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