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Papua New Guinea activist receives prestigious award for protecting forests

  • In a statement, the Alexander Soros Foundation said that it had given the annual award to Pavol “for his courage and commitment to protecting his community’s land and forests from the illegal and aggressive operations of one of the world’s largest logging companies.”
  • Industrial logging is the main driver of forest degradation in the country — and “the majority of timber production in PNG is illegal in some way,” according to a 2014 report by Chatham House.
  • Since 2010, Pavol has been defending the rainforests in his home district of Pomio against the operations of Malaysian conglomerate Rimbunan Hijau, which is responsible for a third of all PNG log exports.

Paul Palosualrea Pavol of New Britain Island, Papua New Guinea (PNG) has won the Alexander Soros Foundation’s Award for Environmental and Human Rights Activism.

In a statement, the Alexander Soros Foundation said that it had given the annual award to Pavol “for his courage and commitment to protecting his community’s land and forests from the illegal and aggressive operations of one of the world’s largest logging companies.”

Since 2010, Pavol has been defending the rainforests in his home district of Pomio against the operations of Malaysian conglomerate Rimbunan Hijau, which is responsible for a third of all PNG log exports.

It’s been estimated that 85 percent of people in PNG live off of what they can grow or collect from forests, rivers, and the sea.

“For many generations, my community has farmed, fished and hunted in the forests of Pomio, all while keeping them healthy and standing,” Pavol said in a statement. “In only a few years, RH has clear cut many of these forests, leaving behind a desert in their place. As a result, we’re starting to lose our customs, our culture and our traditions. We know that this is an uphill battle, but fighting is the chance we have to hold on to our way of life.”

Conversion of forests to agricultural land has become a significant issue in PNG in recent years, but industrial logging is the main driver of forest degradation in the country, according to a 2014 report by Chatham House. The London-based NGO determined that illegal logging practices are widespread in PNG, and even went so far as to say that, given the available information, it appears “the majority of timber production in PNG is illegal in some way.”

Most of PNG’s timber is exported as logs to China, the report states, while a “very small” amount of PNG’s exports are bound for Europe and the U.S., though even that amount is declining amidst concerns about illegal logging and stricter import controls.

Logging operations by RH in the area of Pomio, New Britain, PNG. On 03 of September of 2016. Photo by Fábio Erdos.

Pavol’s efforts to protect the rainforests in his home district have been met with threats to both his person and his reputation, while he and his fellow protesters have faced intimidation and violence at the hands of police stationed in logging camps, the Alexander Soros Foundation reports. In 2015, backers of an oil palm project even went so far as to obtain a restraining order against Pavol that effectively banned him from moving about his own village.

“Oppressed by the police, abandoned by his government, and equipped with limited resources and little recourse, Paul has put his safety and security on the line to lead a five-year campaign to save his community’s rightful land,” Alex Soros, founder of the Alexander Soros Foundation, said in a statement. “In fighting to protect his community’s land for years with little hope in sight, Paul did not set out to become a hero. He simply wanted to ensure that his family, friends and fellow citizens were able to survive.”

Since 2011, Rimbunan Hijau has exported timber worth around $70 million harvested from Pavol’s community in Pomio alone. But Rimbunan Hijau is just one of many companies felling PNG’s forests at the expense of local communities.

From 2002 to 2011, the PNG government handed out over 50,000 square kilometers (about 19,300 square miles) of land, most of which belonged to indigenous communities, using a mechanism known as a Special Agriculture and Business Lease (SABL) that was originally created to promote agricultural development. London and Washington, D.C.-based NGO Global Witness analyzed official PNG export data and found that almost 40 percent of timber exports under SABLs through 2014 came from leases that an official government inquiry had concluded were issued illegally and should be revoked or suspended.

Global Witness also found that some 91 percent of the timber felled in PNG is imported by China, where it is turned into furniture, hardwood flooring, plywood, and other wood products. The group has called on the PNG government to cancel all logging permits found to have been issued illegally, and said that China should require businesses importing wood from PNG to ensure that they are not buying timber produced in violation of PNG law in order to help the country tackle illegal logging.

“The story of Paul’s ‘David and Goliath’ struggle against Rimbunan Hijau is only one example of the many struggles playing out across PNG’s forest frontier,” Alex Soros said. Major timber importers like China are fueling the environmental and humanitarian crisis in PNG by willingly purchasing illicit wood from the country, he added.

“Responsible timber traders and buyers must ensure they can trace their timber back to the forest, and avoid timber associated with the abuses that Paul and his community have bravely spoken out against,” Soros said.

“My community depends on our land and forests for our survival, and I cannot stand by and watch it be permanently destroyed,” Pavol said. “I have no choice but to stand up and raise my voice because if we do not defend our land, no one will. We started this fight in 2010, and I am not going to stop until there is justice and our land is safe. I am thankful that the Alexander Soros Foundation has recognized me for this award, and I hope that this moment is a major turning point in our fight.”

Paul Pavol (43) on a boat ride on the Wala River on the way to Tavolo on the island of New britain, PNG. 02 of September of 2016. Photo by Fábio Erdos.