Inroads to logging

PNG hosts some 7 percent of the world’s biodiversity and contains a vast swath of the third-largest tropical rainforest in the world, after the Amazon and the Congo Basin. It is also one of the world’s most mineral-rich nations, with deposits of copper, silver and gold, and has substantial reserves of oil and gas. However, the country remains one of the poorest in the Pacific, with widespread illiteracy and malnutrition.

Aiming to harness the country’s natural wealth to spur development, the government’s 2018-2022 “Medium-Term Development Plan” envisions expanding PNG’s road network from 8,740 kilometers (5,430 miles) of road to 12,000 kilometers (7,456 miles) in just five years.

This rapid expansion falls within an “economic corridor” concept that touts the development of infrastructure like roads, bridges and airports as the way to alleviate poverty in disconnected rural areas. In the introduction to the development plan, Prime Minister Peter O’Neill says his government aims to grow internal revenue by 50 percent.

“To facilitate this economic sector stimulus, we are investing in key enabling infrastructures,” the plan reads. “We will construct five new national highways and missing road links to unlock the vast economic potential of our country.”

Map from the PNG Medium Term Development Plan showing planned road-building projects (click to view larger image).

For John Chitoa, director of the local nonprofit organization Bismarck Ramu Group, the government’s economic strategy and “missing link” road expansion is being undertaken purely to allow extractive industries into resource-rich areas.

“They are basically highways for the government into these areas,” he says, adding that on-the-ground research by BRG has concluded that the government will combine the corridor concept with special agricultural business leases (SABLs) to extract both land and resources.

The controversial SABLs, initially distributed mostly to foreign companies to undertake large agricultural projects, have been linked to illegal logging, government corruption and human rights abuses of local indigenous landowners.

According to a study by the U.S.-based Oakland Institute on illegal logging in PNG, SABLs have been systematically used by many foreign logging companies to expedite access to land purely for deforestation. Due to the SABL framework, the study says, PNG has experienced a sharp increase both in logging and timber exports, making it “the second-largest exporter of tropical logs in the world, after Malaysia.”

Although the government has launched official investigations into SABL abuses, little has actually been done to roll back the number of leases.

For Chitoa and BRG, the government’s lack of action on SABLs and its continued push toward integrating the country via the economic corridors points to only one conclusion: “The reason why they are using this [is] to grab land, it’s a land-grabbing mechanism for the government.” Chitoa adds that although roads are vital to PNG’s future economic development, the current plan by the government, funded largely by foreign interests, is not the way forward.

Officials from PNG’s Department Of Works did not respond to repeated requests for comment by Mongabay on the issue.

Splitting the forest

International experts on infrastructure development are also concerned about the specifics of the road expansion strategy.

“You cannot deny the necessity of building roads in PNG. They should build new roads, but some of these roads should not happen according to the current plan,” says Mohammed Alamgir, an environmental scientist from Australia’s James Cook University, who is currently working to map infrastructure projects in Southeast Asia.

Alamgir says the government must revise planned routes due to the number of ecologically important areas that the roads will bisect.

“They have a number of high-priority conservation areas, and [new roads] will crisscross most of these,” he says. Building roads through forests fragments ecosystems and also opens previously isolated areas to a host of secondary impacts like logging, poaching and human settlement.

“The rates of deforestation that PNG has experienced over the last few years, all of [these] deforestation rates are high near roads,” Alamgir says. This is a trend that can’t be ignored, he says.

Of particular concern, Alamgir says, are planned “missing link” sections traversing the country’s Western province, which hosts the rainforests of Kamula Doso.

A 2014 report by the University of Papua New Guinea’s Remote Sensing Centre identifies Kamula Doso as “the largest remaining intact block of lowland rainforest in PNG.” It is also facing multiple threats. Officials have already made at least three attempts to grant companies rights to the forest: in the form of a logging concession to Malaysian timber giant Rimbunan Hijau (a deal halted by the courts in 2008); a 2008 carbon-credit deal awarded to local firm Nupan Trading; and a 2009 SABL granted to New Zealand-based Tumu Timber.

The majority of skilled work along the road upgrade is undertaken by Chinese nationals from the China Harbour Engineering Company. Members of local communities are employed as manual labourers and sign holders along the route. Image by Camilo Mejia Giraldo for Mongabay.

Beyond the environment

Whether traveling on the country’s flat lowland roads or the steep, winding routes of the highlands, it is clear not only how much PNG needs to expand its existing network, but also how degraded its current roads are.

Maintenance of infrastructure in PNG, as with many other countries in the Pacific, is an ongoing issue. Beyond natural impacts like heavy rains, roads suffer from a lack of funding and accountability, compounded by widespread corruption.

For these reasons, Alamgir says, the priority of the national government should not be to expand its existing roads but focus first on maintaining them.

“What is the rationale of building new roads when you can’t maintain the current roads you have?” he says.

“Some of these areas [in PNG] have extremely dangerous landslides during the rainy season, and the maintenance costs of these [new] roads will be extremely high. It’s a reality that [the government] don’t have that kind of capacity to maintain these roads,” he says.

To tackle the lack of funding, PNG has turned to China. According to international media reports, PNG has already taken on $1.5 billion in concessional loans from China, which has also committed a further $4 billon to the road network. In June, PNG became the first Pacific nation to sign up to China’s One Belt, One Road initiative — a massive infrastructure project of railroads, ports and roads, among other projects, slated to span some 70 countries at a cost of up to $8 trillion.

The combination of a growing Chinese influence has local critics worried.

Members of the communities along the Kundiawa – Gembogl road are employed as the upgrades pass through their areas. Image by Camilo Mejia Giraldo for Mongabay.

“So far, we’ve noticed that there are 27 projects that these [Chinese] loans have been put towards, which total about 2 billion kina,” about $615 million, says BRG director Chitoa. “But there are rumors that this has gone up to 30-40 billion kina already,” about $9.2 billion to $12.3 billion, “which is a lot of money.”

Chitoa says he fears the government will be unable to repay these loans, the terms of which are not made public, landing the country in a debt trap that will ultimately force it to cede land and resources to China. “The trick is that these are loans, the illusion is that this is to develop us, but this is an exploitation plan,” Chitoa says.

It’s a fear based on a real-life precedent. Global debate over China’s “debt-trap diplomacy” came to a head in December 2017 when Sri Lanka, unable to meet its debt repayments to China, was forced to hand over control of a port for a period of 99 years to Beijing.

Even if the financing doesn’t land PNG in fiscal trouble —some regional experts challenge the debt-trap narrative — road development presents a dilemma for critics.

“Of course we see good things here [with development]. Of course the people need roads and bridges, but we are opening up to the outsiders. Looking at our research now, this development path, it is not the path that we want,” Chitoa says.

Positive inroads despite challenges

For the communities in Gembogl district, who have called for the road upgrade for many years, the positives far outweigh the possible negative impacts it may bring.

“When [the upgrade work] is finished, we will be able to increase our share of the market to the rest of the country,” says Yimgin, the local community leader, pointing to the vast crops of bulb onions around his community that feed local towns as well as the country’s capital, Port Moresby.

Yimgin’s community, like 85 percent of PNG’s rural population, relies on subsistence farming for food and income from cash crops, which vary around the country but can include coffee, cacao, onions and the famed areca nut.

Beyond being a route into bigger markets and increased revenue for communities, the road is also seen as a link to government services, such as hospitals and schools, and could allow for industries like ecotourism to flourish.

“With a better road like this, I think there will be improvement in transportation, and it will have flow-on effects,” Yimgin says.

While this particular project will not directly impact a pristine area, Yimgin and the leadership of his community admit that increased traffic and accessibility to the district mean the traditional landowners will still have to be aware of both social and environmental changes.

“That’s something that we need to be very mindful of. You can imagine how many people will be moving, what will be happening through this road. And we cannot know what the positives and the negatives will be,” he says.

One of the communities within Gembogl district that will benefit from the road upgrade. Image by Camilo Mejia Giraldo for Mongabay.

Banner image: Trucks and 4-wheel-drive vehicles are currently the only transport options for communities along the Kundiawa – Gembogl road.

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Article published by Isabel Esterman
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