The facts of the case

Satellite data from the University of Maryland (UMD) visualized on Global Forest Watch show Manus lost nearly 4% of its tree cover between 2001 and 2018. Preliminary data for 2019 indicate deforestation continued at about the same rate this year compared to 2018, intensifying in the project area in the southern part of the island where satellite images show kilometers of new logging roads pushing into the rainforest. Clearance of the forest continued in November and into December, with satellites picking up new areas of deforestation as recently as Dec. 7. The forest cleared since August 2018 — when Maxland first received permission to begin clearcutting — is largely classified as intact, primary forest, according to UMD data. Records and photographs reveal that the timber company has exported several shiploads of the harvested timber. Meanwhile, Lili, along with a number of other sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to concerns about reprisals, worry about the environmental impacts of the project.

The Great Central Forest of Manus Island epitomizes the country’s value as a treasure trove of little-known species — according to one scientist, Manus is “a hotspot within a hotspot.” Also like many parts of Papua New Guinea, Manus’ growing human population and corporations like Maxland looking to access valuable resources have levied a toll on the forest through logging, small- and large-scale agriculture, mining and hunting.

In a country known for staggering numbers of unique plant and animal species, Manus Island still stands apart. Papua New Guinea occupies roughly half of the world’s second-largest island, as well as a smattering of some 600 smaller islands radiating out through the Solomon and Bismarck Seas of the South Pacific. The islands’ habitats range from coral reefs to lowland rainforests to equatorial highlands that have contributed unique species by the dozens to the roll of life on Earth, with many more likely awaiting discovery.

Satellite data from the University of Maryland and visualized on Global Forest Watch shows the extent of primary forest on Manus Island, as well as the boundary of the project area and location of recent logging activity. Source: Turubanova et al., 2018.
Satellite imagery shows the proliferation of logging roads and eventual deforestation around the project site on Manus Island (indicated by the red inset on the map above). Imagery source: Planet Labs.

In 2014, a biodiversity survey carried out by the Wildlife Conservation Society and Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund highlighted the importance of maintaining the intact Great Central forest to protect a number of threatened animals endemic to Manus Island, including a bird called the superb pitta (Pitta superba) and the Manus Island mosaic-tailed rat (Melomys matambuai), both listed as endangered by the IUCN.

In 2016, scientists also just described a species of rat on the island that’s new to science, calling it Rattus detentus. The species name “detentus” refers both to the rat’s isolation and Australia’s recent use of Manus Island to detain asylum seekers. The survey turned up a new species of damselfly and two new species of frog that likely exist only on Manus Island, as well as a bonafide Lazarus species — the Manus woolly bat (Kerivoula myrella) that had last been seen more than a century before the survey.

Hunting by the country’s human residents occurs across Papua New Guinea, as protein sources are often hard to come by. Around the country, several species of cuscus, a cat-size marsupial, are frequently hunted, often because they’re the largest mammals around and are a ready source of protein, especially for communities living away from the coast’s ready access to fish.

An Admiralty cuscus. Image by Anonymous.

Manus has one species of this animal, the Admiralty cuscus, and it’s no exception: It’s been a sustainable source of meat for humans for thousands of years. Without the forest, scientists say, there would be no cuscus. But maintaining what remains of the Great Central Forest, as well as its connectivity, is critical to ensuring the species’ survival under continuous hunting pressure.

With so few large-bodied animals available to hunters, people living in and around the forest could have easily caused the cuscus’ extinction. But a unique practice has helped the species avoid that fate, at least to this point.

The practice of tambu involves the periodic closure of certain areas to hunting. During the open periods, hunting of these tree-dwelling animals is swift and efficient, write WCS ecologist Nathan Whitmore and his colleagues in a 2016 study published in the journal Pacific Conservation Biology. It’s typically enough to wipe out the species in a local area. But when tambu closes off an area to hunting, cuscus are able to move from the surrounding forest into the area once again. As Whitmore and his colleagues pointed out in a subsequent paper, however, this is only possible if the forest habitat remains relatively unbroken. If patches of land have been cleared — as with the rubber project on Manus — surviving cuscus begin to lose their access to areas from which they’d been extirpated.

The permitting process

The results of the biodiversity study, which was supported by Papua New Guinea’s Conservation and Environment Protection Authority (CEPA), first came to light in late 2014, capturing the attention of both the national and international press, and the report itself has been available online since mid-2015. It recommended that the government of Papua New Guinea formally recognize the Great Central Forest because of its importance to biodiversity and work with local communities to keep it standing.

But just a few months later, in August of that year, CEPA signed off on Maxland’s environment permit. Mongabay asked CEPA why the permit had been approved when officials knew about the high biodiversity values in the Great Central Forest and indeed had supported the very study. A CEPA representative responded in an email that “all necessary and due environmental [impact assessments] and approval processes are fully complied with to get the permit for that project and Manus Provincial Government and all relevant stakeholders including the landowners were involved in that process. Any objection for that project should have been raised at that time … even the issue of conservation was never brought up during the public hearing CEPA conducted.”

However, a number of communities in the vicinity of the proposed project site had signed onto conservation agreements aimed at protecting the forest in 2014 and 2015.

Environment permits typically require that companies mitigate their environmental impact, for example, through wastewater and erosion management, biodiversity offsets and reforestation plans, often within a timeframe shortly after the permit’s approval. Despite calls and emails to the telephone numbers and addresses listed for Maxland, Mongabay was unable to confirm whether the company carried out any such activities. Several listed numbers were out of service. A representative did answer the phone at an office in the city of Sandakan of Priceworth International Berhad, another Malaysian timber company. A recent annual report shows that, at least until recently, Maxland was a Priceworth-operated company. The representative confirmed that it was a Maxland office in Sandakan but said the “senior manager” would be unavailable to answer questions until 2020.