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Deforestation notches up along logging roads on PNG’s New Britain Island

A long-tongued nectar bat (Macroglossus minimus), a subspecies of which is found on New Britain Island. Image via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain).

A long-tongued nectar bat (Macroglossus minimus), a subspecies of which is found on New Britain Island. Image via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain).

  • Recent satellite data has shown a marked increase in the loss of tree cover in Papua New Guinea’s East New Britain province.
  • Many of the alerts were near new or existing logging roads, indicating that the forest loss may be due to timber harvesting.
  • Oil palm production is also growing, altering the face of a province that had more than 98% of its primary forest remaining less than a decade ago.
  • The surge in land use changes has affected not only the environment in East New Britain, but also the lives of the members of the communities who depend on it.

The loss of forest in an island province in Papua New Guinea (PNG) surged in August, according to satellite data. The target of these forays is likely timber, at least at this stage, because much of the deforestation occurs along existing logging roads and in conjunction with road construction.

Data from the University of Maryland’s Global Land Analysis and Discovery (GLAD) laboratory accessed through Global Forest Watch found spikes in tree cover loss from Aug. 1-29 in two mountainous regions in the province of East New Britain (ENB). Both areas are located far from the provincial capital of Kokopo.

Satellites registered 27,622 GLAD tree cover loss alerts in the province in August alone, 58% of which were “high-confidence” alerts corroborated by multiple documentation events by satellites. Suspected deforestation observed in a specific location is not confirmed until a satellite makes another pass over the same area on a different day.

A map of East New Britain Province reveals likely tree cover loss in 2021 alongside forest loss over the past two decades. Image by Morgan Erickson-Davis.

But the satellites traditionally used to detect deforestation need unobscured views of the land below. To get around the limitations that clouds can pose, satellites with radar sensors, which produce radar for detecting deforestation, or RADD, alerts, can capture what’s happening beneath the clouds that frequently blanket tropical forests. What’s more, radar allows the monitoring of smaller, 10-meter by 10-meter (33-foot by 33-foot) squares of land compared with 30-m by 30-m (100-ft by 100-ft) sections for GLAD alerts. That allows observers to see the impacts of developments such as roads on their surroundings. In this case, RADD alerts, which come from a dataset developed at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands, revealed several places in ENB where forest loss likely occurred in places far from major arteries and during periods of cloud cover.

A decade ago, ENB province was heavily forested, with more than 98% of its primary forest remaining. But an increase in logging and the establishment of oil palm plantations has pushed the loss of tree cover higher. Before 2008, the area of lost tree cover annually topped out at 3,640 hectares (nearly 9,000 acres). But since that time, deforestation has increased exponentially, with tree cover loss reaching more than 20,000 hectares (around 50,000 acres) in 2015. In the past few years, the level of loss has remained high. GFW analysis shows that this part of New Britain Island has lost 10% of its tree cover between 2001 and 2020, with nearly 60% occurring in primary forest.

Data showing the locations of logging concessions in PNG aren’t publicly available. But Elizabeth Tongne, founder and director of the ENB-based Wide Bay Conservation Association, said 2008 was around the time that oil palm companies started forest clearance in the district of Pomio, where these new alerts also turned up.

Imagery from Global Forest Watch and Planet labs reveals the proliferation of roads, likely for logging, in East New Britain province since September 2020. Images by Morgan Erickson-Davis.

Tongne spoke with Mongabay in 2019 and 2020 about the impacts of deforestation, whether for timber or agriculture, on forest-reliant communities. In ENB, these are often the areas where people, especially women, collect food and wood and plant their gardens. As the forests closer to their home disappear, women have to walk farther to access these resources. These changes put them at risk of attack on the roads, and they have less time in the day to take care of their families, Tongne said.

“The men begin to beat them up,” she said. “Violence comes about because there is no food on the table.”

Jeanette Sequeira, vice director and gender program coordinator at the Global Forest Coalition, told Mongabay in 2020 that changes to the environment in PNG and elsewhere are linked to gender-based violence.

“I think that’s a claim we can make more and more,” Sequeira said.

Fresh produce at the Kokopo market. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

Today, foreign companies continue to show interest in converting the forests of New Britain Island to both timber and oil palm plantations, and there are concerns that some high-level leaders in PNG are more motivated by the money they can extract from these companies than keeping the forests standing. An October 2021 investigation by the watchdog NGO Global Witness caught representatives of a Malaysian-run oil palm company called East New Britain Resources Group discussing how they bribed ministers in PNG and used the police to suppress opposition to the group’s plantations. The individuals who had been recorded denied involvement in illegal activity when contacted by Global Witness.

Conservationists and community rights advocates like Tongne and Sequeira say such systemic problems affect not only the biodiversity-rich forests and the services they provide, including clean water, carbon capture and erosion control, but also the societies that live nearby and indeed have served as stewards for generations. Rafts of research continue to prove that community and Indigenous management often result in better conservation outcomes than even strictly controlled protected areas.

But the combination of corruption and a lack of clear land rights can also lead to the opposite result, with the communities paying the heaviest price.

“When you have corporations coming in and occupying these lands, there’s just total loss of governance,” Sequeira said.

Banner image of a long-tongued nectar bat (Macroglossus minimus), a subspecies of which is found on New Britain Island, via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain). 

John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

Editor’s note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.

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