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Logging, road construction continue to fuel forest loss in Papua New Guinea

The Victoria crowned pigeon (Goura victoria) is the largest living pigeon species on the planet. Image by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

The Victoria crowned pigeon (Goura victoria) is the largest living pigeon species on the planet. Image by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

  • Papua New Guinea boasts the third largest rainforest in the world and houses about 7% of the planet’s biodiversity, including threatened species found nowhere else in the world.
  • In recent years, fraudulent practices in the logging and agriculture industry have resulted in massive forest loss across the country while road network expansion plans threaten to further fragment forests and open them up for resource exploitation.
  • Satellite data and imagery show logging activity on the rise in PNG, particularly in the province of Oro.
  • Conservationists and officials say forest laws must be tightened in PNG and local communities included in decision-making to reduce forest loss, while incentivizing communities to conserve the remaining forests.

Plonked between the formidable Owen Stanley mountains to its west and the Solomon Sea to the east lies Oro, a remote province in Papua New Guinea east of the capital Port Moresby. Lush, green tropical rainforests, with their famed canopies, blanket the land while rivers and streams glitter in hues of turquoise and emerald—a landscape found across much of Papua New Guinea (PNG), where 71.8% of land still harbored primary forest in 2022, according to data from monitoring platform Global Forest Watch.

In these forests and the montane highlands thrive nearly seven per cent of the world’s biodiversity—30% of which is found nowhere else on the planet. “There’s many [more] species packed into the rainforest there than you’ll find in most places of the world,” says terrestrial ecologist William Laurance from James Cook University in Australia, who has studied the ecology of these forests for over 35 years.

For 80 million years, the New Guinea rainforest—the third largest on the planet—has remained isolated from the rest of the world and has evolved unique animals, including most tree kangaroo species (genus Dendrolagus), egg-laying mammals called long-beaked echidnas (genus Zaglossus), a poisonous bird called the hooded pitohui (Pitohui dichrous), and two of the three living species of cassowary (genus Casuarius). The island of New Guinea—which consists of PNG and Indonesian Western New Guinea, contains the highest number of recorded species of plants of any island and an unparalleled level of amphibian diversity.

The eastern long-beaked echidna (Zaglossus bartoni) is a mammal - but that doesn't stop it from laying eggs. Image (replica) by Matteo De Stefano/MUSE via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).
The eastern long-beaked echidna (Zaglossus bartoni) is a mammal – but that doesn’t stop it from laying eggs. Image (replica) by Matteo De Stefano/MUSE via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

The rainforests of Oro province are unique in their own sense—they are the only known home of the world’s largest butterfly, the endangered Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterfly (Ornithoptera alexandrae). Other endemic species like the eastern long-beaked echidna (Zaglossus bartoni), the endangered Goodfellow’s tree kangaroo (Dendrolagus goodfellowi), Doria’s tree kangaroo (Dendrolagus dorianus), the Victoria crowned pigeon (Goura victoria) and the Papuan hornbill (Rhyticeros plicatus), are also found here.

Among the rich biodiversity thrive more than 250,000 culturally diverse people, who have relied on the rainforests for generations—hunting animals, growing yam, taro and other subsistence crops in “forest gardens” and collecting firewood and other forest resources, including the bark of paper mulberry tree (Broussonetia papyrifera) to make ceremonial bark cloth.

However, over the last three decades, Papua New Guinea’s people, their aspirations for economic development and their prized forest resources are finding themselves increasingly at a crossroads. International companies, eyeing profits from the rainforests, have beelined into the country where, according to community and government leaders, they have influenced governments and coerced native people to open their forests for logging, large-scale agriculture, and mining. As a result, forests where once echoed the shrieks of hornbills and songs of cicadas now bear the relentless buzz of saws and the loud thuds of falling trees.

Papuan hornbill (Rhyticeros plicatus). Image by Arjan Haverkamp via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Papuan hornbill (Rhyticeros plicatus). Image by Arjan Haverkamp via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Logging: Murky past and uncertain future

Over 90% of land in Papua New Guinea is owned by Indigenous people, who are recognized as customary landowners with title rights on their lands by the country’s constitution. In exchange for promised monetary benefits, some of these landowners have transferred their rights to logging companies. As foreign-owned logging companies ventured into PNG, logging intensified in the 1980s, which came under scrutiny.

A 1989 inquiry into these companies found large-scale environmental damage and exploitation of Indigenous landowners. In response, the government tightened regulations around logging. Landowners interested in earning revenue now had to transfer their rights to the government, which would then issue logging concessions to companies.

Ultimately, this process wasn’t particularly successful in reigning in logging operations or halting overexploitation of the rainforests. Between 1972 and 2014, Papua New Guinea lost some 9 million hectares of primary rainforest—an area about the size of Portugal—with logging companies responsible for most of the damage.

This area of logging is occuring within a concession owned by Musa Valley Management Company Limited, according to PNG Forest Observatory.

“The intensity of logging is really going up and down over the years, depending on the markets and government policies,” said tropical ecologist Vojtěch Novotńy, founder of the Madang-based New Guinea Binatang Research Centre and who has worked in the country’s rainforests for over three decades. “There has been a long-time policy of promoting logging but now, the government is not so sure.”

In the years between 2011 and 2020, logging reached new highs, with multiple analytics sources reporting that the country exporting 3.52 million cubic metres of round logs each year on average—a number significantly higher than the previous decade. According to data from the International Tropical Timber Organization, an intergovernmental body aiming to promote the sustainable management and conservation of tropical forests, PNG was the largest exporter of tropical logs in the world in 2020, with most of the logs shipped off to China, where demand for timber has soared. Today, logging concessions cover nearly 11 million hectares or about 25% of the country’s land area and increasingly, sources say, play into the hands of politicians as a tool for building personal wealth.

“Logging in Papua New Guinea is a political show where companies manipulate public sector workers,” Garry Juffa, Governor of Oro, told Mongabay via a telephone interview. In his role since 2012, Juffa has been a vocal critic of the logging  “cartels” operating in his province, and has labelled all logging operations in Oro unlawful as they don’t have informed consent of landowners.

Juffa said that with little help from the federal government to curtail illegal logging, he is pursuing lawsuits to stop the industrial exploitation of Oro’s forests. He did not elaborate on the specifics of the legal action.

“Oro is the only province that stands with landowners to fight against logging companies,” he said.

Intensive logging in the last few years has led to a massive loss in primary rainforests across Papua New Guinea. According to data from Global Forest Watch, Oro lost nearly 3% of its primary forest between 2002 and 2022, with 2022 marking the second-highest year of deforestation since measurement began. This loss primarily occurred in areas where logging concessions have been issued, according to PNG Forest Observatory. Global Forest Watch data show PNG as a whole lost a similar proportion of its primary forest cover during the same period.

While loggers seek tree species with high timber value, such as taun (Pometia pinnata), merbau (Intsia bijuga and Intsia palembanica), and Papua New Guniea rosewood (Pterocarpus indicus), most logging involves indiscriminate felling of trees, taking them to log yards and then selecting the trees of choice.

“The logging business here is very primitive in the sense that there is no processing industry here,” said Novotńy, also a professor at the Czech Academy of Sciences, “It’s one of the few countries which is exporting round logs.” The logging industry is also rife with reports of tax evasion, misreporting and abuse of licences.

When Prime Minister James Marape came to power in 2020, he announced that logging licenses will henceforth be issued only to local businesses that process logs within the country. He also promised that by 2025, the country would ban exports of all round logs. However, a report by ACT NOW!, a community advocacy group in the country, claims that his government continues to issue logging licences to foreign-owned companies, 20 of which started operations in 2020.

The organization has also expressed concerns about the country’s ability to meet its 2025 deadline for enacting a round log export ban given that “analysis of official log export data by ACT NOW!” revealed that over 1.1 million cubic metres were exported in the first half of 2023—two-thirds of the maximum allowed for the year. (Mongabay was not able to independently verify this analysis.)

“Unless the PNG Forest Authority (the federal agency responsible for managing the country’s forests) takes immediate steps to reduce log export volumes … limit will be exceeded by more than 500,000 cubic metres by the end of 2023,” ACT NOW! states in its media release.

The Forest Authority did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Agricultural licences: Logging in disguise  

Spurred by interest in increasing the capacity of the country’s agricultural sector, the PNG government began issuing Special Agricultural Business Leases (SABLs) in the 2000s to companies wanting to convert swathes of rainforests into oil palm and rubber plantations. These licenses, valid for up to 99 years, were akin to logging concessions where landowners transferred their rights to the government or companies in exchange for monetary benefits.

Between 2003 and 2011, more than 5 million hectares of land was allocated to such companies—often without landowners’ consent—under SABLs, according to watchdog organizations such as Global Witness. An inquiry into the practice in 2013 revealed that most SABLs were unlawful: they were issued without following due process, foreign companies pressured and bribed government officials to fast-track their applications, public servants failed to serve the interests of the local people and landowners felt exploited.

“On the pretext of agricultural development, logging has just gone out of hand,” said Adelbert Gangai, a freelance campaigner in Collingwood Bay, Oro, describing the state of affairs with SABLs. “Politicians saw a lot of money in it. They saw it as a way of bringing in cash-strapped rural communities and it just went out of control. It’s a whole syndicate.”

Satellite imagery captured October 2023 by Planet Labs shows recent logging activity near the village of Popondetta in the province of Oro, PNG.
Satellite imagery captured October 2023 by Planet Labs shows recent logging activity near the village of Popondetta in the province of Oro, PNG.

Critics say oil palm companies, largely Malaysian-owned, would acquire SABLs ostensibly for agricultural development, but would instead sublease them to logging companies. Daniel Ase, Executive Director of the Center for Environmental Law and Community Rights (CELCOR) in PNG, told Mongabay in 2011 that this was “massive land grabbing … basically for large scale industrial logging.”

A 2023 report by ACTNOW! found that in the West Sepik Province, Malaysian-owned Global Elite Limited had procured a license to convert forest areas into oil palm and rubber plantations, but after 10 years, the forests have disappeared and no plantations have been established. A method of contact for Global Elite could not be found.

Gangai said a similar situation has played out in Oro, where his uncles sold their rights under a SABL.

“There’s no agriculture activities going on,” apart from a few thousand cacao saplings being held in a nursery, he told Mongabay.

Landowners report feeling deceived by what they say are paltry sums received from companies in exchange for their land rights, and have approached provincial and federal courts for justice. In 2014, Gangai was one of the campaigners from the Oro Community Environment Action Network (OCEAN)—a grassroots advocacy group—which successfully petitioned against Malaysian multinational plantation conglomerate Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhad (KLK), whose core business is oil palm development. The company had acquired a SABL to develop 38,350 hectares of palm oil plantations in the forests in Collingwood Bay without informed consent of the landowners, and the court ruled the acquisition null and void. Landowners then petitioned KLK to cease all its operations and move out of Collingwood Bay. In an email response to Mongabay, KLK confirmed that neither the company nor its subsidiaries have any ongoing operations in PNG.

A similar court case played out in 2021, where landowners, supported by the provincial government, took logging companies Musa Century Limited and Musa Valley Management Company Limited in the Musa Foru area of Oro, to court. The court temporarily halted the operation, until the landowner’s concerns were met. Methods of contact could not be located for either company.

Endangered Goodfellow's tree kangaroos ( Dendrolagus matschiei) are declining throughout their range. Image by Eric Kilby via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Endangered Goodfellow’s tree kangaroos ( Dendrolagus matschiei) are declining throughout their range. Image by Eric Kilby via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

While these court battles give hope, Gangai said the logging companies have many tricks up their sleeves, including establishing a complex network of subsidiaries within each conglomerate.

“These company[ies] change their names like they change their underwear,” Gangai told Mongabay, “Every time you slap a court order on them, they go out, and there’s a new company coming—it’s the same company which comes back with a different name.” He said “cancelled” SABLs are still in operation in Oro despite court orders as multiple government departments are involved in issuing a single SABL and taking them all to court requires a long-drawn battle.

Researchers say that in addition to the loss of habit, industrial logging has other damaging effects on PNG’s environment. Logging roads constructed to access forests and transport timber have damaging knock-on impacts on the surrounding ecosystems.

“These [roads] are more destructive to forests as they go through water streams and rivers, compact the soils, and contribute to increasing erosion and runoff,” said Regina Kiele from the University of Papua New Guinea.

While the conversion of rainforests to oil palm plantations hasn’t yet reached the scale seen in Indonesia or Malaysia, its hoped-for expansion is a looming threat.

“Oil palm is definitely a big and growing problem,” said Laurance, “the government would love to have more oil palm.”

Novotńy said that conversion to oil palm plantations would be “the biggest threat because if you convert forests to oil palm, then there is no biodiversity left.”

Large-scale road construction—a catch-22 situation 

Although New Guinea is the world’s biggest tropical island, it lacks a dependable road network that can provide access to markets, healthcare and education. Currently, about a fifth of Papua New Guineans have no access to roads at all. In 2020, the government announced an initiative called Connect PNG—an ambitious road network construction project aiming to build 16,000 kilometers (9,942 miles) of roads across the country at a cost of K20 billion ($5.3 billion).

The government hopes increased road infrastructure will spur economic development. However, a 2019 study, co-authored by Laurance and published in PLOS One, found the proposed road network crisscrosses through 54 critical biodiversity habitats across the country. It found that roads will chomp up forests inhabited by several endemic, endangered species such as Goodfellow’s tree-kangaroo (Dendrolagus goodfellowi) and Matchie’s tree kangaroo (D. matschiei), and open them up for logging and other human activities.

Goodfellow's tree-kangaroo (Dendrolagus goodfellowi) are listed as Endangered by the IUCN and are threatened by logging, hunting and agriculture. Image by user belgianchocolate via WIkimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Goodfellow’s tree-kangaroo (Dendrolagus goodfellowi) are listed as Endangered by the IUCN and are threatened by logging, hunting and agriculture. Image by user belgianchocolate via WIkimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

“What you’re seeing happening in PNG right now is a very major expansion of roads in different parts of the country, and that does absolutely tend to be associated with increases in logging activity,” Laurance said. While roads can help improve the living conditions for some of the remotest communities in the country, there are concerns that these roads might primarily serve the interests of logging and mining companies—some of which are funding parts of the Connect PNG project.

“It’s a catch-22 situation,” said Adelbert, who added that building roads is a great idea if the government promises to maintain it and pay landowners their fair share for acquiring land for the project. “If not, these are just all going to waste—after the loggers have moved on, these roads will just perish.”

As Papua New Guinea ponders ways to address its forest loss while fomenting economic growth, balancing both interests is proving to be a tall order. For Oro governor Juffa, the forests of his province’s lands are worth millions on their own.

“As any other country, we want to use these resources to make progress, but in the current capitalistic world, that will come at the cost of deforestation.” Juffa said. “If developed countries want us to conserve the remaining rainforests as its custodians, they must pay us.”

Juffa’s solution is not simple reverie. Programs like REDD+, in which developed nations provide financial incentives to less developed, tropical countries to keep their forests in the ground, have been enacted around the world as nations strive to mitigate global warming.

The Victoria crowned pigeon (Goura victoria) is the largest living pigeon species on the planet. Image by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).
The Victoria crowned pigeon (Goura victoria) is the largest living pigeon species on the planet. Image by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Within PNG, Adelbert said the government needs to involve its landowners in decisions pertaining to development projects and licenses and incentivize people to find livelihoods on their lands.

“Because there’s no way for them to receive an income, they give [their land] to the first person who comes along with a bag of money,” he said.

Both call for Western countries to recognize multinational logging companies involved in PNG and blacklist them, and devise a mechanism that regulates sustainable logging without turning a blind eye to the plight of the rainforests and its people.

“We, as a developing country, need help from Western countries to stand up against the logging cartels and save the rainforests,” Juffa said.


Editor’s Note: This story is 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 deforestation alerts, 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. Sign up for GFW’s monthly email updates featuring these stories.

Editor’s note (Dec. 1): This story was updated to include a response from Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhad, and clarify its primary identity as an oil palm development company.

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