Viewpoint: Goodwill Amos
Forestry is not only about forest production. It involves finding a balance between economic opportunity and conservation that ensures future generations will also benefit from the land and forests. PNG has a forest cover of about 78%, and while that seems high, it should be somewhere between 80% and 90%. One of our advantages is that we are able to learn from other regions. For instance, Europe used to have a high forest cover which is now only 10-20%, and China has the same issue. They both suffer from environmental problems and depend on other countries for timber.
The transformation of the PNG economy has caused considerable harm to the country’s forests. We have to remind ourselves that about 80% of the population is based in rural areas and depends directly on the land. It is fortunate that we do not have to teach communities how to maintain their land and trees – they have done it for generations. However, we do have to advise them not to change their ways overnight. Though clearing land for commercial activities like agricultural projects can seem attractive, in the long term it has the potential to damage both the economy and the communities themselves. We do not wish to ask people to stop what they are doing, but we would like to teach them where they can operate without damaging the environment.
It is also important to look at the environmental impact of commercial enterprises. Developments for projects in the mining and energy industries have led to improved transport infrastructure in some remote areas. Some see this as progress, but we must not overlook the environmental impact. The roads also allowed new companies to enter those regions, and their commercial activities often required the clearing of land with insufficient attention to the environment. Land that had been maintained by local communities for generations changed almost overnight. Construction and commercial activities need to follow procedures like replanting trees in order to prevent damaging forests and contributing to climate change. For example, if a liquefied natural gas investment costs $3bn to set up, the additional maintenance costs could reach up to $6bn if the project is not undertaken sustainably.
Opening land up to economic development should only be done after considering conservation measures, though this does not always happen. For example, the special agriculture and business leases (SABLs) have what some may consider a bad reputation. They were intended for small-scale commercial activities, but were misused in order to illegally claim large areas of land from local communities. However, we should not forget that SABLs helped to sustainably open West New Britain to the palm oil industry and to reap the economic benefits. In many other places, processes for SABLs were not followed; land was cleared, logs were exported and no trees were replanted. Rules must be enforced more reliably. Good governance, combined with strict regulation, can result in sustainable cooperation between the public and private sector.
There are also opportunities when it comes to downstream processing, which could be a good job provider. Though the segment’s share remains small, it has been undertaken by a high number of small to medium-sized enterprises. Around 50,000 to 60,000 cu metres of timber are exported, the bulk of which is destined for Australia and New Zealand. This is small in comparison to the 34m cu metres that were exported between 2008 and 2018, the majority of which went to China. In 2016 processed wood accounted for approximately 2.1% of total exports, but constituted about 6.8% of overall free-on-board value. The government plans to ban the export of round logs in 2020, but this will only be feasible if downstream facilities are already in place. We are working with several export markets to comply with certification standards and boost downstream processing. The goal is to develop forestry into a sustainable market that balances the environmental impact of commercial activities, climate change, inclusive growth and the interests of local communities.
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