[Originally published at http://www.blogs-mri.org/awards-for-papua-new-guinea-conservation-area/, 5 September 2016]
In a rare win for biodiversity conservation in Papua New Guinea (PNG), an alliance of ten clans shared in UNDP’s Equator Prize for their collaborative project on rainforest protection, winning US$10,000, praise at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP21) last December and recognition at a national award ceremony in PNG recently (Figure 1).
The Wanang Conservation Area is one of approximately 60 protected areas created in Papua New Guinea since 1962. The ten rainforest-dwelling clans, who work in conjunction with the non-governmental New Guinea Binatang Research Centre in Madang, a university town on the northern coast of the country, have chosen to protect 10,000 hectares of forest for their future livelihoods, rather than allow logging permits to be issued over their land.
The Binatang Research Centre is a practical demonstration that excellent science does not have to wait for government or big universities in order to be successful. The Research Centre operates as part of a network with six other ‘grass roots’ conservation groups in Papua New Guinea and has partnership agreements with five universities and research institutes in the country, the PNG government’s Conservation and Environment Protection Authority (CEPA), as well as more than a dozen universities and research institutes in other countries. Small amounts of funding comes in the form of collaborative projects with research groups and PhD students who come to Madang to make use of the facilities, and moderately-sized research awards, such as a climate change mitigation award from the GEF Small Grants Programme and private sponsorships, such as from Steamships Trading Company Ltd, a Papua New Guinea business founded in 1918.
Led by its director, Professor Vojtech Novotny of the Czech Academy of Sciences, the centre has had also success on a bigger scale, with collaboration in internationally-funded research including the recent award of a European Research Council Advanced Grant for the five-year project ‘Ecological determinants of tropical-temperate trends in insect diversity’ with institutes in the US, Czech Republic and Japan.
The governmental scene in Papua New Guinea rainforest conservation
This contrasts with the poverty of domestic funding for conservation in Papua New Guinea itself. The World Bank reclassified PNG in 2010 from a ‘low income country’ to a ‘lower middle income’ country largely on the basis of capital inflows surrounding an ExxonMobil-led LNG project that tipped GNI over the threshold of US$3,855 per capita. An optimistic government vowed to start spending 5% of the public investment part of the budget on research and development in its Vision 2050 plan and another 5% on environmental sustainability and climate change. Since the 2016 public investment budget was US$1.5 billion, these two items would come in at a tidy US$150 million this year, or about PGK450 million, if the promise was kept.
Alas, after falls in export prices the country is now struggling with a large budget deficit. In the midst of this, it is no surprise that basic funding commitments to tertiary institutions have not been met. Unrest at two of the state-run universities in 2016, with police opening fire on students in one incident, have resulted in the partial loss of the academic year. In this context, the absence of a domestic competitive grants scheme, desultory expenditure on any science facilities, and woeful internet access are the least of the science sector’s worries. The PGK450 million a year for R&D and environmental sustainability spending? The entire university sector, with some 15,000 students, is struggling to operate on a budget of far less than that.
What of the remainder of the 60 protected areas? Once upon a time, when carbon trading was going to be the next big thing, it was Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister who proposed the Coalition for Rainforest Nations and got conservation talks going at the 2007 UN Climate Change Conference in Bali. Unfortunately, there has been glacial progress since Bali in linking the international schemes, like the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, to what might happen in the protected areas of a country like Papua New Guinea. A decade later, ‘inception workshops’ and ‘explanation of the project to relevant stakeholders’ are still the order of the day.
However, a Climate Change and Development Authority (CCDA) has been created and a Project Management Unit has been created within it for FCPF ‘activities’. Is this joined up government at last that will progress conservation? Not really, the protected areas are the responsibility of CEPA not CCDA. Neither agency has a web site or has published a substantive report recently. Which means that ‘home made’ organisations like the New Guinea Binatang Research Centre will outpace the efforts of the government sector for some time to come. Well done Professor Novotny and colleagues!
 F. Pearce, ‘Saved?’ New Scientist 22 March 2008