Before and After: Forest area near Milne Bay in 1990 (top) and 2005 (bottom).
Image University of Papua New Guinea.
I have been fascinated by New Guinea ever since I first read about this unique island in Wallace’s marvelous book, The Malay Archipelago, when I was just a kid. My fascination with New Guinea led to my passion for the birdlife there, especially my love for the Birds of Paradise, and the lories and other parrot species. I had always secretly dreamt of visiting this island that seemed too magical to be real so I could study the birds and hear the thousand languages that evolved there, and so I could experience the gestalt of the place for myself. But alas, it looks like this will never come to pass, even if I do manage to visit, because New Guinea’s rainforests are being cleared faster than anyone thought and certainly faster than anywhere else in the world, so there may not be anything left to see in a few years.
According to new satellite image analyses, Papua New Guinea (PNG) is losing 362,400 hectares (roughly 895,000 acres) of rainforest every year, an area that is equivalent to 1.4 per cent of its forested land area. Based on these disturbing findings, scientists from the University of Papua New Guinea and the Australian National University predict that, in 12 years, more than 80 percent of the island’s accessible forests, which represents more than half of all the remaining rainforests in Papua New Guinea, will either be completely cleared or badly degraded and fragmented.
PNG’s rainforests — the third largest in the world — are being cleared for subsistence farming by the country’s exploding population and are being lost to fires, but the vast majority of these forests are being cut by logging companies that seek to satisfy Asia’s insatiable demand for timber.
Up until now, human encroachment into PNG’s virgin forests was unknown, but thanks to the use of satellite imagery, provided by the University of Papua New Guinea’s Remote Sensing Centre, deforestation is now obvious for everyone to see.
“For the first time, we have evidence of what’s happening in the PNG forests,”said Phil Shearman, director of the University of Papua New Guinea’s Remote Sensing Centre. Shearman is the lead author on the report. Even worse, this destruction is also occurring in areas devoted to conservation.
“The bad news is that it was previously thought that PNG had a very low or non-existent rate of deforestation and degradation,” Shearman reported. “Our study is making it reasonably clear that’s not the case — indeed PNG is losing its rainforest at rates comparable to that of the Congo and to that of the Amazon.”
Because forests store absorb and store huge amounts of carbon, this rate of clearing will increase the rate of global warming by preventing absorption of carbon from the atmosphere and by releasing the carbon that is already stored in the trees themselves.
“So the destruction of forest releases that carbon into the atmosphere,” Shearman observed, “and these increasing carbon levels in the atmosphere impact global warming.” Further, humidity trapped by forests serve to stabilize local climate and global weather patterns — effects that will be lost after the trees are removed, which will also contribute to global warming.
Sadly, as I already mentioned, PNG’s forests are home to tremendous biodiversity, particularly a large variety of bird species, including some of my research birds, which are not found anywhere else. The destruction of PNG’s forests represent the loss of these unique animals’ homes, and will ultimately lead to their extinction.
“We fear logging and other forms of degradation are wiping out the forests before we even know what is there,” said Lee Tan, of the environmental group Australian Conservation Foundation. But the loss of PNG’s forests will also have strong negative impacts upon human populations.
“We can very confidently predict that if more of the forests are cut, there will be erosion, there will be landslides, lives lost and other calamities,” Tan added.
These studies took place over a period of five years and were published in a report entitled, The State of the Forests of Papua New Guinea, which was released in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, during a conference on climate and forests on Monday.
The report points out that there is still plenty of potential for cut areas to regenerate, but only if PNG’s policies are quickly changed to end what is referred to as uncontrolled “timber mining.”
Claims by the logging industry that forests can be sustainably logged on a 30-year rotational period should be ignored, the report says. Indeed, the report asserts that the “tipping point” has been reached over much of PNG’s virgin forests, where the degradation of forested land is essentially irreversible.
“It will not be long, perhaps in the lifetimes of the country’s current leaders, before the ecology of large portions of the country has been degraded permanently,” the report warns.
Even though most of the country’s leaders, including the Prime Minister, Michael Somare, are intimately involved with the logging industry, it appears that at least some of the PNG’s leaders share Shearman’s concerns. For example, Belden Namah, New Guinea’s minister for forests and an owner of timber holdings himself, wrote the forward to the published research report.
“If this report is the bitter pill we need to swallow to ensure we maintain our forests into the foreseeable future, then so be it,” Namah writes. “If in 50 years, PNG is left only with scraps of forest inside national parks, then we have failed.”
Even though commercial logging contributes 176 million US dollars annually to PNG’s economy, Namah is examining possible solutions to the loss of the forest.
“I believe for every tree that has been cut, we should plant three more new trees. That is one major policy I am looking at.”
Shearman, P., Bryan, J., Ash, J., Hunnam, P., Mackey, B., & B. Lokes. The State of the Forests of Papua New Guinea: Mapping the extent and condition of forest cover and measuring the drivers of forest change in the period 1972-2002. Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea: University of Papua New Guinea, 2008. ISBN: 9980-937-48-3 [free PDF; 21MB (156 pages, in color)] (quotes, images).
MSNBC News (quotes).