This is the story of Ogab El, one of the most passionate tree growers in Papua New Guinea (PNG). A man whose father together with other local leaders gave the rights over their forests to a logging company, which resulted in the obliteration of thousands of hectares of biodiversity rich forests in the Gogol Valley in Madang province. A man who once worked for the same logging company, but after seeing the destruction it wrought on the forests realised his mistake. A man who will tell anyone prepared to listen that the future of his people now lies in growing trees, not in cutting down the natural forests.
Many rural communities in PNG have allowed their forests to be logged in return for royalties, roads and services provided by the logging companies. For them, the temptation to hand over their forest rights to logging companies is difficult to resist. While they are able to meet their subsistence needs and earn a little cash from the sale of garden produce, it is difficult for them to earn enough money to pay for medical and educational expenses and to buy more expensive items and the materials to build permanent houses.
In Ogab’s community, the logging company came and went, leaving behind a wasted landscape in which all the natural forest had been removed. Royalties were paid and in a few places some trees of commercial value were planted but no viable local businesses were established. Now, a few decades later, it is impossible to see any benefits from the logging. To the contrary, the balance of benefits and losses for the local communities from the logging leans heavily to the losses side, as they have lost biodiversity rich forest that contributed to their livelihoods and wellbeing with no sustainable economic gains. The story is the same for many rural communities in PNG, but Ogab’s story differs in that he now sees his responsibility to his community as being to restore the forest. He explains bluntly, “I worked for the logging company. I destroyed the forest. Now I must bring it back.”
On 25 October 2017, with funding from the Australian government the Responsible Asia Forestry and Trade (RAFT) partnership conducted a technical training in Ogab’s village on teak growing. Ogab was one of three local leaders in Madang province who had successfully established teak woodlots under an earlier project funded by Australia. The technical training was provided by researchers and trainers from the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES), the Foundation for People and Community Development (FPCD), and the PNG Forest Research Institute (PNGFRI). Local people from several communities across the province, including existing teak growers and others interested in teak growing, participated in the training. Teak is a species with high commercial value that if carefully planted and grown could provide an important future income stream for rural communities in PNG. A local company, PNG Biomass, has recently started to make arrangements for purchasing teak seeds from the community growers.
An anthropologist once labelled the people affected by the logging of the Gogol Valley the “throwaway people”, likening how they were being treated to the cardboard products that were made from their forests. But Ogab is not a man caught up in the mistakes of the past. He is a man looking to the future. He is a man growing trees for his children, and he is teaching his children how to grow trees for their children.