Papua New Guinea, one of the world’s least developed nations, is home to the largest remaining rainforests outside the Congo and Amazon. This forest is under threat, one quarter of Papua New Guinea’s forests have been destroyed in the past 30 years. The primary driver of forest cover change is logging, mostly illegal, and, to a lower extent, family farming. The country population, the second most rural in the world, rely mostly on natural resources for subsistence use. As the population is expected to double in the next 20 years, it is very likely that dependence and threats on forests will increase.

As most land in Papua New Guinea remains under customary ownership, indigenous people can control access over their own resources, they have the ability to develop rules to sustainably manage natural resources which form the foundation of their resilience.

In Kwiop, a beautiful village at the very end of the Jimi Valley, in Jiwaka province, where there are still old people who remember the first contact with the outside world, seven clans from the Manga tribe have taken a momentous step towards conserving their globally significant forest and ensuring sustainable livelihoods for their community. Last month the community organized a traditional ceremony to formally start the process of creating a protected area, and to celebrate the launch of Kuakam Landowners Foundation, a community-based organisation, and the establishment of a new partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Kuakam means ‘cloud and rain’ in the local Narak language and refers to the magnificent cloud forest which covers Mt Goplom, a mountain along the Bismarck Range, which the community have committed to conserving. Kuakam Landowners Foundation have allocated 4,200 hectares of intact primary forest as a conservation area. With the support of the Wildlife Conservation Society, they are currently working towards signing a conservation deed, which will provide legal protection for this area. The logo of Kuakam Landowners Foundation represents a female tree kangaroo with a baby in its porch, and symbolise “caring for the future”, the underlying goal of the community-based organization.

Among attendants at the launching event were representatives from surrounding communities from seven villages in Jiwaka and Madang provinces, who also expressed interest in conserving their land. In future years, Kuakam Landowners Foundation hopes to expand to support conservation in these adjacent communities. Mr George Okol a community leader from Kwiop, and CEO of Kuakam Landowners Foundation, expressed the view during a passionate speech that “animals do not follow the boundaries of men, therefore we must work with the surrounding communities to spread conservation ideas and practices”.

The idea to form the community-based organization and establish a protected area first came to school teacher Mr George Okol in 2000 when he was working at the nearby Togban primary school. He says, “looking at the rate of destruction [of the surrounding environment] I felt I had a responsibility to lead my community in conservation and towards sustainable livelihoods. We have a moral and cultural obligation to protect our environment”. He came to this view because he realised that Kwiop was in danger of losing the primary forest of Mt Goplom which his community had protected for millennia and which he grew up roaming freely in with his father.

In this remote region, government services are effectively non-existent. To give an example, children walk long distances to school through thick bush, steep terrains, crossing rivers, sometimes setting off at 4 am to get to school on time, often having no breakfast until they reach school. For this reason, many younger children are unable to be educated until they are old enough to walk several miles a day.

In this context, the community has taken to supporting their livelihoods by growing peanuts as a cash crop. In Kwiop peanut grows best on land which has not previously be cultivated. This incentivised the community to cut down the forest at the foothills of Mt Goplom at an alarming rate. In previous eras and at a slower harvest rate, the forest would be able to recolonise these areas once they were left fallow. However, since the 1990s, the invasive shrub Piper aduncum which is originally from Central America, has colonised fallow areas. This has been disastrous for the stunning wildlife of the area, which includes iconic wildlife such as the Goodfellow’s tree kangaroo, cassowary, eastern long beaked echidna, and multiple bird-of-paradise species, and for the community of Kwiop. This is because the now abundant soft-wooded monoculture stands of piper act as an ecological dead zone, which cannot support native species and do not provide the myriad of natural resources, such as materials to build houses and wildlife for bushmeat, which community livelihoods in Kwiop depend on. The community has therefore committed to ban broad-scale clearing of primary forest. The community has also started instituted bans, such as the use of dogs for hunting, to bring hunting to sustainable levels. Kwiop villagers at the opening happily reported that this has already led to an increase in the number of animals regularly seen around the village. The Wildlife Conservation Society will be assisting the community to establish the protected area, bring hunting and harvesting of their forest to sustainable levels, undertake reforestation and community woodlot projects and to develop local livelihood initiatives.

For Wildlife Conservation Society, this work forms part of their long-term strategy to preserve the Bismarck Forest Corridor, an area of contiguous forest along the Bismarck Range which borders four provinces (Eastern Highlands, Simbu, Jiwaka and Madang) and contains Oceania’s highest peak. High population densities and rapid population growth in the Highlands threaten to rapidly degrade the corridor, which constitutes one of the most biodiverse regions of the world. With funding from the European Union’s Sustainable Wildlife Management program, the UK government’s Darwin Initiative and the Australian government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade the Wildlife Conservation Society is currently supporting four community-based organizations to undertaken conservation and livelihood projects in three provinces and plans to expand to support more communities in future years.