Papua New Guinea: Rainforest World of Sustainable River Guardians

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The Sacred Land Film Project captured a revival of a canoe ceremony in Bosmun, Papua New Guinea, with feasting, dancing and carving, honoring their sacred Ramu River. The region is part of the earth’s third largest intact rainforest ecosystem, where sustainable agriculture and forestry practices have allowed societies to thrive for thousands of years, now threatened by multinational logging interests and corrupt governmental entities.

Bosmun, Ramu River, Papua New Guinea

Canoe Carving Ceremony Along Ramu River

People live by their canoes in Bosmun, a village on the Ramu River in Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) wild Madang Province. The river flows for some 720 km through more than a million hectares of sparsely populated primary lowland rainforest and swamp. The Ramu contains a wide variety of tropical Australasian marsupials, including tree kangaroos, and 13 mammal species that are endemic or near endemic.

Hemmed in by roadless swamp and forest, the only passage into Bosmun, as well as their gardens, fish traps or neighboring villages, is the meandering Ramu River. Absent of pickup trucks, buses, and dusty roads, the motorized dugout canoe makes up for the local “public motor vehicle.”


“Guardians of the River” from the Sacred Land Film Project.

The Sacred Land Film Project documented the revival a few years back of a long dormant canoe ceremony, in honor to the river which they consider sacred. Village elder Mechior Ware explains the important roles that dugout canoes serve in his community.

Preparations for the ceremony include an elaborate feast, the skillful carving of a beautiful crafted canoe, and a fruit-throwing ritual testing the strength of the warriors that stand atop it as they paddle through the river.

Intact Rainforest, Customary Clan-Controlled, Under Threat

Madang, deforestation threat, traditional societies

Ramu River from the air. PNG contains the world’s third largest tracts of intact primary rainforests, almost all of which is customary clan owned land. Photo courtesy of NomadTales.

In the New Guinean interior, geographer Jared Diamond notes in his book Collapse, ecologically sophisticated societies had sustainably evolved over generations. Responsible for domesticating taro, bananas, yams, and sugarcane, among others, they converted the wild rainforest, receiving over 400 inches of rain per year, into an agricultural paradise. All the while, they have protected the ecological balance of plants and animals that feed, clothe, and house them. Leaving out Mr. Diamond’s paen to the oily virtues of Chevron, he does point out how one example of silviculture transplanting of pine-like casuarina trees (Casuarina oligodon, also called Ironwood) supplied timber, combated deforestation, nitrogen-fixed gardens, and helped societies thrive in the highlands for tens of thousands of years. While the modern decrease of inter-tribal warfare and the success of public health measures has spurred a burgeoning population as of late, for the societies of PNG, and their forests, greater enemies loom: multinational corporations enabled by corrupt governmental officials.

Papua New Guinea, Rimbunan Hijau company

Rapid patrol of voracious industrial illegal logging occurring in one of the world’s last great big bushes, Ramu River Valley, Madang, Papua New Guinea, by Malaysian Rimbunan Hijau company. Photo courtesy Ecological Internet.

PNG contains the world’s third largest tracts of intact primary rainforests, almost all of which is customary clan owned land. According to its constitution, drawn up after PNG became independent from Australia, indigenous people were given control over their ancestral land, with government or private enterprise overseeing just three percent of the country.

PNG’s indigenous must be given prior and informed consent before any commercial activities can be carried out. Unfortunately, logging companies have found ways to circumvent this process as was shown in a recent documentary called Big Damage. The assignment of around 16 per cent of PNG’s remaining forests, using Special Agriculture and Business Leases (SABLs), to unrepresentative landowner companies and foreign-owned corporations has been the source of massive deforestation, and resulting dislocation and destruction of traditional societies.

One company – Rimbunan Hijau (RH) of Malaysia controls the government and most of the timber industry (18 logging operations in all), with entire logs generally bound for China. In particular, an immense illegal logging operation of some 158,000 hectares has destroyed parts of the Ramu valley. The Ramu River middle area lies a sparsely occupied “Big Bush,” now being illegally destroyed. RH has deployed further roads and infrastructure to harvest at least three more tracts of rainforest, several hundred thousand hectares, just behind the current Ramu Block 1 logging area. Greenpeace has documented the widespread violations, justified by development of lucrative palm oil plantations with agro-fuel pretensions, where up to 90 percent of logging now underway in PNG is deemed “illegal.”

Greenpeace offers a series of recommendations in the above link to the most recent PNG government, with a moratorium on the existing agricultural lease process. They further advocate seeking international assistance to develop a National Land Use Plan, involving relevant stakeholders and customary landholders, focused on protecting customary land rights and maintaining forest resources for future generations of Papua New Guineans. Implementation and finding international assistance that might side with the interests of the customary landholders remains a challenge, however. Furthermore, given the varied interests of different landholders, often conflicting within each clan, solutions remain difficult.

The short film is a preview of the Sacred Land Film Project series, featuring indigenous communities fighting to save their sacred sites. Learn more at sacredland.org

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Jack Eidt

About Jack Eidt

Writer, urban theorist, and environmental advocate, Jack Eidt careens down human-nature's all consuming one-way highway to its inevitable conclusion - Wilder Utopia. He co-founded Wild Heritage Planners, based out of Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at jack (dot) eidt (at) wilderutopia (dot) com.