The Immediate Challenge of Running a Forestry Department in a Developing Country, and a Question on the Efficacy of FSC Certification.

The first four weeks or so in PNG have been a bit of a whirlwind.  The internet here barely works at all, and when it does, it is painfully slower than even dial-up ever was.  It’s therefore not the easiest thing to keep a blog on the goings in the Forestry Department of the PNG University of Natural Resources and Environment.

Although it’s not always a bad thing, nothing ever happens very quickly in PNG.  It has taken a few weeks to see the university facilities, or lack of them.  So far, of the many hundreds of trees in Papua New Guinea (that we know about) which are viable for timber or other purposes, and could be developed as a mitigation against the logging of natural forests, we have a grand total of two species growing in any meaningful way; teak, and balsa. 

The university’s research collaboration with ACIAR, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, is a simple one, which is to identify optimum teak germplasm for PNG’s particular climate and conditions. However, it has been dogged by poor management and record-keeping, and we have a lot of catching up to do if it is to be of any value at all to local people.

The university tree nursery has nothing more than a few hedges of teak genets.  Literally nothing else.  We have several stands of teak of various ages and in various states of abandonment, and we have a few overstood stands of balsa which will be difficult and costly to harvest, and which will blow down if there aren’t any serious interventions.

We have no maps of the stands, no spatial GIS data, no volumetric assessments, no incremental growth data, no ring-fenced departmental budget.  The university barely even has any diameter tapes or tools to undertake any pruning or thinning interventions, and we don’t own a single handheld GPS unit.  The meagre payments made by the PNG government to the university barely cover staff costs, and leave nothing for development of our facilities for students or for research.

The Forestry Department of the university has been here since 2007, but as of this date, we are literally starting from almost nothing.

Some years ago, and even to this day, balsa has been touted as an ideal plantation tree for smallholder communities living on customary land.  It has a rotation of only 5-6 years, it has a wide variety of uses, most notably in the construction of wind turbine blades, and there are several factories locally that will buy it.  However, poor extension work has led to overstated expectations amongst many communities, and many of the plantations are poorly sited and poorly managed.  There is a huge amount of disillusionment amongst these communities when they can’t sell their balsa, and they are naturally cautious when it comes to engaging with so-called “experts” in the future.

6-year old balsa plantation on campus, ready to harvest.

The major purchaser and processor of balsa in East New Britain is the Switzerland-based 3A Composites, who bought out PNG Balsa in 2015.  Until recently they exported components for wind turbine blades to two countries; India and China, and they employed 683 staff.  However, at the time of writing, India has cancelled its subsidies for renewable energy, which means 3A have, at least for now, lost their major customer.  This will of course mean the loss of many jobs in the factory.

The major player in plantation forestry in East New Britain is Open Bay Timber, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Tokyo-based Sumitomo Forestry Group.  They have been in PNG since 1971, well before independence, and, like 3A Composites, they have FSC certification to their credit.

However, both companies have had a number of CARs (Corrective Action Required) at recent audits; for not consulting with NGO’s, and for a lack of contractor monitoring which led to smallholder growers not being paid the going prices for their standing timber.  To an extent this is forgivable, because here in Papua New Guinea there are very few, if any, home-grown consultants, and there are very few, if any, NGO’s to consult with.

However, while it may be understandable to a point, what should challenge anyone with an interest in the rights and living standards of people in a developing country who rely upon the forest industry, is that both companies have a special dispensation from the PNG government to pay their workers only 75% of the national minimum wage.

To put that in context, I recently bought a little plastic broom to clean my house with, and it cost me K20.  This plastic broom, which is likely to break after a few weeks, is the equivalent of almost a full day’s wage in PNG.  Perhaps it is naive of me, but as both a consumer, and as a forester who holds the FSC standard in high regard, I would expect more.

There are clearly flaws in a certification system which is world-renowned for being the benchmark of environmental and ethical standards for forest products, but FSC are at least continuing to develop those standards in the right direction.  But the first question one needs to ask of themselves is, if well-reputed multinational corporations with FSC-certification, and who are audited annually by independent external assessors, can get away with paying their workers a wage that is below the national minimum, what of the countless others who are operating here without any such scrutiny?

I came to PNG as a forester who, through improvement of education and opportunities for the PNG people, hopes to make a small contribution toward the preservation of one of the richest and most threatened ecosystems on Earth.  But the work here is really of a more humanitarian nature.  Whether intentionally or otherwise, the greenwashing of businesses in order to satisfy the demands of a consumer-driven global marketplace does not always mean that conditions for workers are much better than anywhere else, be it in the forestry industry, or any other.  It is the responsibility of the consumer to inform themselves about what they are buying and where they are buying it and, more importantly, whether the label on the packaging actually means in real terms what it pretends to.  Without pressure from the consumer base, self-imposed corporate responsibility is almost non-existent.

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