It’s been an intense few weeks, but nothing about running a university forestry department in a Papua New Guinea university was ever going to be easy.
One of the challenges you face as an outsider working in PNG is in negotiating the complex system of social structures and interpersonal relationships, which do not follow the rules of social contract that Westerners are familiar with. Whatever it is you are trying to achieve, if you try to effect change too quickly here you will be met with suspicion, opposition, and outright obstruction, which will be counterproductive to your overall objectives. Everything has to move in PNG time and according to the rules of engagement which are deeply embedded in the culture.
With this in mind, it came as a great relief to me when my predecessor finally departed for retirement in Australia earlier in the week. Now I can really start getting things done, starting with finding ways to develop my own departmental staff.
There have been a couple of major developments in the last week or so. The first of them was to secure the co-operation of the Vice-Chancellor of the other university in PNG which runs a forestry programme. There is a culture of competition rather than cooperation here, and there has been much talk about whether or not having two universities running forestry programmes would be needed. However, after discussions, I was able to reassure him that we are offering a very different programme of study from the Papua New Guinea University of Technology, whose programme focusses on production forestry, and harvesting and marketing. Our own programme which, although it obviously includes plantation forestry and timber production, approaches the subject of forest science in a more multi-disciplinary manner and with a broader range of modules focussing on social and economic development. After all, you can’t combat deforestation and environmental degradation without understanding the core motivations behind it.
Another significant development, and one which could really put UNRE on the map, was that I was approached by the PNG Forest Authority, who were looking for a programme for their staff who already have diplomas to be upgraded to a Bachelors degree. Delivering the course would involve having to find a way to run our final year of the degree programme a full 3 years before we had intended, as they want to start in 2019. However, in the context of increasing scrutiny of the forest industry from certification bodies and external investors, this would be a real milestone for PNG development.
Talking of development, it’s time that I should introduce OISCA. The Organisation for Industrial, Spiritual, and Cultural Advancement is a Japanese NGO which trains individuals from Papua New Guinean communities in grassroots self-reliance, through transference of skills in agriculture, fisheries, and forestry. The best and brightest then have the opportunity to go on to Japan and study further, but the overall objective is for the graduates to essentially act as extension workers in their own communities.
UNRE has worked closely with OISCA on a number of projects in the past, and I was invited to be a guest speaker at their 30th anniversary graduation ceremony.
Below is a transcript of the speech I delivered. It also encapsulates the ethos behind the forestry programme at UNRE.
“Monin tru olgeta, Boina malana, Ohayo gozaimas,
I would like first of all to extend my apologies on behalf of Vice-Chancellor Professor John Warren of the PNG University of Natural Resources and Environment in Vudal, who wanted to be here to address you himself. Unfortunately he had other commitments with our own university council.
The privilege of being here today is therefore my own, as the Head of Forestry at UNRE, to pass on his good wishes and encouragement for the future.
I would like to extend my gratitude to Mr Norbert Perry for inviting me to be a witness to this auspicious occasion of the 30th graduation of OISCA students, and to have the opportunity to speak to you today.
It is always an honour for me to be here at OISCA. From my first introduction shortly after I arrived in PNG a few months ago, I was immediately inspired by the creative energy and positivity I felt here.
I was even more pleased to find that OISCA has a long and productive relationship with our own institution, and I like to think of us as a community who are working together for the same ends; the betterment of PNG and the creation of opportunities for its people.
But the greatest honour for me today is to be here primarily to congratulate you, the graduates of OISCA.
You now have an enormous role to play in the development of your country.
Some weeks ago I was privileged enough to be here for the 30th anniversary celebrations of this great institution. It was heartening and humbling to hear the Honourable Governor Gary Juffa of Oro Province, and Deputy Governor of East New Britain, the Honourable Cosmas Bauk.
They both made inspiring and energising speeches, which focused on the role we all have to play in developing this great nation, and serving our communities with respect, with pride, and with love for each other.
Papua New Guinea is one of the richest and most diverse countries in the world, but it continues to face many challenges.
One of the key points that both Mr Bauk and Mr Juffa reiterated was that above the natural resources that make this nation so unique in the world; the forests, the fertile soil, the sea teeming with fish, what PNG has in abundance, and what makes this country so great, is community. The communities of this blessed country are as rich and diverse as the wildlife that inhabit its forests and its coral reefs.
But they are who are communities crying out for change.
As proud graduates of OISCA, you are now in the unique position of being the architects of that change in your own communities, and in wider Papua New Guinea.
You must be in no doubt, that at this moment there are wolves at your door who will try and take advantage of division amongst Papua New Guineans in order to steal the wealth of your nation.
As the world outside of Papua New Guinea turns its own forests into deserts, and poisons its own rivers and seas, there are eyes now looking to this great nation with envy and with greed.
There are people who will come to your communities, and who will try and lead you astray with the temptations of a little bit of money in exchange for your lands, and the riches they hold.
They will promise you a better life, and when that fails, they will try to intimidate you. Either way, they will try to take what you have and leave you with a land which is as denuded and as barren as their own.
Papua New Guinea has the opportunity to create a new paradigm in development, and to break away from the old ways which have caused so much destruction to the environment, and suffering to so many people around this world.
You, the diverse people of Papua New Guinea, have the opportunity now, to show the rest of the world that the security of your people does not come from the short-term exchange of your precious natural resources for a few Kina, or the promise of a hectare of land entitlement.
The people of Papua New Guinea can show the rest of the world that security is built on community, on mutual respect, regardless of tribal or cultural affiliation, on a love of your land, and above all, on a love and respect for your fellow men and women.
And it is you, the graduates of OISCA, who will make that change happen.
So on behalf of the Papua New Guinea University of Natural Resources and Environment, I both congratulate you on this day of your graduation.
And I thank you for the good work that I know you will do in your communities from this day forward.
Tenkyu olgeta, Boina tuna, Arigato gozaimas.”