New Developments at the UNRE Forestry Department, and a Graduation Speech

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.”

 

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.

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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.

PNG – The First Week

Leaving is astonishingly painful, even for a person with no roots to speak of.  Ted Simon, in “Jupiter’s Travels”, describes it better than I can;

“There are … goodbyes too delicate and too fraught with emotion to be written about in passing, for I have lived a while.  On my way down through Europe I learn the value of the love I am abandoning.  At times I experience a degree of misery and lovelessness I have not known since adolescence.  I wonder if I will ever have the capacity to bear such pain again.  It occurs to me that that may be the condition for eternal youth.”

Of course, I’m not abandoning anything.  Quite the contrary, I am leaving, amongst other reasons, to create an opportunity that we will never have in England; to own our own house and land, and hopefully have a more simple life.  In any case, I won’t dwell on the pain of being apart from my best friend and soulmate here, as it only serves as a distraction from the greater goals of this particular adventure.

The 4am journey from the door of my house in Exeter to Heathrow airport was painful and dull.  As was the subsequent 13 hours in a cramped seat on a plane to Singapore.  I had the misfortune to have a mid-row seat, so my elbows were constantly vying for space from neighbours either side of me.  Probably not as unfortunate for me, however, as for the poor girl seated in the isle seat to my left, who had to put up with me asking her to move every half hour so I could stretch my legs and try to keep the blood from coagulating in my arteries.

There was plenty to watch on the mini TV screen in the headrest of the seat in front of me, but I’m a six-foot man who weighs around 16 stone, and I’m not the most agile of creatures.  I don’t do well in confinement.

We arrived at Singapore promptly at 7am local time.  Changi airport is huge, but it is a monument to clinical aesthetics.  My primary objective after collecting my bags was to find somewhere I could have my first cigarette in 17 hours or so.  This was delayed as the customs officials picked on me for a random bag check.  Of course, the knives, machete, and other cutting tools that I had in my holdall immediately drew their attention.  Fortunately I managed to convince them that I was just a bumbling Englishman who definitely did not have any double-edged blades on my person or in my bags.  They let me go on my way without having to unwrap the pallet-wrap protecting my bags from sticky fingers.

I’d forgotten how stifling the humidity of the tropics can be to the unacclimatised.  It hadn’t occurred to me that I was in an air-conditioned building, because I was already sticky from 13 hours of having been wedged in a plane, squeezed between other sweaty bodies.  As the sliding glass doors to the outside world opened for me, the wave of steamy heat almost knocked me off my feet.  And it was only 7.30am.

As with many other airports, Changi has few designated smoking areas.  The one I chose was literally a rectangle, about 2×3 metres, demarcated by yellow paint on the pavement near the McDonalds, and with a multitude of “no smoking” signs on every side of it.  They execute drug smugglers in Singapore, and I wouldn’t be surprised if casually ignoring the “no smoking” signs resulted in a similar punishment.  So step out of the box at your peril…

After spending 6 hours or so generally bumming around the public area of the airport, I was able to check in and go to the terminal.  Changi airport has a swimming pool and jacuzzi on the roof, which is well worth paying a little more than a tenner for when you’re exhausted, sweaty, and generally feeling unpleasant.  I could not have cared less that there was a tropical shower occurring at the time, to finally be able to get my clothes off and dive into the pool was quite possibly the most amazing feeling I could have imagined…..

Day 1: PNG – Finally…..

My onward to Port Moresby was delayed by almost 3 hours.  Just as well I had several lounge  passes; one I had pre-booked myself, and one which came as a courtesy by virtue of the fact that HR had booked this leg of the journey business class…..

After about the most comfortable flying experience I’ve ever had, I was awake enough to enjoy the descent into Port Moresby Jackson International Airport.  The unimaginable expanse of rainforest, marshland, mangroves and river deltas gave way to huge areas where the hand of man was all too evident.  Miles of land cleared for plantations of oil palm, building developments, and, frequently, no reason  at all discernible to the casual observer.

Touching down and finally disembarking was truly like entering a different world.

I’ve always said that the culture shock I’ve experienced in my life when travelling always came not from going to somewhere, but on returning to the inward-looking, culturally self-important parochialism of Britain.  On this particular occasion, I have to eat some humble pie.

PNG is, simply put, a fucking crazy place.  Not in a bad way, please understand that, but from the moment one arrives, everything challenges our cosseted western sensibilities.  However culturally aware you might think you are, PNG will pick you up by your ankles, slap you in the face, and shake whatever sense of privileged entitlement you thought you were far too cool to  have, right out of your pockets….

After presenting my immigration visa to customs I went through to the baggage belts.  According to my flight itinerary, I had precisely 20 minutes to get my luggage, check in at the domestic terminal, and get on my next flight to Rabaul.  This was blatantly not going to happen, and I was going to have to spend a night in Port Moresby; infamously “the most dangerous city in the world”.

I retrieved my bags, rushed to the next check-in point approximately 50m away, and handed them right back over to the lady behind the desk.  For some reason the attendant wanted to take a copy of my itinerary.  Fair enough, I suppose, but isn’t that what computers are for?  I wasn’t going to argue, so I went with her to customer services, located by the main doors, while she used their photocopier.  Once she had her copy and was duly satisfied, she pointed me in the direction of the domestic terminal, a few minutes walk away.  My bags were still unattended at her check-in counter, and were probably being pilfered as we spoke….

“Fuck it”, I said to myself.  It’s in the hands of the gods….

I hurried off to the domestic terminal, no time to stop by the ATM and get some Kina.  I desperately needed to let Holly know I had arrived safely, and tell John, my new boss, that I was making a break for my scheduled flight, so please could someone be at Rabaul to meet me.  However much credit you have on them, UK phones do not work in Papua New Guinea.  Bollocks to it.  I will get to Rabaul, and somehow sort it out from there.

There was a disorganised rabble of people ahead of me, all shouting and barking at each other in angry and impatient tones.  As I approached, I could see that security were only letting people into the terminal in groups of around ten.  There were probably two hundred people there, all vying to be in the next batch let through.  A man was shouting at a policeman that he was a “gutboi” (good boy), and hadn’t done anything wrong.  He was one of the hundreds all trying to get through the tape barrier and into the terminal building.  Suddenly he was coming back in my direction, shouting his insistence to the police that he was going through, and they weren’t going to stop him.  Two police were now face to face with him, when one suddenly decided enough was enough, and gave chap a massive slap to the side of the head.  At this point, all hell broke loose.  The man fought back, and the police officer was joined by several more, all grabbing at him, and dishing out some smacks here and there.  A few of the crowd objected to this, and turned on the police, throwing punches and yelling at them.  I was anticipating knives and guns coming out.  Great.  I’m going to catch a stray bullet, and my mission to finally try and do something useful with my life is going to be ignominiously curtailed on the tarmac of Port Moresby domestic flights terminal.

Then, as suddenly as it started, it was all over.  Four policemen dragged the man behind a fence into a compound, and two more kept the angry crowd back from the gates.  Law and order was restored.

I got through the tape barriers, and into the terminal.  I queued at the desk for Rabaul.  Wrong desk.  I queued at another desk.  Wrong desk.  I queued at third desk, and when I finally reached the attendant, she just told me I was already booked on, and was good to go.

Wonderful! Race through another security checkpoint, and into the lounge.  Suddenly, everything ground to a halt.  The domestic terminal is like a waiting room at a bus station.  My flight, which was scheduled to have boarded already, wasn’t even open yet.  Two men at the front of the lounge were just shouting the numbers of the flights which were boarding, and mine was way down the list.  I could relax…..

The flight from Port Moresby to Rabaul takes about an hour and a half.  You climb out of Moresby, over the Stanley mountain range, and across a clear turquoise sea speckled with coral atolls.  After half an hour, New Britain island, cloaked in a blanket of cloud, comes into view to the north.  It makes you marvel open-mouthed at the tenacity and the ingenuity of the people who first came to colonise these islands around 35-40’000 years ago. 

You hug the southern coast, over the peaks of remnant volcanoes which have formed islets, before veering inland towards the northeast.  The forests stretch on forever, but  here and there are the telltale signs of oil palm plantations being cleared.  New dirt roads are being carved into a virgin wilderness, and piles of logs are visible at the ends of them.  And then, finally, the familiar peaks of Tokimau and Kabiu appear, with Tavurvur growling at their feet….

I say familiar, because if you Google “New Britain Island”, as I have done on more occasions than I can remember in the last 9 months or so, it is the image that comes up most.  Compared to its bigger brothers, or indeed compared to what most people imagine when they think of a volcano, Tavurvur doesn’t look particularly menacing at all.  However, New Britain sits directly on the precipice of a subduction zone; where two of the Earth’s tectonic plates are colliding, and one is slipping infinitesimally slowly, but with absolute certainty, under the other.  We are on the eastern edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire, and consequently it is one of the most volcanically active places in the world.  Tavurvur is actually just a side vent of a much larger caldera, most of which is under the bay and out of sight.  In 1937 it, and its neighbour Vulcan, on the opposite side of the bay, erupted, killing 508 people.  This led to a volcanic observatory being built in the 1950’s to implement an early-warning system.  Evidently this has worked rather well, as the twin eruptions of Tavurvur and Vulcan again in 1994 only killed 5.  The last eruption in 2014 didn’t kill anyone.

I’d like to reassure my loved ones that my insurance covers me for emergency evacuation in the event of a natural disaster or civil unrest.  And besides, the observatory is doing its job perfectly well to date…

The current Rabaul airport was built on the site of a WW2  airbase in Tokua, after the 1994 eruption destroyed the original one.  The terminal is a dilapidated, musty-smelling building, clad in fibreboard panels which are rotten and infested with termites.  Nonetheless, the bright paintings of Tumbuans and faces representing ENBP culture are a testament to a people eager to appeal to the outside world, and the positive development that tourism could bring.

Despite my earlier concerns, I was met at the airport by a few members of the university PR and HR staff, and presented with a necklace of shell money, as is customary for newcomers to the island.  Publicity photographs were taken, before I was ferried into the nearby town of Kokopo, where I could get some cash from an ATM and buy a sim card for my phone, thus enabling me to reassure my beloved back home that I had arrived safely.  This being done, it was time for the first of many journeys that I have subsequently made along the East New Britain Highway, to the University of Environment and Natural Resources, Vudal… (more on this later).

Arriving after an hour or so of bumpy travel at the UNRE campus, I was introduced to a few of the key HR staff who have been responsible for getting me here.  After the formalities were over with, I was shown to Kairak, the guesthouse part-owned by the university, where I am currently staying until my house is furnished.  It’s a humble affair, but paramount for me is that it has a bed, a kettle, and air conditioning….

Day 2 – Saturday

I had met up with John and his family briefly the first evening I arrived, but by 6pm I was literally falling asleep standing up, so I was delivered back to the guesthouse, where I promptly collapsed on my bed and slept like a brick until around three in the morning.

John and Cathryn’s children and their partners are currently visiting, and I was invited to join them to hike up the side of Vulcan, one of the volcanoes previously mentioned.  Of course I wasn’t going to say no…

Access to land is a deadly serious issue in PNG.  Almost all land is in customary ownership, meaning that it belongs to particular villages of particular tribal groups.  This means that if you step off the public road, you are guaranteed to be trespassing, and this is not something you take lightly here….  Many of the acts of violence that are meted out, and which give PNG a notorious reputation, are the result of transgressing the unwritten rule that if it ain’t your land, if you don’t have permission from village elders to be there, and if you don’t cough up some money to make it worth their while, you don’t go there.  End of story.  Even to this day in PNG, (although fortunately not so much in ENB province), tribal groups fight deadly and bloody battles with each other over lands, and they guard them fiercely.  You are literally risking your neck if you ignore this simple protocol.

Fortunately Thomas, one of the campus security guards, belongs to the clan whose lands include Vulcan.  He had previously arranged for John and family to travel to the village and be guided up the mountain, and so it was that he,  John, Cathryn, their two offspring, their respective partners, Jack the driver, another member of campus security, and myself, all climbed into a 4WD to head there.  Back down the bumpy road towards Kokopo, and hang a left at Fourways towards Rabaul…

Arriving at a small wooden shack selling “GoGo Cola” and buai (betel nut), we picked up a village elder and a young lad of about 14.  As the original gatecrasher to this particular party, I had opted to sit in the boot of the car with Thomas and the other security guard.  And consequently, the two who joined us also squeezed in on top of us.  Three in the front, three in the middle, and five squashed like a can of anchovies into the boot… 

Of course, having just flown 13 hours crammed into the middle row of a Singapore Airlines flight, I  was getting used to this by now….

We bumped down a few dirt roads, before finally arriving at what, I think it is safe to say, most people would describe as a paradise of a beach…

Without wanting to piss on anyone’s chips too much, the paradise beaches of our imaginations are not so much in reality.  All along the strand line there are plastic bottles, carrier bags, and the detritus not only of PNG, but of every country and cruise liner of the world who carelessly dispenses with their refuse.  The coasts of New Britain have the misfortune of being precisely where the ocean currents dump much of the worlds rubbish.  It’s a sobering indictment of our wastefulness, and utter lack of respect for the planet we inhabit.

In 1994, before the last major eruption, the villagers lived on the slopes of Tavurvur on the other side of the bay.  When the eruption happened, they got in their boats and high-tailed it to this side, only to find that Vulcan was also blowing apart.  It would be enough to make anyone think that the gods had it in for them.  We were guided along the beach to a point where we could see the scar on the hillside, where part of the mountain blew out and spewed lava into the ocean.   In the course of doing so, it created an entirely new landmass, which is where the village is now situated.

The new volcanic slopes are where the village grow their food.  Pumpkins, watermelons, taro, and cassava all line the terraces which have been cleared from the encroaching bush.  Papua New Guinea is an incredibly fertile place.  One need only drop a seed in the ground, or discard a pineapple top, and it will spring into life.  I have thought, as we have bumped down the roads and seen the copious amount of food plants growing wild on the verges, that it would be impossible to starve here.

And so we turned from the beach and progressed up the side of the mountain, reaching a small watermelon plantation.  It was at this point that my lack of any breakfast, coupled with the fact that I was not remotely acclimatised to the tropical heat, got the better of me.  I collapsed in a heap on the ground, struggling to catch my breath, and feeling my core temperature increasing dangerously.  After sitting for 10 minutes or so and throwing some of my last remaining water over myself, much to the humour of the villagers working in the plantation, I opted to go back to the beach and sit in the shade of the coconut trees while the others continued the ascent up Vulcan.  Embarrassing as it was, heatstroke can be fatal, and wherever you are in Papua New Guinea, you can be sure that it is a long way from any medical help.  There are countless examples of people having died of embarrassment, meaning that they were too stubborn or proud to admit their  limitations, and who have consequently put themselves in a lethal position.  Fortunately for me, I’m not a proud man.

My early return to the village was not without its fortuitous happenstance.  One of the local guys, Martin, accosted this curious white man in conversation, during the course of which I ended up trying my first betel nut, and buying a small coke bottle of the illicit moonshine they make from bananas. (For twice the going rate, obviously…)  If there is one thing you can guarantee when I’m in a strange place, it is that I’ll end up sniffing out the local hooch….

After the return of the rest of the group, we were squashed back into the 4×4, and ferried the hour or so back to the university campus.  En route, we stopped at Keravat; the nearest “town” to the university.  Jack needed to buy a particular kind of taro for Sunday’s meal.  Keravat market not having any, he decided to go back into Kokopo to the market there, and I opted to go with him and Thomas.  And so it was that after dropping off the rest of the gang, we bumped back down the road to Kokopo, which is something that really deserves a paragraph or so by way of explanation…

 

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Traveling the laughably-named East New Britain Highway from the UNRE campus to Kokopo is something that in a very short time I have come to both love and loathe, but probably erring on the side of loathing.  The distance between the two is 33km, but the journey takes approximately an hour or more.  This is because the road is fiercely potholed, great sections of it wash away with every rainstorm, (an almost daily occurrence), and the maximum speed that can safely be achieved on most of it is approximately 20mph.  It climbs from Kokopo heading west up the ridge of a staggeringly enormous but (hopefully) extinct volcanic caldera, which is at some points not more than about 30m wide.  This gives rise to some absolutely breathtaking views, but also some vertiginous drops into the forest, should one veer off the road for any reason.

There are one or two sections of it that are tarmac, and relatively well-maintained, but these are about 100m in length at most, and end at precisely the point where the local government administrative boundaries do.  For the most part, however, it is a bone-breaking hour-long ride if one needs to go to town for any reason.  In the six days I’ve been here at the time of writing this, I have, for one reason or another, had to make that journey on no fewer than 9 occasions…

Day 3 – Sunday  

I had been invited to a mumu; a feast of local stew cooked on hot rocks, in the back yard of the Vice-Chancellor’s house.  Jack had set to work early that day; preparing the fire, heating the rocks etc, while his wife, a striking and elegant woman of mixed PNG and Japanese heritage, and who speaks English with a well-educated Port Moresby accent, was chopping chicken and taro. 

I had carried to PNG in my luggage a bush knife that I had bought in England, having been forewarned that the ones on sale locally were not the best.  I’d only paid a tenner for it; a Brazilian Tramontina of the kind I had used when I was in the Amazon a decade or so ago.  On this particular day, being new to the country and uncertain of the local temperament, I was carrying it with me in case of trouble on the road between my house and theirs.  It took Jack all of about thirty seconds to see the machete, and comment that he’d always wanted one in that particular shape, but couldn’t find one locally.  Naturally, I gave it to him.  His face lit up like a child, and every day since then he has been proudly strutting about, clenching it in his hand.

Day 4 – Monday

My first day of official employment in PNG.

When westerners think of a university, they think of the dreaming spires of Oxford, and people flouncing about in silly gowns and hats, talking some pretentious drivel about things beyond the comprehension of mere mortals.  A university in a developing country couldn’t be further from that romantic notion. 

In the first instance, nothing really works.  Buildings in the tropics don’t take long to fall into disrepair, and become reclaimed by the jungle.  There are termites eating the wood panels and furniture, and cockroaches scuttle into the shadows to avoid becoming a meal for the numerous lizards and toads that haunt the place.  The electricity supply is sporadic at best, and frequently goes out for days on end, as does the internet.  The fact that it has internet or electricity at all is  a marvel in itself, being situated where it is, in the arse-end of nowhere.  The cheap, Chinese-built student accommodation is located in front of the university abattoir and pig sheds, and has open sewers and bare electrical wires sticking out of the walls.  The girls accommodation is surrounded by a razor wire fence, to prevent lusty boys from sneaking in.  It would be easy to come here and be overwhelmed into despair at the sight of the place.  It is also true to say that my first impressions were certainly that it is worse than even I had expected.  However, John has done some fantastic work here in the last year, and there is a mood of hope and aspiration amongst the students and most of the staff.  And it is a mood that is as infectious as malaria…

Day 5 – Tuesday

On Tuesday I met with Alex, the head of estates, for a tour of the university grounds and facilities.  He’s a big man with a warm smile and handshake, but an absolutely fierce sense of fairness, and definitely not someone to trifle with.  He struck me immediately as a good man, and we hit it off from the outset.  We bumped around in the Hilux to see, amongst other things, the dilapidated balsa mill.  The mill was a project that was started by a German entrepreneur in 2009, ran for a few years, but subsequently fell into disrepair, has had parts of it pillaged, and has all but been reclaimed by the bush.   Provided that I am here long enough, and no political skullduggery prevents me from staying, I will be making it my mission to find some funding and get the mill running again.

Day 6 – Wednesday

Wednesday morning, 7am, and I decided to bimble over to the campus and see if anyone was about.  What a ridiculously naive thing to think…

Not finding anyone, I wandered back up the road to the little shack near my guesthouse that sells  “Spear”; the rough Papua New Guinean cigarettes made from the local tobacco they call “brus”, and that you can buy individually for about 20p each.  Apparently, one of the things to check is if the newspaper they are rolled with is in Indonesian or Pisin.  It is said that the ones rolled with Indonesian newspaper are better quality, but I really couldn’t say.  

As I sat there outside the shack smoking my Spear and drinking a GoGo Cola, I was spotted by Pinki, a bubbly and friendly chap who works at the guesthouse.  Apparently I had left without eating the breakfast he had made for me, and he as good as manhandled me across the road and to the kitchen, where he produced a tomato omelette and buttered toast on a paper plate wrapped in tin foil.  He good-naturedly guarded me to make sure that I ate, all the while grinning  at me with his toothless maw, red-stained, like everybody else’s, from chewing buai.

Having eaten under supervision, I was allowed to return to work.  I got to the forestry department office and was able to procure a key.  Could I finally sit down at my computer and try and do some work?  Could I, bollocks!  There was a blackout, and the internet cable wasn’t connected.  I had to sit and shuffle through some admin papers while I waited for someone to turn a generator on.  If they had remembered to get some diesel for it.

After a while I received a message from John.  The family and Jack were going to go to some virgin rainforest, and did I want to come along too?  Of course I bloody did!  It’s my job, after all…

We piled in the 4×4 and headed west, down a part of the ENB Highway I haven’t been to before.  If I complained about the road to Kokopo before, I really shouldn’t have.  It’s a veritable Brands Hatch compared to the section of road going west from the university…

An hour and a half later, I emerged from the back of the 4×4 feeling like I’d done ten rounds as Chris Eubank’s punchbag while being wrapped in Duck tape.  However, the location we found ourselves in was nothing short of absolutely spectacular.

Most of the forest in the part of PNG where I live is what we foresters call secondary forest.  It was formerly cocoa or coconut plantations, which have subsequently been reclaimed by the bush, and reverted back to being forest.  These secondary  forests, while being naturally far richer than ours, don’t harbour nearly the same breadth of biodiversity as virgin rainforest which has never been cut.  The real forest is like something from The Lost World.  Every stem and every branch is covered with a profusion of ferns, lichens, and other plants.  Tree ferns many hundreds of years old tower above your head, and the high forest canopy contains the crowns of trees which are easily 30 or more metres across, from which hornbills call at each other.

We had stopped the 4×4 at the first river crossing that did not have a bridge.  The bridge had been there, but it had been washed away in a storm shortly after having been built.  A serious-looking chap with natty dreads was sitting on his heels by the river, watching a Hilux belching black diesel smoke make the crossing.  It lost one or two pieces of its load, and a guy jumped out to retrieve them before they were claimed by the river. 

The people of this part of New Britain are generally known as the Baining, and they are the original inhabitants of the Gazelle peninsula.  The predominant occupants of the peninsula today are the Tolai people, who moved over from nearby New Ireland when, according to their legend, they were chased out by a giant wild boar who was eating them.  The Tolai displaced the Baining, and drove them further inland and away from the coast.  So here at this river crossing it was Jack, a Tolai, asking permission of Nateks, a Baining, for permission to be on their land.

We were welcomed in and guided through the bush to a river away from the road.  We walked a little way up the bank, until we were brought to what looked like a natural weir.  Nateks nimbly sauntered across the lip of the weir effortlessly, before deeming it safe enough for a bunch of white people to cross, and beckoned us to come over.  I was first across, being keen to get my feet wet and break in my new US army jungle boots.  After a few steps, and realising that my jungle boots were great in the mud, but absolutely useless on slippery rock, I thought “to hell with it”.  Making sure my phone and notebook were out of my pockets and into my shoulder bag, I jumped in up to my waist, and waded across.  John followed after, and then Cathryn, and their children, and their partners.  We stood in the mud around a small waterfall, and gazed in awe at the surrounding jungle.  There were more species of plants in every square metre than I’ve ever seen anywhere.  On a single 10cm section of a small tree stem, there were upwards of 20 species of epiphyte growing.  And that was on just one small tree.  The forest was literally dripping with them!  Needless to say I immediately fell in love with the place.  I’m just annoyed that I didn’t write down the name of it; “Makin”, “Mapin”, something of that nature….

Nateks and one of his companions from the village, carrying a bushknife, gave us as long as we wanted to gawp at the place, before his mate started clearing a path ahead.  I followed along close behind him, with Cathryn and John behind.  The “kids” were soon out of sight, when a sudden scream pierced the air.  It didn’t sound like a scream of terror, but Cathryn went back to check.  John and I followed on behind Nateks.  After a while longer, John stopped to wait for Cathryn and the others, and I followed our guide alone.  We came to another creek feeding the main river, and we started to ascend it.  I had replaced the machete I had given Jack earlier in the week with another, much larger one, which I was using to clear a bit of bush and prop myself on where I needed to.  At one point on the ascent, I had to climb up and over some fallen trees, which were covered in slime and extremely slippery.  Nateks gestured to me to pass him my bush knife and free my hands to climb with, which I absent-mindedly did.  It suddenly dawned on me that now our entire party were separated, and I had just given the only bush knife we had between  us to a complete stranger…

My eyes narrowed, I became hyper-aware of my surroundings, and I watched Nateks’ body language like a hawk for any sign of animosity or ill-intent, as we carried on just a little further.

I needn’t have.  Nateks brought me up to a log into which had been chipped a few rudimentary steps, and at the top of it to plunge pool fed by another spectacular waterfall.   With a beautiful big grin on his face, and eyes which really showed nothing more than pride, he gestured toward it.  John came up behind me in a moment, followed by Cathryn and their kids.  The earlier  scream had just been Nikki, one of their partners, being a wuss about some silly thing or other.  She had opted to be taken back across the river and stayed there with Jack, and Eleanor’s boyfriend.  We all stripped off and dived into the plunge pool.  Nateks produced a bar of soap from seemingly nowhere, and started to wash his dreadlocks.

We spent a half hour or so pratting about in the water, before heading back down the creek and wading across the main river again.  We were joined by the others, but not before Jack decided to race back up the creek and take a bath himself.

Back at the jeep, Cathryn customarily gave Nateks about 20 Kina for taking us around.  He moved to give me back my bush knife, which he was still carrying, but I told him to keep it.  This gesture almost floored him, and with a happy cry and an enormous grin he shook my hand tightly, hugged me, slapped me on the back repeatedly, and told me he would treasure it as a great memory.  I should have remembered from my time in the Amazon that a decent bush knife, (especially a brand new one), is often more highly valued than money by people who depend on them for their subsistence.  I have resolved to buy another three or four when I’m next in Keravat, so I don’t keep giving my only one away to people….

After a few more hugs and handshakes, we piled back into the jeep, with an open invitation to return to the village any time we wanted.  Despite the bone-cracking journey to get there, it’s exactly the kind of place I would like to go into and sling up my hammock for a few nights, so I anticipate that I will return again to do just that.  

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The Preamble….

Let’s get the preamble out of the way with…

A year ago I was toying with the idea of leaving my job as a forestry advisor for the UK Forestry Service, and was wondering what to do next.  Shortly afterwards, through a series of extremely fortunate events which will no doubt be covered in more detail at a later date, I have found myself being appointed as the new Head of Forestry at a small university on an island province of Papua New Guinea..

This blog aims to document the creeping realisation of a dream I have had since the days when my world view was determined by what was published in encyclopaedias…