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Logging Operations in Vanimo

Logging Operations in Vanimo


Papua New Guinea is a Melanesian nation of 4.5 million people located north of Australia and southeast of Asia. It is a culturally diverse nation made up of a multitude of ethnic groups, speaking at least 700 languages. In most areas, rights to land and other resources are vested in customary groups such as clans, within which nearly all individuals have some kind of access to land and resources for subsistence needs, shelter and other necessities of life. Despite past colonial and state efforts to regulate land tenure and land ownership, a wide range of customary land tenure and land use systems still exist for allocating rights to resources and for regulating the succession to these rights (Crocombe & Hide, 1987). Indeed, these customary rights are recognised by, and enshrined in, the National Constitution.

Over 90% of forests in Papua New Guinea are owned by the traditional landholders under customary tenure. In a country where more than 70 % (36 million hectares) of the total land area is still covered with forests, and 15 million hectares identified as accessible and operable for forestry development, a number of stakeholders have become involved in the forestry sector. These include resource owners, landowner companies, the state and logging companies and affiliated contractors. Permits for timber exploitation are issued by the government after negotiating the acquisition of rights from local communities. For a logging proposal to proceed all landowners must be consulted and agree to the extraction of timber. Landowners receive royalties at a standard rate and have no control over which logging company holds the timber permit or the rate at which the timber is harvested.

In the mid 1960s a series of investigations were carried out in the vicinity of Vanimo on the far north-western coast of Papua New Guinea to determine the timber resources of the region. Encouraged by the results of those investigations, the PNG government purchased the timber rights from the landowners in 1969. The initial uncertainty about the timber species in this area was solved by baseline and feasibility studies over the proceeding years. These findings enabled the PNG government to call for tenders from companies with the intention of developing the Vanimo Timber Area. The Bunning Brothers group of Australia, through the local company Vanimo Forest Products, obtained the tenders to develop the area. The initial harvest was undertaken between 1986 and 1990 in an area known as Block 6. This was the first major timber extraction from the area.

In February 1990 the WTK Reality Group of Malaysia bought out the Bunnings Group shares in Vanimo Forest Products. The company retained the name Vanimo Forest Products (VFP) and in September 1990 signed a project agreement with the PNG government relating to the Vanimo Timber Area. The agreement detailed the company's involvement in the development of infrastructure, training schemes, and land and forest management. Particularly, the agreement stated that VFP would construct, in the first five years of operation, an 80-kilometre road trafficable in all weather conditions by conventional two-wheel drive vehicles to form part of the East-West highway from Vanimo to Wewak. Furthermore, recreational facilities, new schools and health clinics were to be built by the company to ensure a higher standard of living for the people in the region.

By signing the project agreement VFP committed itself to harvest rainforest trees using the selective logging system and to minimise incidental environmental damage. This was in line with the Papua New Guinea government's belief that selective logging of rainforests and a policy of sustained yield management should provide long term benefits to the communities who own the forests. With the implementation of the Logging Code of Practice (1996) the PNG government consolidated and simplified the conditions for timber extraction from a previously large range of documents concerned with logging. The code prescribed best management practices for companies that conduct selection logging and aimed to reduce the adverse impacts of logging on the forests and the communities living in them.

Traditionally the communities living in the Vanimo Timber Area are dependent upon the forests for their nutrition. The staple food is the starch of the sago palm (Metroxylon sagu). This is complemented by banana (Musa sp.) and wild root crops as well as by a range of tree crops, of which the most prominent are tulip trees (Gnetum gnemon) and coconut palms (Cocos nucifera). Characteristically sago palms are found in lower lying swampy areas, the tulip groves further up hillsides, and the coconut palms on the hilltops planted close to settlements. Hunting of wild pigs, birds and marsupials as well as fishing are important sources of animal protein. Other sources of protein include wild bush fowl eggs, which are collected from nests surrounding the base of old trees, and a variety of grubs, which are often found in decaying wood.

Royalties and income from logging activities have made many people more dependant on a cash economy, with traditional food sources being at least partially replaced by tinned and packaged foodstuffs. However, there have been complaints from some of the landowners that the logging operations have negligently damaged their land and reduced the ability of their people to find sufficient food in the forest thus necessitating further dependence on the cash economy. Many of these landowners also believe that the PNG Forestry Authority (PNGFA) has not ensured that negligent practices do not occur. Furthermore, nearly 10 years have past since the project agreement was signed and much of the promised infrastructure has not been completed while land disputes, which were previously rare, have also increased. This report presents an assessment of these allegations and the environmental and social impacts of logging in the Vanimo Timber Area.