New Internationalist

Green imperialism

Issue 383

In Papua New Guinea, conservation groups have been creating the very problems they aim to solve. Glenda Freeman wonders at their weird ways.

Once upon a time, in the not-too-distant past, a bingo decided to do nature conservation in the Wasi river basin, Papua New Guinea. The place was an environmentalist’s dream. Lots and lots of bush filled with a multitude of flying and biting things. A diverse bunch of unwashed and scabrous people leading traditional lives that they punctuated with stories and wars. No industry, no logging or mining – just a virgin tract of scrub.

Looking at the planet from a distance, curious people might ask why this area is forested and largely intact compared with the rest of the joint, for which the impartial scientific verdict is ‘stuffed’. Well, no-one ever lived in the Wasi because they wanted to pass their days savouring the delights of sago and fish three times a day, while losing litres of blood to the mosquitos. No, the Wasis were refugees thrown out of the highlands by nastier people who had little land and didn’t want to share. Over the aeons numerous groups took up residence in the swamps and lakes of the Wasi, all of whom had one thing in common – a mutual detestation of each other.

One must ask why the Wasis have not stuffed the place up themselves. Are they, as some of our bingo friends supposed, the possessors of native wisdom that has allowed them to live in harmony with nature for an interminably long time? Unfortunately not. They have converted at least half of the Wasi forests to grassland by cooking it whenever it has been dry enough to hold a spark. Later, they exacerbated the local water-weed problems by covertly seeding their neighbour’s rivers with the plants. They have welcomed any organization willing to log, clear or mine, despite understanding the likely outcome perfectly well. The distressing fact is that the Wasis would have destroyed the place were it not for the malaria and other parasites that kill most of their kids, sap their energy and make them mad.

Well, a bingo (let’s call it the World Wildlife Fund, or WWF, for the sake of accuracy) was moneyed up to the tune of a few millions given to them by the Euro-Nation, which wanted to balance its books – oh, and see some rainforest preserved in the antipodes. What was the bingo going to do with its millions on the ground, day by day, to achieve conservation and happiness on the banks of the Wasi?

One school of thought was that it didn’t have enough money. By the time the staff were employed and paid with travel and living allowances there wasn’t much cash left over, and that was needed to pay for fax paper and inter-office memoranda. The Wasis were just going to have to be satisfied with motivational workshops aimed at ‘cultural reinforcement’, when to them their culture was just a way of surviving until something better came along.

Another idea was to develop a resource centre in the middle of the project area. It would house a good library holding all sorts of self-help development materials: How to Start a Butterfly Farm in Three Easy Steps; A Beginner’s Guide to Small-scale Saw-milling. A place for quiet study and idle reflection on the options available to the average Wasi family. It would also hold cultural artefacts and biological specimens from the area, so the locals could see that others held their things in high esteem. Some said the Centre would have a coffee shop and a sales outlet so the bingo wouldn’t have to support it for too long. Some said that the place would be robbed and cooked before it was finished – but they were miserable cynics who had spent too much time in the bush.

There was a proposal to assist the Provincial Government to plan for the future. However, the Provincial Government had a problem with cash. Millions arrived every year, but it always left without anyone actually seeing it. The bingo believed that, given direction and vision, the Government would be revitalized, repent and spend the money wisely. The Government suggested the bingo could buy them computers to enable them to keep track of their money.

As long as the money keeps burning and hardwood timber prices stay low, the bingo can point to all that forest it's saved for the Wasi people

The last and most treasured idea was to set up some model eco-projects in a few select villages. Village-based saw-milling was an obvious choice, to provide an alternative to the feared industrial logging. Villagers harvesting their own timber are less likely to sell the logging rights to the Malaysians – or so the theory goes. The only difference is this: with one you get paid heaps just to sit around, while with the other you get paid a pittance to work your guts out for ever. You can see why the Malaysians were popular.

All this ignored the original situation. The Wasis had unwittingly been excellent conservationists for a long time. The best thing the bingo could have done would have been to leave them alone, while doing what they could to deter the nastier industries from entering the region. In doing Conservation our bingo was creating the problem it hoped to solve.

Several years later, and it has successfully burned through a few million dollars. Staff mostly sit in the office – it’s too hot to go out. Frustrated by its ineptitude, the Provincial Government managed to pressure the project into dishing out water supplies and other ‘cargo’ – goodies that arrive out of the blue. The top-dog WWF bureaucrat – a cargo-thinker of the highest rank – in the capital city, Port Moresby, pushes the project to deliver even more cargo for the people, thereby keeping them idle and dependent. As long as the money keeps burning and hardwood timber prices stay low, the bingo can point to all that forest it’s saved for the Wasi people.

Dark glasses and fancy boots

The interest of conservation bingos in Papua New Guinea began some time ago. They arrived as soon as some wise mind noticed how much tropical forest was still here. They stepped in the door in the early 1990s and at first tried to work with local groups. But there were big problems. The local groups moved too slowly. Some were downright cantankerous. None had anything close to the capacity needed to handle projects of the requisite size. So, some time during the 1990s, the international conservation bingos decided to become colonialist.

When they set up shop in Port Moresby, the green imperialists had to be careful. First order of business was to find a black face to put on display. The fastest way to do that was to steal Papua New Guineans from existing groups or government agencies. They made sure they appended ‘PNG’ to their own acronyms. Consultants came armed with laptops, cookbook steps to winning the hearts of villagers, landscape ecology theory, planning notions that made no sense at all to the villagers. Consultants who drowned themselves in malaria prophylactics, sunscreen, dark glasses and fancy boots; who breathed a sigh of relief if they could keep their time in the village to a minimum.

Support really is needed for conservation activities in Papua New Guinea. But right now a strong argument can be presented that donors’ help is more destructive than constructive. Donors like the Ford, MacArthur and Packard foundations, or the Australian Government’s AusAID, could be involved in supporting conservation and development in positive ways. They could promote initiatives that effectively spread information on conservation and development. They could support work that directly addresses unequal power relationships and involves a legion of Papua New Guineans, rather than a handful of paid conservationists.

Local people get frustrated when donors show them glazed smiles, glossing over the worst cases of mismanagement, misappropriation and downright incompetence while commenting on a few good things that happened in spite of it all.

Stop giving money so unquestioningly to the bingos! Stop funding giant projects! Most of all, don’t create organizations in your own image. Simplicity, grassroots and small should be your words of guidance – if you want to contribute to something that really lasts.

Glenda Freeman, a native of New Zealand/Aotearoa, is a freelance writer with a long-standing interest in modern-day expressions of colonialism. Chance encounters with Fijian NGO workers in 2001 stimulated her to start compiling stories and information on bingo activities in Asia and the Pacific.

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