Sussex scientists help Papua New Guinea villagers to protect rainforest

In training for forest research, from left: Joseph Kua, Dr Mika Peck, Martin Keltim and Dr Alan Stewart

Scientists from the University of Sussex have been awarded Government funding to help villagers in Papua New Guinea protect their country’s precious rainforest.

The rainforests of Papua New Guinea, like others around the world, are under threat from the destructive effects of the logging industry. Once remote areas of rainforest are opened up by logging operations, the pressure on adjacent landowners to give in to the short-term attraction of significant financial gain in preference to conservation is almost always irresistible.

This is partly because conservation projects generally fail to present indigenous owners of forests with a reasonable alternative livelihood in exchange for conserving their forests.

Now, ecologist Dr Alan Stewart and conservation biologist Dr Mika Peck plan to develop a 10,000 hectare forest conservation reserve – Wanang Conservation Area in Papua New Guinea (PNG) –  as an internationally recognised base for ecological research on tropical rainforests, attracting researchers (and their funding) to carry out long-term scientific projects.

The aim is to develop a sustainable income for the local village community that would match the potential income from the environmentally destructive yet financially rewarding logging industry, while also improving the country’s research infrastructure and skills for biological research.

Funding for the project comes from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) Darwin Initiative, which supports UK ecology expertise in conservation work in areas of rich biodiversity worldwide.

Dr Stewart, an ecologist whose research covers insect and plant interactions, has already been collaborating for 12 years with the Binatang Research Center in PNG, helping to develop the infrastructure and train a large team of locally-recruited staff in research techniques.

Dr Peck, meanwhile, has spent several years creating a similar project in the cloud forest region of north-west Ecuador, home of the spectacled bear and brown-headed spider monkey. He is also currently involved in TREETRACK, in collaboration with the Eden Project, to develop a ‘fingerprinting’ tool to identify illegal logging and certify sustainable timber. 

Dr Stewart says: “We’ll be training village recruits as para-ecologists, so that they can work with and support research ecologists from universities and institutions around the world. Their unique knowledge of the forest environment and their connection with their own village communities is absolutely critical to the success of this approach.”

Two of the para-ecologists are currently visiting the UK for a month of intensive training as part of the project. Martin Keltim and Joseph Kua will spend time at Sussex and undergo training in tree-climbing (to enable them to access the rainforest canopy, where most of the insect life and other biodiversity is found) and plant identification at Kew Herbarium. They will also visit the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, to see how a major museum works.

Mr Kua says: “We are keen to learn as many new techniques as possible that will help us with our research back home.”

Next year, the Sussex team will be visiting PNG to continue the training. Dr Stewart says: “It’s a very exciting project that mixes fundamental research in ecology with a new approach that could really make a difference to how we approach rainforest conservation in future.”

It is estimated that the conservation area could generate an annual income of £20,000-£30,000 for the inhabitants – offering a viable alternative income to logging.

Notes for Editors

Building biodiversity research capacity to protect PNG rainforest from logging is funded by Defra via the Darwin Initiative. The award is for £246,000 over three years to 2015.

In PNG, Dr Peck will be run training for forest carbon assessment, monitoring and verification,  and Dr Stewart will be running training in entomology and ecology techniques.

The plan is to train ten village assistants and 18 para-ecologists to support research in Wanang Conservation Area, with two para-ecologists visiting the UK and other countries for further intensive training.  Three PNG students will also study for degrees focusing on biodiversity research.

Further work will include biodiversity surveys for plants, insects and vertebrates in logging areas to evaluate the impact of logging and other human activity and the production of plant and animal guide books for local people, visiting researchers and PNG government departments.

Banner photo on home page: The rainforest-clad Owen Stanley Range, Papua New Guinea. Photo: Colin Freeman

University of Sussex Press office contacts: Maggie Clune and Jacqui Bealing. Tel: 01273 678 888. Email:

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Last updated: Wednesday, 12 September 2012