Sussex researcher training 'para-ecologists' to protect the rainforest

A scientist at the University of Sussex has been working to train up a new generation of data collectors to help monitor the overall health of the rainforest ecosystem.

Named ‘para-ecologists’ (paramedics of the rainforest), this generation are proving vital for researchers working in this area.

Since 2001, the University of Sussex has led five projects designed to train and build scientific knowledge of nature with local people and received almost £1million in backing from the UK Government’s Darwin Initiative, with some UK aid, over this period.

This includes funding for several projects to help villagers in Papua New Guinea become para-ecologists and protect their country’s treasured rainforest. These individuals are now providing vital scientific knowledge that is changing minds on the ground and helping others gain new livelihoods, which is contributing to the protection of some of the world’s most important habitats. 

Dr Alan Stewart, Darwin project-lead from the University of Sussex, said: "We use the name 'Para-ecologist' as analogous to Paramedic. These dedicated people are helping us to carry out vital research work on species of plants and animals, many only found in Papua New Guinea. 

"It is heartening to see that our training programme has impacted local people's lives to the extent that a large area of rainforest is being protected from destruction - by the very people who live there.

"Darwin Initiative support has been absolutely essential to establishing these projects and helping to change and shape people's lives."

The rainforests in Papua New Guinea are home to an estimated 25,000 species of plants, along with 760 bird species that are found nowhere else on Earth including the iconic Birds of Paradise, tree kangaroos and many other creatures such as Queen Alexandra's Birdwing butterfly.

The projects in Papua New Guinea have raised awareness of nature and the importance of protecting biodiversity amongst the local indigenous communities and led to increasing concern for the long-term future of the rainforest.

Para-ecologist, Joseph Kua said: “I am amazed with the current job I have. I can see that I am really contributing to educating local landowners about the importance of forest conservation. 

“We carry out biodiversity surveying in the rainforest which is essential to make sure that the area will be protected. If we do not know what is there, then we can’t make sure it will be conserved for future generations.”

Joachim Yalang, also one of the Para-ecologist, said: “Currently, I am involved in a program in my community which tries to restore forest back to its original state. I am happy that I have a job which involves research and rainforest conservation because it enables me to give back to my community what I have learnt and make them aware of the importance of rainforest and conservation.”

The work of para-ecologists, and those training them, was celebrated yesterday, on the UN International Day of Forests (21 March), which coincided this year with the Government’s Year of Green Action, a drive throughout 2019 to help people to connect with, protect and enhance nature – both in the UK and abroad.

Environment Minister, Thérèse Coffey MP, said: "UN International Day of Forests was a chance to celebrate the wonderful individuals around the globe who are dedicated to protecting our flora and fauna. 

"This initiative reinforces the Government's commitment to protect the most diverse forests for nature and tackle illegal logging.

"The Darwin Initiative continues to support hundreds of projects that restore and enhance wildlife and nature. It's another fine example of our support for action at home and abroad to ensure we are the first generation to leave our environment in a better state than we found it."

With support from UK aid, the UK is driving new, sustainable approaches in some of the world’s richest natural environments and most beautiful areas, which both protect the environment and provide quality, sustainable jobs to local communities.

The Para-ecologist initiative has contributed to the establishment of a model rainforest conservation area, which won a United Nations Development Programme’s Equator Prize award in 2015.

The conservation area is a community-designated area of forest around 10,000 hectares on the northern side of the island that has been protected from logging by nine neighbouring indigenous clans.

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By: Stephanie Allen
Last updated: Wednesday, 8 May 2019