Saving the Forest for the Trees*


Photo: George Weiblen is racing to document the biodiverse flora of Papua New Guinea before the island nation is deforested. Photograph by Mark Luinenburg
By Meleah Maynard                                                                  
Online extra
July-August 2008
As if its name alone were not ominous enough, Antiaris toxicara also has a fearsome reputation. Tall with drooping branches and whitish-gray bark, the poison tree doesn't look menacing. But according to early explorers, to sleep in the cool shade beneath its wide canopy is deadly. Those who do, they say, never wake up.

The tree’s sap contains a potent cardiac toxin—a glycoside called antiarin, which hunters have long rubbed on the tips of their darts. In sufficient doses, the toxin causes the heart to beat ever more slowly until it finally stops. Found throughout Southeast Asia, Australia, and parts of Africa, Antiaris toxicaria is one of the 12,000 to 15,000 species of flowering plants that botanists estimate grow in Papua New Guinea’s rain forests—if only they had enough time to find, name, and record them all. But time is running out, says George Weiblen, an associate professor of plant biology at the University of Minnesota who has been researching the flora of the country’s forests for the past 15 years. The growing presence of commercial interests—including mining, logging, and agricultural—has greatly accelerated human impact on the land. All of this extraction is transforming the rain forests,” Weiblen says. “The wild areas where we work are shrinking faster and faster.”

Rich with natural resources, including oil, rubber, natural gas, and gold, Papua New Guinea, an independent country on the eastern half of the island of New Guinea, is abundant with marketable goods. But it’s the world’s insatiable hunger for exotic hardwoods—such as mahogany, kwila, and rosewood exported to China, Japan, Europe, and the United States—that has affected the country’s rain forests most.

This is a relatively new and pressing problem for the country roughly the size of California that was part of Australia before gaining its independence peacefully in 1975. While commercial interests began plundering the rain forests of the Amazon and Congo long ago, the lush lands of Papua New Guinea have remained largely untouched for decades, thanks in part to rough, mountainous terrain that has made it so difficult to get into the heart of the country’s dense forests that it simply wasn’t profitable to try.
Photo: George Weiblen shares an encyclopedia with children in a remote village. Photograph by Brus Isua

But the rising price of tropical timber has made it worth the timber industry’s while to invest in roads and other infrastructure necessary for harvesting the country’s forests. And rising prices have stepped up illegal logging, making it virtually impossible for scientists and conservationists to estimate just how much of the country’s rain forests have already been damaged or lost.

As the forests change, so do their ecosystems. In a few decades, perhaps sooner, the majority of the country’s lowland forest wilderness will be changed forever. The significance of that loss isn’t easy for people to comprehend and Weiblen knows it. Looking up from a laptop slideshow of photos from a recent trip, he frowns and poses a question he has heard many times: “So why should we care?”

He answers by explaining that the tropical rain forests of Papua New Guinea are the third largest in the world, after the Amazon and Congo, and most of the species on this planet live in rain forests. “So even though Papua New Guinea’s rain forests cover just half a percent of the world’s land area, they’ve got about 5 percent of Earth’s plant and insect diversity,” he says. “It’s a critical time to work there because this is our last chance to capture a snapshot of what wild places are like.”

It is also our last chance, Weiblen continues, to study how the complex ecosystems of Papua New Guinea’s rain forests have evolved. “We still know so little about the diversity of New Guinea’s forest wilderness,” he explains. “Recording the kind of fundamental data we’re collecting is critical to understanding how the distribution of plants has changed over time and how it may change in the future as the climate changes.”

A biodiversity hotspot

Weiblen was just 23 in 1993 when he first stepped off a plane in Papua New Guinea. Having just graduated from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, with a bachelor’s degree in biology, he visited the island on a fellowship that allows college graduates to travel for a year outside the United States.
Photo: harvested trees at a timber mill in Madang, Papua New Guinea. Photograph by George Weiblen

He chose the South Pacific because, as an undergraduate, he had explored the temperate rain forests of the Pacific Northwest. But he was drawn to the pictures in his textbooks of the tropics.

He could only imagine the biodiversity of Papua New Guinea. And what he found far exceeded his expectations.

Most of all, he wanted to know what scientists were doing to document all that was there. “What I discovered was that there were very, very few researchers working in that vast territory,” he recalls. “But I was enchanted with the idea of working there because it is one of the last biodiversity hotspots on Earth. It was, and still is, a kind of frontier.”

Luckily, he fell in with a group of biologists from around the world conducting biodiversity surveys on the island. Fifteen years later, Weiblen is practically a fixture in Papua New Guinea. He travels there at least once a year, accompanied by students whom he is now introducing to the country. Weiblen, who earned his Ph.D. from Harvard and joined the U’s faculty in 2000, says the University’s support of both international interdisciplinary research and the Bell’s natural history collection has made ongoing work in Papua New Guinea possible for him and his students.

In 1997 Weiblen and his colleagues from around the globe founded the New Guinea Binatang Research Center in the town of Madang on the country’s north coast. Binatang means “insect” in Melanesian pidgin and is an apt name for the center since its research focuses on the relationship between plants and the insects that feed on them. (One of the most diverse places on Earth, Papua New Guinea has more than 800 indigenous languages, and Melanesian pidgin—a fusion of English, German, and Portuguese that reflects the country’s colonial history—has become the country’s common language.)
Photo: Wanang villagers prepare to haul cargo several hours by foot through the rain forest to the research camp. Photograph by George Weiblen

In addition to collaborating with local and overseas academic institutions and governmental and nongovernmental organizations, the non-profit center trains Papua New Guineans to be parataxonomists: biodiversity experts able to go out into the field and identify and classify a wide range of organisms. Many local villagers already have an encyclopedic understanding of the forests in which they live and provide invaluable help to researchers. The center helps the villagers, even those with little formal education, build on that knowledge by teaching them scientific method, biology, ecology, and computer skills. Parataxonomists are hired to take digital pictures of specimens, record data, collect insects that feed on particular plants, and perform field and laboratory experiments.

Having a good relationship with locals is essential for research in Papua New Guinea, and not just because they know the land better than visitors ever could. Unlike most rain forests and wilderness areas, the country has no public lands in which biodiversity can be studied. Instead, 98 percent of the country’s land is owned by clans and tribes and is passed down from generation to generation.

In order to do their work, Weiblen and his colleagues negotiate directly with the landowners. Weiblen speaks the local Melanesian pidgin or Tok Pisin, as it is known, and so is able to communicate without an interpreter. Though Weiblen is well-known in some parts of the forest, there are still plenty of places where villagers are rightfully skeptical of unfamiliar scientists who want to collect specimens. “People value their land and they fear exploitation,” Weiblen explains.

This fear has intensified in recent years, Weiblen says, as commercial interests, predominantly logging companies, have stepped up efforts to buy timber rights from landowners. If they’re willing, landowners can sign their timber rights over to the government of Papua New Guinea, which deals directly with logging companies. Royalties from the logs that are taken are divvied up between the villagers and the government. “It’s usually a bad deal and the locals know it,” Weiblen says. “But life is really tough and a little money helps in the short term. If you have to repair your roof with thatched leaves every two years, wouldn’t it be nice to replace it with corrugated iron that would last 20?”

Photo: The aptly named Hercules moth rests on a bow string at Wanang. Photograph by George Weiblen

Still, the long-term reality of these bargains is harsh and bleak. With the big trees gone, villagers can no longer look to the forest for resources they need, such as building materials, natural medicines, and food. Some turn to agriculture, which can provide some cash, but getting produce to market is difficult without passable roads. For most, it is a rough transition into the cash economy where doctor visits cost money and meat has to be bought in town.

As villagers become more connected to the global marketplace and less connected to the forest, they lose their traditional culture. Instead of hunting and learning the names of forest plants, young people are leaving to go to school and lead modern lives. Older generations, who are fluent in ancient languages and oral traditions, have no one to pass their knowledge on to. In some ways, Weiblen says, their culture is disappearing faster than the forests. “Thousands of years of accumulated knowledge is about to be lost, so we have this fleeting opportunity to document the traditional knowledge. You know,” Weiblen says, citing an adage, “when a medicine man dies, it’s like a library has burned down.”

Collecting And Cataloging

Specimens collected in Papua New Guinea are sent to museums and herbaria around the world, including the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum of Natural History, the Papua New Guinea National Herbarium, the National Museum of Australia, England’s Kew Gardens, and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Weiblen is a curator of plants at the University of Minnesota Herbarium, a division of the Bell Museum. One of four plant curators, he helps to oversee a collection that includes more than 800,000 specimens from around the world. Because so much of Papua New Guinea has yet to be explored, new and significant finds are commonplace. For example, over the years, Weiblen has discovered six new species of figs. He also studies the pollination of figs by specialized wasps. Weiblen’s collection of more than 75 species of living fig trees, which range in size from 6 inches to 30 feet tall, is on display at the Bell, along with thousands of DNA samples that are helping to unravel the evolutionary history of New Guinea’s forest trees.
Photo:A sign welcomes guests to the opening celebration for the Wanang research project; rules in Melanesian pidgin prohibit liquor, marijuana, foul language, and fighting. Photograph by George Weiblen

When Weiblen returns to Papua New Guinea in July, he’ll be accompanied by two of his students, Annika Moe and Tim Whitfeld. Moe, an evolutionary geneticist, is doing her Ph.D. thesis on how species form. This will be her second trip to Papua New Guinea and she’ll stay for six months. Like Weiblen, she is studying the relationship between figs and their pollinating wasps. Her work is focused on recent evidence that contradicts the long-held belief that each fig species is pollinated by a specific wasp. “We are finding that wasps can pollinate more than one fig species, resulting in hybridization,” she says. “This gets at the heart of the question of how we define species.”

While there, she’ll be staying in the Ohu Bush Laboratory, about a 45-minute drive from the Binatang center. Days begin early, usually 4 a.m., when the roosters start crowing. She and her assistants, two teenagers from Ohu village, work in the forest all morning. By midafternoon it will be too hot to move, so they’ll call it a day and Moe will spread out beneath a waterfall near camp to cool off.

Before helping the village women and girls prepare the usual dinner of rice and plantains or rice and sago (a sticky paste made from the pith of sago palm trunks), she and her assistants enter data into a generator-powered computer. If she’s recently visited the store in town that seems to sell only pirated DVDs, Moe and a crowd of villagers will gather around her computer to watch a movie. Action films are particular favorites.

Photo: Ohu villager Roll Lillip identifies a caterpillar using a library of digital photographs; new species are photographed and instandly added to the library in the field camp. Photograph by George Weiblen

Tim Whitfeld is a botanist earning his Ph.D. studying the ecology of Papua New Guinea’s lowland rain forests. He’ll be staying three months in Wanang, a remote village that can be reached only by walking four to eight hours (depending on the amount of mud) after a five-hour drive from the nearest town of Madang. “I’m trying to understand how different plants coexist in a diverse forest,” Whitfeld says. “Not much of this type of work has been done in Papua New Guinea and our work at Wanang will help us understand the ecological processes that assemble plant communities.”

On his last visit, Whitfeld spent a lot of time learning the names of indigenous plants and working to identify specimens with help from the Papua New Guinea National Herbarium. This trip, he’ll be doing more of his own research and spending time with locals from Wanang village. “Living in the rain forest is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” he says. “The people live so intimately with the land and they know it so well. Even the children are very independent. They just go out into the forest and find food and don’t get lost. It’s a way of life that anyone in the developed world, of any age, would have a hard time with.”

Strength in numbers

For the past few years, in an effort to preserve some of Papua New Guinea’s rain forests, Weiblen and his colleagues have been talking with landowners about conservation, explaining that the land is worth far more than cash. To help make clear his point, he brings along villagers from developed areas who regret the decision to sell off their timber rights.

These conversations have led some villages to choose a different path. In Wanang, 11 clan leaders have put together an agreement not to yield their timber rights but manage the forest for conservation instead. Weiblen and others have been working with the villagers to survey and inventory the plants in a 20,000-acre parcel that these clan leaders control. “The Wanang people have seen the change that’s happened on adjacent lands and they don’t want that to happen to them,” Weiblen says.

Talks with government officials and timber operators on adjacent lands are under way. But the hope is that this area of Wanang forest will one day be a protected area, something akin to Minnesota’s Itasca State Park or the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Weiblen says.

Perhaps it’s a good sign that in Wanang, high on a mountaintop, there stands a sacred stone. Legend has it that this stone is imbued with magical powers alerting landowners to the threat of attack. Anyone who tries to remove that stone, it is said, will be struck by lightning.

Meleah Maynard (B.A. ’91) is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.


See all 11 in the Image Gallery: More Images of Papua New Guinea
Exclusive online look at more of George Weiblen's images from his field work.





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