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New SAGU project prioritizes conservation of lowland and upland peat areas

Dignitaries attend launch in Papua New Guinea
Scenes from Papua New Guinea.

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Unless we can empower people and give them income-earning opportunities, they will degrade the environment, said Governor Allan Bird at the launch of a major new peatlands research management and education initiative in Papua New Guinea last week.

At the helm of East Sepik province, Bird is hopeful that the new Western Pacific Sustainable Peatland Management project (SAGU) will help identify sustainable livelihood opportunities.

“What causes a man and his family to chop down a tree, to drain a swamp, to hunt or catch fish, or to do anything that takes elements out of the environment?” he said, addressing delegates at the event hosted by the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) on International Women’s Day in the capital Port Moresby. “It’s quite simple. They have to live.”

The serpentine 1,200 km Sepik River – the longest on the island of New Guinea, which is divided territorially between Indonesia in the west and Papua New Guinea in the east – wends its way from mountains through tropical rainforests into to the Bismarck Sea, flanked by peatlands.

Cocoa, vanilla and fisheries already support 30,000 women entrepreneurs, generating a lot of revenue for East Sepik, Bird said. “I’m hoping that the SAGU project will provide even more opportunities for not just these women, but others.”

The SAGU Project aims to enhance awareness of or reduce the degradation and loss of lowland and upland peatlands on the islands of Borneo and New Guinea by assisting Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Malaysia by enhancing national inventories and collecting data that will support stronger environmental policies, planning, mapping and monitoring.

Through activities led by a team of CIFOR-ICRAF scientists, local communities will be introduced to agroforestry management techniques that will protect intact peatlands and restore degraded peatlands. Training in conservation and how to put peatlands at the forefront of institutional structures and processes forms a central part of the project.

The islands are known to feature more than 25 million hectares of peatlands characteristically comprised of layers of decayed, waterlogged vegetation, which represent about 40 percent of all tropical peatlands. Worldwide, 3 percent of peatlands store a third of surface soil carbon and play a critical role in efforts to keep global warming in check, said peatland ecologist Michael Brady, a principal scientist at CIFOR-ICRAF and team leader of the SAGU project.

“We believe we’ll confirm in this project that Papua New Guinea could play a very important role in mitigating climate change globally through recognition, management, conservation and sustainable use of peat lands,” Brady said. “We suspect that the country in fact contains much more peat than is currently known.”

Agriculture, plantations and settlements have – often unwittingly – resulted in extensive drainage or clearance of peatlands, he added. “Once drained, the environmental risks and costs of unchecked fire used as part of agricultural swidden techniques, also known as shifting cultivation or, formerly, “slash and burn” to prepare the land for planting are monumental.”


Working with all levels of government — including Wera Mori, the Minister for Environment, Conservation and Climate Change, who spoke at the launch event – the initiative will also support greenhouse gas emission reduction targets that feed into Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). The targets are a component of the U.N. Paris Agreement strategy to limit post-industrial warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Papua New Guinea is already facing severe effects of climate change, Mori said.

“We have a situation where the waves are now eating the shorelines,” he added, describing the challenges faced by local communities from rising ocean levels. “We need to prevent our peatlands from being destroyed — it’s our responsibility to address climate change as a global community to protect peatlands.”

Powes Parkop, governor of the National Capital District and Port Moresby, said that the country as yet has no solution for environmental refugees. “We’re in a climate emergency — in Papua New Guinea, we understand this vividly — you don’t need to be a scientist to know.”

The current nine-month preparatory phase for the five-year SAGU project will include mapping, establishing monitoring methods of selected sub-alpine and montane uplands, and coastal lowland basin peat across the two islands.

“In Papua New Guinea, in contrast to Indonesia and Malaysia, isolation and inaccessibility have protected many peatlands areas although this situation is changing rapidly as population growth (8.947 million in 2020) and new investments are resulting in increasing use and conversion of peatlands,” said Andrew Wardell, a principal scientist with CIFOR-ICRAF.

“Climate change threatens Papua New Guinea, but it does not halt at the borders, it’s a threat for the entire world,” said EU Ambassador to Papua New Guinea Jernej Videtic.

The European Union adopted a significant support package for Papua New Guinea’s climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts, including policies on NDCs and their implementation, he said.

“We have front row seats to unfolding climate change,” said Gary Juffa, governor of Oro Province. “More needs to be done. Because we might be going over that precipice. For Pete’s sake, let’s do something.”

The birdwing butterfly, the bird of paradise, the green tree python and the Victoria crowned pigeon are endemic to Oro.

For more than 20 years Juffa has fought illegal logging and unsustainable agriculture which encroaches into the forests of the Managalas Plateau, jeopardizing its unique biodiversity.

He initiated a memorandum of agreement, which was signed between Papua New Guinea and CIFOR-ICRAF under the Resilient Landscapes program in November at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.

It recognizes the value of forests and their significance to Papua New Guinea’s economy and the contribution they make to tackling climate change at the global level.

In Oro Province, the Resilient Landscapes program is designed to address policies and strategies to support private sector engagement, remuneration for forest resources, underdeveloped commodity and service value chains, land and habitat degradation, and data fragmentation.

“This exciting collaboration in Managalas seeks to combine the conservation of forests and biodiversity with the development trajectory of peoples living close to and within the jurisdictional bounds of those wonderful natural assets,” said Tony Simons, executive director of Resilient Landscapes and CIFOR-ICRAF.

It is important that the project will proactively involve women as well as men, and take a collaborative approach to getting the task done, said Vinzealhar Nen, a CIFOR-ICRAF consultant.

“Gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but an important steppingstone for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world.”

This work is supported by Germany’s Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection (BMUV) and International Climate Initiative (IKI). Implementation partners include Global Environment Centre (GEC), SNV Netherlands Development Organisation, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Kemitraan/Partnership for Governance Reform, Wetlands International Indonesia and International Tropical Peatland Center (ITPC).

For more information on this topic, please contact Michael Brady at m.brady@cgiar.org or Andrew Wardell at a.wardell@cgiar.org.
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