The bumpy road to community conservation in Papua New Guinea

Managalas Plateau project begins a balancing act for livelihoods and nature
Rainforest in Managalas. Photo by William Unsworth/CIFOR-ICRAF

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Papua New Guinea’s Managalas Plateau is home to a wild array of unique and threatened creatures, including the peach-plumed Raggiana birds-of-paradise [Paradisea raggiana], some bizarre-looking long-beaked echidnas [Zaglossus attenboroughi], and the largest butterflies on earth [Ornithoptera alexandrae].

So it’s not hard to see why the Oro Province’s 215,000 hectare plateau, sandwiched between the main island’s jagged highlands and northwest coast, has received international attention from scientists and conservationists – especially as logging, mining, and oil palm plantation interests creep closer to the fertile, mineral-rich region. 

In 2017, after thirty years of efforts by the plateau’s communities – in collaboration with local NGO Partnerships with Melanesians (PWM), supported by the Rainforest Foundation of Norway – it was declared a conservation area: the country’s largest to date.

But what does conservation really mean for Managalas’ communities?

In a country where almost 40 percent of the population live below the poverty line, and 80 percent dependent on subsistence farming, it’s particularly critical to make land-use choices that add up: for short-term livelihoods as well as long-term sustainability. 

The Managalas Plateau. Photo by William Unsworth/CIFOR-ICRAF

And given Managalas’ isolation – the only road out is in poor condition and is often impassible, and the plateau’s three airstrips are almost entirely out of service – creating workable connections to larger markets for cash crops remains a challenge.

The question has become especially pressing since the Managalas Conservation Area  lost its funding soon after the region’s gazettal. “As there is no conservation management plan, “there’s is no recognition of no activities, and importantly there’s no monitoring so supporters can’t tell the story of conservation,” said William Unsworth, project manager and PNG country manager for the Centre for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF). “[The conservation area has] just been declared, but to an outsider it appears as though nothing has happened.”

Now, CIFOR-ICRAF has stepped into that vacuum of support. In 2021, at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, the organization’s Resilient Landscapes programme signed a memorandum of agreement with the governor of Oro Province, Hon. Gary Juffa, to begin developing a truly bottom-up community conservation approach to conservation in PNG, with Managalas as the pilot area. 

Managalas community members in traditional dress. Photos by CIFOR-ICRAF

Funded by the European Union’s Forestry-Climate Change-Biodiversity (EU-FCCB) Nexus Programme, the project aims to support the Managalas communities in their vision for sustainable economic development in a forest landscape.

So far, that includes activities like developing a mechanism to ensure funding for the management of the conservation area, improving market connections for agriculture, investigating forest products that could be sustainably harvested and managed, and environmental education in schools.

“It took so long to get the conservation area gazetted, so the people who led that process are ageing or have passed away, and the younger generations feel less ownership of the concept of conservation,” said Unsworth. 

“There’s a big concern that it’s going to just fade away as the older generation passes on. That’s why we’ve built up the schools component: we’re hoping to inspire the generation that’s in school now to carry forward the vision for conservation.”

While the project is currently focused on Managalas, the team hopes to expand its reach if it’s successful. “This is a good-sized investment on a small enough area that we could really achieve some significant steps towards a sustainable model for community conservation in PNG,” said Unsworth. “And if we do it right, it can then be replicated within the province, and ultimately scaled up across the country as well.”

Given PNG possesses a full 6% of known terrestrial biodiversity and sequesters vast amounts of carbon in its remaining primary forests, such efforts could have global significance for biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation.

Getting there, though, may be akin to the approach most visitors take to get to Managalas: a slow, careful journey along a rough and winding road.

For more information on this project, please contact William Unsworth (CIFOR-ICRAF): 

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