Deforestation in New Guinea

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Monoculture plantation, New Guinea, surrounded by natural forest.
© WWF-Paul Chatteron

New Guinea deforestation, a reality for the 21st century

If you were to watch a film of New Guinea’s geological history, at a frame rate of 10,000 years per second, you would see the island rise from the sea, then its central mountain range progressively reach for the skies, glaciers would appear and then, with the end of the last Ice Age, a blanket of forest would progressively cover the island.
Suddenly, fast forward into the future, the landscape of the island would be bare, apart from isolated clumps of green.

When one looks at the fate of parts of the Amazon Basin, Madagascar and Borneo, such a scenario does not seem that unlikely. While the forests of New Guinea still cover a massive 70% of the island, exploitation could dramatically reduce that figure if it goes unchecked. Already, more than 2% of Papua New Guinea (PNG) forests have been felled,1 with forestry concessions covering most of the country.
What are the impacts of deforestation?
  • Loss of biodiversity
    Species lose their habitat, or can no longer subsist in the small fragments of forests that are left. Populations dwindle, and eventually some can become extinct. Because of the high degree of endemism, or presence of species that are only found within a specific geographical range, even localized deforestation can result in loss of species.
  • Habitat degradation
    New roads that provide access to settlers and loggers into the Forests of New Guinea can cause widespread fragmentation of rainforests. These fragmented landscapes cannot support wildlife the same way intact habitats do, the microclimate may be affected, and the area may be more vulnerable to droughts and fires.
  • Modified climate
    Reduced forest means less carbon dioxide (CO2) is absorbed by trees, which accumulates in the atmosphere as a result of pollution. At the same time, there may be an increased presence of CO2 if trees are being burnt.
  • Loss of water cycling
    Deforestation reduces the critical water cycling services provided by trees. When rainfall reduction is added to the natural variability that characterizes rainfall in the region, the resulting droughts may have major environmental impacts.

Looking beyond logging

Logging is a serious agent for deforestation – but it’s not the only one. Around towns, forest areas can be reduced to grassland because of firewood collection, hunting, grazing and fire.2 Monoculture plantations (e.g. oil palm) are also very demanding in space, often replacing areas that were once covered by forest.

After loggers have cleared an area, slash-and-burn agriculture often follows, completely altering the remaining forest. In many cases, hunters use roads opened by loggers to search for birds of paradise, cassowaries and marsupials to trade in local and international markets.

Deforestation can also corrupt and breed conflict. Middlemen that seek the authorization of villages to cut their forests are known to entice locals with vast sums of money. Often, these promises are not kept, and the villagers are left with a few bags of rice and a desolate landscape.3

How far can protected areas help?

One way to deal with these problems is through the designation of protected areas. However, these are still few and far between. In Papua New Guinea (PNG), protected areas cover less than 3% of the land, which includes 1% for state-owned national parks.

Of these, few are effectively managed. In some cases, communities are not even aware that they live in protected areas. 
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1 JICA. 2002. Country Profile on Environment – PNG. Planning and Evaluation Department.
2 JICA. 2002. Country Profile on Environment – PNG. Planning and Evaluation Department.
3 WWF US. Forests of New Guinea - About Papua New Guinea. Accessed 11/12/2005.

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