The village of Ohu on the north coast of Papua New Guinea is the traditional guardian of the largest remaining primary lowland forest in the Madang province. Ohu forest is home to the biggest moth in the world – Coscinocera hercules, with a 27cm wing span – an extraordinary diversity of figs and other plants, as well as a large population of birds of paradise. Ohu’s elders say that this forest was originally protected by the community in part so that there would be plenty of species like the ones they use for their ‘bilas’, the extravagant natural costumes that many Melanesians don for ceremony and ritual.
In 1992, Brus Isua and other members of the Ohu Community allied with Dr. Larry Orsak of the Christensen Research Institute (CRI), an organization established and run by Diane Christensen in Riwo village, Papua New Guinea, from the late 1970s with partial funding from The Christensen Fund. The goal was to render their forest an officially preserved area based on the community’s desire to avoid logging, which was taking down most of the neighboring lowland forests at the time. Brus, who had no formal schooling, knew the names and characteristics of all of his forest’s species in his own language (Amele) and working with Dr. Orsak and other scientists he began to learn their Latin names, too. Brus was to become one of the original ‘Binatang Boys’ – Indigenous para-ecologists who would form the core of the innovative Binatang Research Center (BRC), a non-profit organization in Madang devoted to partnering with and training Papua New Guineans in biological research.
According to Brus, “if you protect your forest it protects you. There is never any mention of money in a creation story. The ancestors never valued money, and instead valued forest.”
BRC’s research clearly shows the value of community-protected forests. They recently completed bird surveys in three village conservation areas (Baiteta, Ohu, and Baitabag) and compared the results with the large forest area at the nearby Wanang Conservation Area. The research demonstrated that bird communities in smaller village reserves (300 – 1,200 ha) retained about 80% of the bird species present in adjacent large forests. This demonstrates that such community forests are a valuable contribution to a landscape mosaic. Some 75 papers have now been written about the Ohu forest, nearly all rooted in field observations made or assisted by the local team. Among Brus’s many co-authored papers is one in Nature (pdf).
In addition to educating scientists on the importance of Indigenous knowledge systems, BRC is using its platform to provide jobs for some in the community, and to engage local people in conversations about their natural resource assets, their cultural relationship to the environment, and the pressure on communities to enter the money economy.
“In PNG as customary owners we make the decisions and here we have taken the road to preserve our tambu (sacred) forest,” says Brus, who played a role in the discovery of the Cradibiya ohuensis fig-pollinating wasp now named after Ohu village. “Our current dilemma is that researchers come in and strengthen our resolve to maintain the forest but the community itself has to struggle with future questions about money and so on. Will the forest always be there? This is the hard truth we are grappling with.”