The Papua Forest Stewards Initiative (PFSI) is an innovative plan to conserve biodiversity by supporting and preserving the traditional knowledge of New Guinea’s most remote societies. PFSI recognizes that the forests of New Guinea are a biocultural phenomenon — the product of thousands of years of interaction between humans and their environment.
These forests and the cultures that shaped them are precious global resources, but are threatened by the forces of globalization. Conserving forests and supporting the community knowledge and customs that have shaped and depend on them is critical to the survival of both.
This initiative links traditional communities as partners with external institutions such as IPCA, the New Jersey School of Conservation at Montclair State University, Conservation International, and others. It offers the possibility of meeting the aspirations of developing societies, while conserving globally significant forests. By fostering intergenerational and cross-cultural communication, PFSI allows communities to forge a new path — one that allows them to employ their traditions to more fully participate in resource conservation decisions. Participating communities will be provided direct incentives to keep their languages, cultures and forests alive as an essential part of the knowledge conservation project.
In remote areas with no other source of income, this is an appropriate and indeed critical incentive for people who are already proud of their heritage, to secure their way of life and continue to steward their language, tradition and forests into the next generation.
PFSI has been carefully designed and implemented by anthropologist Dr. William (Bill) Thomas (New Jersey School of Conservation), with over 20 years of field experience working with the peoples of New Guinea. Bill is an anthropologist, a graduate of Arizona State University and Director of the New Jersey School of Conservation. He is a fellow in the Explorers Club and has been supported by the National Geographic Society and others in his exploration in New Guinea. Since 1988, he has recorded traditional environmental knowledge in the largest and least explored wilderness in Papua New Guinea. He is particularly interested in the potential for traditional knowledge to provide a blueprint for the conservation of the earth’s remaining wild lands. By working with local people to record their knowledge of the biological diversity in their homelands, Bill helps to create a baseline of information on environments that have yet to be studied by western science. Traditional knowledge of birds, for example, can add to world knowledge of biological diversity. It can also predict the effect of human activity on biodiversity. Bill hopes that by exposing conservationists to the possibilities of indigenous knowledge, they will be more willing to adopt local models of sustainability and involve local people in the conservation of their lands.
The Initiative is consistent with UNESCO-certified “Best Practice” to conserve the biocultural diversity of New Guinea’s Snow Mountains region — the largest expanse of rainforest in the Pacific and a region of global significance containing the headwaters of the Fly, Sepik, Digul and Mamberamo Rivers.
Beginning in 2005, the Forest Stewards’ main pilot project has been with the Hewa people who live in the mountainous Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea near the Strickland and Laigaip Rivers (tributaries of the Fly River). This project has expanded to include the Sisimen and Yana people living in this same watershed. In 2011, we plan to begin working with the societies that share the hunting areas surrounding Mt. Kaijende, thus including all the cultures and biodiversity of the upper Laigaip River catchment under the Papua Forest Stewards Initiative. In the field seasons stretching from 2006-08, these societies have worked with representatives from Harvard University, the Smithsonian Institution‘s National Museum of Natural History, The South Australia Museum, and Conservation International to document the region’s biodiversity. The Hewa area was also featured in a 2008 episode of “Survivorman” on The Discovery Channel.
These societies are the gatekeepers to the millennia of nature observations and sustainable practices that are embedded in their language and culture.
The Papua Forest Stewards Initiative is supporting traditional environmental and cultural stewardship among the peoples of the Laigaip watershed by creating in each community a locally-managed knowledge conservation program. This program is linked to working partnerships with international cultural and natural history institutions that wish to work in the area. The initiative benefits a participating community by conserving its biocultural heritage and providing long-term employment through the exchange of this knowledge for compensation. Through local empowerment and capacity building, this approach offers an isolated forest society a pathway to a sustainable future.
These societies are the gatekeepers to the millennia of nature observations and sustainable practices that are embedded in their language and culture. PFSI has established a common understanding with people of the Laigaip watershed, based on respect for their ways of life. By empowering these indigenous communities and supporting traditional knowledge and resource use, we are working to insure a viable future for both these cultures and the forests on which they depend.
In addition, by relying on traditional knowledge, local informants are afforded a status outside of their community. The finest of these informants will become paid participants in the knowledge conservation phase of the Forest Stewards program. We believe that by establishing this linkage between the local economy, conservation and culture, we will help these communities create a sustainable future.