New Guinea’s rainforests are being destroyed with apparent impunity

It’s becoming hard to see the (rain) forests for the (felled) trees on the island of New Guinea at the moment.

With a legal farce involving a renowned large-scale timber thief playing out in West Papua, a new report has also just revealed that an area of Papua New Guinea’s rainforests larger than Australia’s entire Wet Tropics Heritage Area in north Queensland has been lost to logging over the last decade. This activity is severely impacting local wildlife—much of it rare or unique—and is causing a significant increase in carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

New Guinea, the second largest island on the globe, is blanketed by internationally significant rainforests—one of the largest remaining reserves of carbon on Earth—but this great green blanket is increasingly being pulled back and destroyed by logging, both legal and illegal, on both sides of the border. Just this week, two developments have underlined the seriousness of the problem. On the Indonesian part of the island, in West Papua, a notorious wildlife vandal has been dancing around the authorities and evading proper punishment for his crimes, while east of the border, in Papua New Guinea, the full horrific impact of commercial tree felling, both legal and illegal, has just been laid bare by the release of a new study.

The newly published State of the Forests of Papua New Guinea report—complied by numerous leading scientists, some of them using evidence from satellite imagery captured in space—has shown that between 2004 and 2014, 1,457 square kilometres of pristine forest in PNG has been cleared or logged. The island provinces of Manus, New Ireland, East and West New Britain have seen the most change, followed by West Sepik and Gulf provinces.

The drivers of this activity are two-fold: the sale of timber (much of it going to China) and the use of cleared areas for commercially lucrative agriculture such as the production of palm oil, and the logging is largely unregulated and illegal. According to a separate 2014 report by Chatham House, 70 percent of tree-felling in Papua New Guinea is being performed illegally by powerful timber barons, despite the fact that 99 percent of land is owned by local indigenous communities, and this is being facilitated by corruption and weak governance.

Several tree-kangaroos are endemic to PNG, and are among the species threatened by illegal logging
Several tree-kangaroos are endemic to PNG, and are among the species threatened by illegal logging

Despite all this, the scale of ‘legal’ logging is also being extended, with PNG having just awarded massive new logging concessions to another company in the Kamula Doso-Strickland region of Western province, which is terrible news for both wildlife conservationists and those concerned about climate change. This allocation alone will result in the release of 155 million tonnes of CO2 emissions according to the State of the Forests of Papua New Guinea report. ‘The Kamula Doso-Strickland region contains one of the largest remaining intact rainforest ecosystems in the world,’ says lead author Jane Bryan. ‘It is an ecological wonder.’

And the impact is likely to be felt well beyond New Guinea, if research published by Anastassia Makarieva and Victor Gorshkov proves correct. The Russian physicists point to the important role of windblown moisture from PNG’s mainland forests, which creates life-giving rainfall right across South East Asia and beyond. ‘PNG’s forests contribute to the maintenance of this current favourable climatic regime,’ they say. ‘Their devastation could trigger adverse changes in local, regional and possibly global climates.’

New Guinea is where species from South East Asia and Australasia meet, and the island’s extraordinary fecundity and rich biodiversity sustains numerous species of rare and unique flora and fauna. Containing over five per cent of Earth’s biodiversity in less than one per cent of the planet’s total land area, PNG alone has up to 21,000 higher plants (including 3,000 species of orchids), 800 species of coral, 600 species of fish, 760 species of birds and 250 species of mammals, with 8 species of tree-kangaroos—all of which are threatened by logging.

Along with the Amazon and the deep ocean, this is one of the few places left on Earth where researchers and scientists are still discovering and cataloguing entirely new species of animals and plants on a relatively regular basis. State of the Forests report contributor and head of the University of Papua New Guinea’s biological sciences division, Associate Professor Osia Gideon, says logging on the island means such species are at risk of extinction before the world even knows of their existence.

The ease at which illegal loggers can get away with their crimes in New Guinea, even after being convicted, was dramatically demonstrated over the weekend. As reported by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), disgraced Chief Brigadier Labora Sitorus—a corrupt former policeman and convicted illegal logger—managed to disappear from his house on Friday, just prior to being transferred to a prison in Jakarta, despite a West Papua police posse numbering 683 officers being involved in the operation to move him.

Sitorus was jailed for 15 years in 2014, after being found guilty of timber theft of epic proportions, but conservationists say his subsequent escapades have made a mockery of the Indonesia’s justice system, revealing just how easy it is to get away with environmental crimes, even if they’re committed on an industrial scale, providing you have the money to grease palms.

And Sitorus isn’t short of such filthy lucre. Despite evidence showing US$127 million had passed through his bank accounts, he was acquitted of money laundering at the same time as he was convicted of illegal logging, and for the latter crime he was originally sentenced to just two years jail and fined a piddly US$4,000. Later, when the Financial Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (PPATK) unearthed a suspicious bank account crammed with Rp 1.5 trillion (US$114.81 million), an outcry led to his sentence being upped to 15 years in prison and a fine of Rp 5 billion (US$400,000). Still, though, he has managed to slip and slide his way through the justice system as though covered in palm oil.

He first absconded from Sorong prison in March 2014, after being given permission to leave and seek medical attention. Placed on West Papua’s most-wanted list, he was finally re-arrested in February 2015, but by October last year he’d secured permission to get treatment for a reported stroke and heart problems outside of prison. After five months acting as a free man, he was due to be brought back to jail on Friday, when he suddenly disappeared without trace.

‘This has now become a farce of the highest magnitude,’ said EIA Forest Campaign Team leader Faith Doherty. ‘Indonesian officials and the rogue police officers who benefit from a corrupt system are making the country a laughing stock.

‘Labora Sitorus had bank accounts containing up to Rp1.5 trillion and was found guilty in a court of law of the very serious charges of illegal logging, fuel-hording and money laundering,’ Faith continued. ‘Whoever is harbouring him is effectively complicit in these crimes. For all those who have risked their lives investigating this policeman and his criminal syndicate, and for all those champions within Government, including the Financial Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (PPATK), to have this thrown in their faces again is unacceptable.’

However, in the latest twist, as we were compiling this story, Sitorus reportedly handed himself in by riding an ojek (motorcycle taxi) to the police station to surrender. Critics of the system don’t hold out much hope that he will serve the sentence he deserves, but for now, he’s back in custody. A small piece of good news, perhaps, amid a larger negative narrative about environmental vandalism happening in full view of the world.