Did you know that you have a right to know? Spreading the word in Papua New Guinea’s forests

“Welcome to the jungle!” George flashes me a wry smile as our jeep begins its stuttering ascent up the mountain, into an endless expanse of thicketed green. George had sent a message over the radio three days earlier, in the hope that news of our visit would travel to Leileiyafa in time. He and his six brothers and sisters are taking me back to the village where they were born, deep inside the forest.

We were sent by Matilda Pilacapio, who I met two days earlier in the downtrodden capital Port Moresby. She’s George’s eldest sibling; a retired provincial government official and human rights activist, known these days, she giggles, as a ‘tree hugger’.

Matilda performed quite a coup a few years back by waging a successful campaign against US oil palm developer Cargill, about the tactics used to acquire land from indigenous communities. “These palm oil companies just say, ‘Come into my office and sign there.’ People don’t know better, they just put their silly old signatures down.” The result is that people can end up paying rent for land that is rightfully theirs, harvesting an export crop that they can’t eat.

Now Matilda has new cause for concern. Her village of Leileiyafa is located on the site of a REDD+ pilot project. REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) is a UN-initiated scheme that aims to reduce the contribution deforestation is making to climate change, essentially by paying people not to cut down the trees that they would otherwise sell, burn or build with. Many countries are also vying for the inclusion of REDD+ projects on carbon markets – a move which could generate sizeable sums of cash.

But for whom?

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Like most countries that preside over rich forestry reserves, Papua New Guinea is a hotbed of corruption. Back-door deals between politicians and companies seeking access to forests nurture a lucrative black market, locking wealth inside elite circles while around 40% of people live on less than US$1 per day.

REDD+ could help lift a good percentage of these people out of poverty, but the fear in certain quarters is that its funds could bypass its intended beneficiaries.

As we sit in a large circle under the fierce afternoon sun, the villagers of Leileiyafa recall the day that the Forestry Department came to visit them: on 17th December last year. “We’ll give you money if you don’t cut down any trees,” the officials said. The prospect of money is not one that the villagers are at liberty to turn down, so they agreed. “Did they tell you how much money you’d get and when?” I ask. “No,” they respond. “Have you heard anything from the department since?” Again, the answer was ‘no’.

The result of their brief conversation with the government was thus that the community forfeited their right to stop the REDD+ project because they weren’t told what REDD+ is and they didn’t know that they could influence it.

Access to information may seem somewhat of a chimera for a community who has no electricity, is a three hour walk from the nearest secondary school, and doesn’t have a postman because they can’t afford his annual fee. But according to the principles of REDD+, affected communities must give their Free, Prior and Informed consent for a project to go ahead; Free means free from coercion or manipulation, Prior is consent sought sufficiently in advance, and Informed means that the project has to involve consultation and participation by indigenous peoples, with full, accessible and understandable disclosure of all relevant information.

The wheels are already turning in Leileiyafa. Last month the process of carbon accounting got underway across the province of Milne Bay, to try to ascertain the value of the carbon that is sequestered in its trees for future carbon markets. Beyond that the government will face the unenviable task of having to negotiate who will benefit from REDD+ and to what extent. Robust systems of monitoring and reporting will then be have to be put in place to ensure that the projects are proceeding as planned.

Each of these phases presents its own set of corruption risks. Carbon is intangible, and thus difficult to quantify. This opens the door to misrepresentation or data fiddling. The potentially vast volumes of money involved risk being siphoned off, and the voices of forest communities may well be drowned out by louder, more powerful ones.

In an effort to guard against this, our colleagues at Transparency International PNG will be talking to forest communities about how best to exercise their right to information, consultation and participation, and pressuring governments and the private sector to play fair.

If it’s managed well, REDD+ could be a blessing for Papua New Guinea’s rural poor. “But this is a new language and my people need to understand it first,” says Matilda.

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