The good doctor living in Papua New Guinea

Welcome,

Richard Andrews meets an anthropologist who is using traditional knowledge to preserve tracts of Papua New Guinea’s natural habitat.

Dr William Thomas. Credit: Richard Andrews

Meet the indefatigable Dr William Thomas, 65, who’s taken on bureaucracies, tribal rivalries, mining companies and even giant spiders to preserve an area more than four times bigger than Singapore in Papua New Guinea’s ‘largest, least explored and most diverse wilderness’.

Endorsed by UNESCO, the New Jersey anthropologist has set up the Papua Forest Stewards Initiative, using traditional knowledge to conserve 3,200 square kilometres of natural habitat in two areas of the Central Range.

Under the program, the landowners agree to keep their forest and culture intact, in exchange for payments to be funded by the sale of carbon credits.

Thomas has garnered support for the Forest Stewards from the Porgera gold mine in Enga Province, along with organisations including the National Geographic Society, the Explorers Club in New York and Florida’s Bishop Museum of Science and Nature.

‘My work has resulted in protected areas being declared by the national government, in Hela Province and the Kaijende Highlands of Enga Province,’ he says.

‘There’s no scientist in the western world who knows what they know and I want to make sure the Hewa have some control over their future and the pace of development.’

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Thomas points out that the 1993 Conservation Needs Assessment for PNG considered these areas of global significance. That conclusion was backed up in 2008 by an international biological-assessment team, which found 50 new species in the headwaters of the Strickland River alone.

Thomas has been exploring PNG and researching traditional knowledge since 1988, living for months on end with the small Hewa communities, scattered throughout the remote region.

‘What a tremendous privilege to get to know these people and learn from them,’ he says. ‘And maybe change the course of how we do conservation.’

For the first 10 years, Thomas says each field trip looked like the line of porters seen in the old Tarzan movies.

‘But over the years these people have taught me to live in the bush and patiently explained the intricacies of their lives.

‘There’s no scientist in the western world who knows what they know and I want to make sure the Hewa have some control over their future and the pace of development.’

Protected land

Finding a common ground for communication has also taken years. While Thomas speaks Tok Pisin well, he admits there’s sometimes a quizzical response to ‘a waitman with an American accent’.

‘Meetings with the local councils can last all day and usually involve countless translations,’ he says. ‘My Tok Pisin is converted first into the local language and then into the regional dialect. Nothing happens quickly and nothing ever seems settled.’

After extended negotiations, however, the 296 clans have agreed to set aside their territorial boundaries as ‘roads of the cassowary’, free from clearing or hunting any species with snares or weapons.

These protected lands are being surveyed by locals equipped with digital cameras and will be allowed to return to primary forest.

One indicator of success so far is the increased presence of cassowaries, a species that first appeared during the Jurassic period about 150 million years ago.

However, Thomas says the program is not trying to create some kind of pre-human Jurassic Park.

‘I can’t forget walking into a giant bird-eating spider’s nest by mistake and this crawly thing as big as a man’s hand came down to see if I was lunch.’

‘We want to save a mosaic of land use that traditional societies have created, with its limited scope of disturbance. We’re not trying to get rid of humans.’

Doing that is no walk in the park, acknowledges Thomas, who says he sometimes comes home from a trip looking like he’s spent ‘six months in a medieval gaol’.

‘The landscape is unbelievably rugged and there are no marked trails. Most of the time my head is down, watching my step and walking as fast as I can to keep my guide in sight. You spend hours wet and muddy trying to get to the next camp before sundown.’

Thomas recalls one particularly arduous hike that took 11 hours to cover only 13 kilometres.

‘We were humping it,’ he says. ‘I can’t forget walking into a giant bird-eating spider’s nest by mistake and this crawly thing as big as a man’s hand came down to see if I was lunch.’

This is an excerpt of the story ‘The good doctor’, which was first published in the March-April issue of Paradise, the in-flight magazine of Air Niugini.

Comments

  1. Very Interesting to read this piece. Cheers team

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