by GENO NAU-BUGA of Sunday Chronicles
TAKING a drive from Goroka town in Eastern Highlands province north up along the normally busy Okuk Highway, ascending the cool winding curves of Daulo Pass to its summit, descending to Watabung and continuing on to Kenangi, one cannot miss an area on a rugged slope cultivated with exotic pine trees.
At first glance, visitors to this section of the road may wonder if they have stumbled into a sanctuary. Enveloped by a crisp blue sky, steep V-shaped gulley, with Koningi River flowing serenely nearby, the cultivated forest area looks adorning beautiful as it is bathed by sunlight.
This forest vegetation has already created a positive stir and has set a bench mark amongst the two main tribes who inhabit the surrounding areas.
Previously, this particular place used to be a barren savannah grass-land as a result of continued traditional practice of slash and burn over the years. However, after trees were planted some three years ago the vegetation began attracting wild birds, insects and bandicoots. Even wild plants and mushrooms are sprouting under its canopy.
“Our children are picking edible mushrooms from under the forest canopy,” explains an excited Martha Sangi, a women representative in the Ona Keto People’s Foundation (OKPF), a local non-government organization responsible for this remarkable transformation.
“The wild birds resting on the branches of the trees are making those unique chirping calls which some of our old people thought had departed the locality forever. It is indeed fascinating,” she said beaming with a smile.
Just a stone throw away from this reforested area one will notice a green-house with shade cloth and a recently built structure. The building will accommodate an office space, a conference room, a computer room and library for the Ona Keto People’s Foundation, the local NGO established in the area with assistance of the Partners With Melanesians, a national NGO based in Port Moresby.
The Ona Keto project site situated at Kenangi about 35 kilometers from Goroka in the Watabung local level government (LLG) council area of Daulo district is a biodiversity and conservation project which was possible through a grant from IUCN Netherlands Ecosystem Grant Program. Following the approval of the grant in July 2009, Partners with Melanesians and Ona Keto People’s Foundation Inc. began implementing various activities.
The project was initially started by Partners with Melanesians executive director, Kenn Mondiai with his Ona Kipiyufa clan in 2003. The aim of the project was to replant trees because people in the community have realized that most of the mountain slopes were becoming savannah grassland and the mountains were also becoming threats during heavy rains and landslides were imminent.
As time passed nearby clans realized that they were facing similar problem as Ona Kipuyufa clans so they mobilized themselves and joined the project and to date the Keto tribe has joined the project and both tribes have established themselves as the Ona Keto People’s Foundation Incorporated.
The funding from IUCN Netherlands Ecosystem Grant Program was to accomplished component activities namely, catchment reserve area establishment, reforestation, capacity building/sustainable livelihood.
This writer had a precious opportunity to travel to that refreshingly cool part of the country to interview and gauze views of the local people about the project. It was interesting to note the various responses from a number of local people including the board members of the Ona Keto People’s Foundation (OKPF).
“This project is unique because it has hold the Ona and Keto tribes together to challenge environment abuses, the common in the area being traditional practice of slash and burn of bushes to make gardens,” says Bobby Moisa, a tribesman from Keto.
Barbara Jeffrey, a women representative in OKPF, explains that since the work on reforestation commenced in the area as well as other trainings, people’s mindset has changed. Many are now very keen on reforestation.
“Many people are talking about the complex global issue of climate change. I believe we can no longer sit on our hands and wait for someone else to do something about climate change. In our area, the only way to ensure our children have a sustainable future is to take action now and that is planting more trees in our barren kunai grassland. Our children in future will harvest mature trees to build houses and use timber for other purposes to sustain their livelihood,” Barbara said.
Samuel Kepandi, who oversees the village nursery at Ronu village in the Keto tribal area explained that people’s interest in tree planting is high resulting in many of them visiting the nursery to collect seedlings to plant.
Kingsley Roimo from Fatau mountain village in the Ona tribal area says that people in his area are very keen on planting young trees, however, he claims work in planting has not progressed because seedlings from the nursery were not given to his people on time.
“My people are very eager to plant more trees, but the OKPF is giving out seedlings according to their own timing,” he said.
I spent almost a week interviewing the locals from both Ona and Keto tribes about how they perceive such a conservation project would benefit them.
On the third day in the area, I walked from Kenangi to Mangiro covering a distance of about seven kilometers along the Okuk Highlands to conduct random interviews with locals about the project. Accompanying me on the walk was Richard Wapo, the village coordinator for Keto tribe and Patrick Jack, an employee of OKPF.
Braving the scorching sunlight and vaporizing heat wave rising from the bitumen we pushed on. In fact, I found the leisurely walk refreshing and for someone coming from Port Moresby it was indeed a good change of atmosphere as well as perfect getaway from the hustle and bustle of the big city.
Richard, whom I found to be pleasant and unassuming told me a rather interesting story during about how this reforestation and biodiversity project has managed to unite the Ona and Keto tribes, which customarily exchanged brides and grooms in marriages and in ancestral past were bitter enemies and had clashed in fierce battles with bows and arrows.
“The establishment of this reforestation and biodiversity project in the area had somehow united the tribes, changed the people’s mindset and everyone is working together in peace and harmony for the betterment of the environment,” he said.
Wapo also mentioned to me his role as coordinator to identify site plantings, especially in villages and hamlets in the Keto tribe as well and liaise with the people regarding work. The Keto tribe comprise Foidomo, Nonduku, Lungiku, Iroba na Wapogu.
He explained that the Wapogu village had received and planted over 7,000 trees, Iroba 5000, Nonduku, 450 and Lungiku 500 seedlings.
We bumped into two primary school pupils, 9-year old Peki Ben and his 10-year friend Wase Mangi, who were returning from the forest with mushrooms and taro seeds. The mere sight of these kids pushing an improvised wheel barrow to ferry their mushroom and taro seeds home was fascinating.
Paul Poiye was the first local man from Mangiro we met as he was returning from his garden carrying firewood, ripe coffee cherries and two red ripe pandanus, which the locally referred to as ‘marita’.
After talking with Poiye, and talking pictures of the rows of young trees and those that were destroyed by fire recently we decided to head back to the Mangiro junction along the Okuk Highway. On the way we could hear someone calling aloud from up the road. We looked up to and noticed a group of young men, some without shirts and a number of them yielding bush-knives, a common sight in rural PNG waving and walking toward us.
Noel Kevin, VCR chairman from Mangiro village was among the group. He immediately introduced the group and began explaining the work these young men are doing to protect their environment as well as planting new trees.
“As you can see, these young men are very keen to plant and nurture new trees planted on their land. Most of them have already cleared a portion of their land and are only awaiting seedling distribution from OKPF. All of them are excited,” Kevin said.
Admittedly, I was a little cold with fright when the group of men first approached. A number of them I noticed had gloomy red eyes supposedly from abusing grass (marijuana) because a foul odor was filled the air as we were conversing.
Another youth, David Kande explain that most of the villages and hamlets in Keto are located in rugged terrains and often no tangible economic developments take shape in their area, therefore, such project is a good investment for the future generation.
Gideon Bob also shared the similar view, but was emotional, stressing that bush fires have been the main cause of destruction to newly planted trees at Mangiro, therefore, stricter community laws must be put in place to penalize those who start fires unnecessarily. “I strongly reckon that severe penalties must be imposed to penalize those who carelessly make fires when making new food gardens,” he pointed out.
After the meeting with the group from Mangiro we started back to Ronu where I met David Kimoi, who is the VRC chairman there. He explained that when the project initially started a lot of people in the Keto community were quite doubtful. “Many people posed as ‘Doubting Thomas’ when the project started, but over time after work began to progress, they expressed interest and eventually join in,” Kimoi said.
According to the OKPF program manager, Rufus Mahuru, so far since its establishment there were a number of achievements. These include, the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) (between PwM and OKPF in August 2009 followed by project launching, establishment of (ten) 10 village reforestation committees (VRC) in September 2009 and the establishment of a main tree-seedlings nursery with green shade cloth in 2009.
Mr Mahuru explained that so far thirty (30) men, women and youths undertook a successful educational awareness exposure visit to another province that is also into reforestation. He added that a Community Based Adaptative Management Plan for the project and the Ona Keto tribes was conducted in October 2009.
“Fifteen (15) school-leavers were being trained to demarcate the external boundaries of Ona and Keto tribes followed by the actual mapping in May this year. Thirty (30) men, women and youths were also trained in agro-forestry inter-cropping training a month earlier in April,” he further stated.
He explained that there are a few activities remaining including nursery and planting training which needs and knowledge of nursing the seeds, collecting native indigenous species and planting them close to the existing forests.
Mr Mahuru explained that Partners with Melanesians and OKPF plan to have the final training on three viable and sustainable livelihood or eco-enterprise activities so that communities are prepared to sustain their livelihood when they are engaged in tree planting or even the project activities, “It is also anticipated that the three elementary and primary schools in the area are also engaged in reforestation program,” Mr Mahuru further explained.
Consequently, Partners With Melanesians Inc. and its local NGO Ona Keto People’s Foundation Inc. had achieved a milestone when “Ona Keto Community Reforestation Project” was notified by International Energy Globe Jury that the project was awarded the ‘National Energy Globe Award’ for the country Papua New Guinea in 2009.
Partners with Melanesians executive director, Mr Mondiai was invited to receive the Energy Globe Country Certificate at the Energy Globe National ceremony on 3rd of June, 2010 in Kigali, Rwanda which was a lead up activity to World Environment Day celebrations, however, could not make it due to another environmental commitment in Germany. Notably the award presentation was to have been done by high-ranking representatives of UNEP and the Government of Rwanda.
Obviously, OKPF project is somewhat contributing to protecting the world’s remaining forest, which is a key part of the solution to tacking the world’s climate crisis.
It was stated that the ‘’lungs of the earth” are giant carbon stores. When they are destroyed through logging or burning, the carbon released contributes to 20% of global green-house gas emissions.
I’ve noticed that there is already a community consensus that reforestation and biodiversity is the way to go for this rural people.
Whichever, way you look at it there is something flourishing and exciting happening amongst the Ona and Keto tribes of Watabung.
* Geno Nau-Buga is a reporter with the Sunday Chronicles, a Sunday paper that aims to cover positive community-based and development stories which affect the lives of ordinary people.