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Getting it right

For many years, the twin themes of my philanthropic career have been poverty-alleviation and environmental stewardship. Recently, I've discovered that each is a requirement for the other. I'd been engaged by the Executive Chairman Tan Sri Datuk Sir Tiong Hiew King of Rimbunan Hijau Group to advise on poverty-alleviation in the giant resource company's areas of operation in Papua New Guinea. My party and I travelled more than 3,000 kilometers from coastal villages to mountain logging camps. Here is a brief summary of what we learned.

A Papua New Guinea guidebook describes Tufi as "carefree and far away from the world," but only the latter is correct. In the inland areas, away from the ports, people are cut off from health and education services. The trickle of foreign aid that reaches Oro Province is a source of frustration. Worldwide, the amount of aid from donor nations that is aimed at fostering economic development has shrunk by half in the past decade. Introducing a micro-credit program could change things by putting small-scale economic development in the hands of local people instead of distant institutions. The loan of only a few Kina can be enough to launch a small business and, in a generation, change what is possible for a family.

Near the Saban sawmill in Milne Bay Province I saw how investment by RH Group is restoring depleted plantation land, increasing royalties for local landowners and supporting the local economy. Palm oil is the most successful plantation industry, raising living standards for thousands of families. By Western standards, they are merely less poor. But at this end of the economic scale, small increments are giant steps.

Along the Bulolo River, you can still see the rusting skeletons of the gold dredges. Historically, extractive industries like mining tend to concentrate wealth rather than spread prosperity. Today, the forest industry is creating sustainable jobs, services, and roads that are avenues of commerce and community. Roads are the footprints of loggers.

We flew over endless stretches of forest that I later discovered had been logged only a few years ago. Axel Wilhelm of RH Group explained that the company takes relatively few trees out of each hectare of forest. I thought again of the debris from the abandoned mines. Where did all that gold go? I wondered. Timber is not a prize that is seized and taken away, never to return. Timber is a crop to be managed over generations. It creates an economy with staying power. And this economy is in the forest communities where people live, not in the city hundreds of kilometers away.

In Panakawa, the mill produces plywood for homes all over the world. The facility is the area's social and economic hub. There is a school there, and doctors. Young people can create a future where they grew up instead of leaving community and tribe behind to take their chances in Port Moresby--which can't absorb them.

Many of my friends in America and Europe imagine that we Westerners know what is best for what we still call the developing world. Having gobbled up most of our own natural resources, we insist that the people in remote (to us!) and pristine areas like Papua New Guinea make no use of theirs. I know half a dozen international organizations that want to keep loggers out of PNG forests; but when I toured those forests, I didn't meet any villagers who felt the same way.

"No development" is not an option for people who hope to prosper, let alone those who struggle to survive. Economic development and environmental preservation cannot be a zero-sum equation. Both are requirements. In my book, they are rights.

What single-issue environmentalists miss is that poverty is the world's great de-forester. Where there's nothing but forest, that's what goes. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, just over 75 per cent of deforestation in Papua New Guinea is caused by communities cutting trees for fuel. These communities need energy from somewhere, and timber is the most accessible energy source. Sustainable economic development--that would promote alternative energy sources--is the only viable solution.

It's too bad that some of the world's most respected non-governmental organizations seem set on discouraging commercial activity in PNG's forests. Where else can economic development come from but commercial activity?

In Papua New Guinea, we have a magnificent opportunity to do it right--to develop sustainable industry from the start, without later having to undo harm. (By STEVEN C. ROCKEFLLER, JR./The National)

STEVEN C. ROCKEFLLER, JR. is an American investor and philanthropist whose corporate partnerships and personal diplomacy seek to raise living standards among Asia's poorest.

MySinchew 2010.06.29

 

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