Botanic Gardens Trust, Sydney, Australia

Sharing the indigenous knowledge of Papua New Guinea

Dr Barry Conn, Principal Research Scientist, National Herbarium of New South Wales, Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust

In many least-developed countries, excessive de-forestation often results in an imbalance in the way local people live. This all too often results in people suffering from human rights abuses, great poverty, disease and other social problems. Natural resource agencies of Papua New Guinea need the capacity to link the indigenous knowledge of plants of the many different cultural groups to that of the scientific knowledge. Currently, the indigenous knowledge of the flora, held by different communities, cannot be shared because there is no common language. One of the major concerns facing the people of Papua New Guinea (PNG) is their reduced capacity to document the rich biodiversity of their country within a scientific framework.

The documentation of the flora of PNG still relies heavily on the research efforts of non-Papua New Guinean scientists. The capacity of within-region botanists to document the trees of PNG has been recognised as of crucial importance. The Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust and the PNG Forest Authority developed the Guide to Trees of Papua New Guinea project (PNGtrees) as a means of enhancing the scientific capacity of PNG botanists so that they can provide the urgently needed specialist advice on the plant diversity, conservation status and importance of trees within the region. The PNGtrees project is a long-term, multi-authored research collaboration, co-ordinated by Barry Conn and Kipiro Damas (within-country coordinator) from the Papua New Guinea National Herbarium (LAE), PNG Forest Research Institute. The project aims to collect primary field data, to store digital distributional information in an internet-enabled database, to develop plant descriptions and interactive identification tools for the common trees of Papua New Guinea. This enhanced scientific capacity, together with the freely and readily available new botanical information, will provide government and non-government environmental agencies with expert advice and tools that enable them to identify trees of the forests. Since 2003, extensive field studies have resulted in more than 600 tree species being investigated.

Field studies in Papua New Guinea are frequently, if not always challenging. Roads are often impassable, airstrips unusable, and local communities are sometimes suspicious about the motives of foreign researchers and the PNG Forest Authority who wish to study the trees in their forests. Outrigger canoes transported us to the extensive mangroves and near-coastal forests of the Morobe Province. Mindful of slumbering crocodiles, diagnostic data were gathered from several trees, mostly after climbing into the upper branches. I am not sure why I was climbing the trees and my Papua New Guinean colleagues remained some distance away! After many hours of walking on forest trails and fording the Wanang River, many trees from the vast humid lowland mixed forests of the Madang Province have been included into the dataset. The Karst-limestone upper-montane wet forests of the upper reaches of the Ok Tedi (Western Province), where rainfall is measured in metres, provided many logistical challenges and a number of possible new records and new species to study. The cloud forests of the sub-alpine forests on Mt Wilhelm (Eastern Highlands), the highest mountain in PNG, were only reached after diplomatically negotiating road-blocks and land-access disputes. Although more than 600 tree species have been fully documented, it is hoped that other field studies, additional research and further capacity-building will be possible in the future.

The possibility for future field studies is being investigated. These include: an altitudinal transect from the mountain forests of the Southern Highlands to the coastal mangroves of the Gulf Province; the karst limestone forests of the high elevation Hindenburg Wall on the border of the West Sepik and Western Provinces; the near-coastal forests of Kamali (Morobe Province) that are restricted to infertile mineral-rich ultra-mafic soils; and the botanically unexplored forests of the Kokoda Track.

Lessons in fern structures and reproduction with the local boys and elders, during a break in field studies of the forest trees, Teptep, Madang Province, Papua New Guinea

Processing the day’s plant collections, in the warmth of the base camp, Teptep village, Madang Province, Papua new Guinea