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Building bridges through conservation

Posted by: Kate Neville, Corporate and Foundation Gifts Officer
Photos by Kate Neville/Woodland Park Zoo

I slouch lower in the boat and pull my hat further down over my face. It’s hot. The relentless tropical sun sends rivers of sweat down my neck…and we still have several hours to go before reaching our destination. This boat ride is the last leg of a two-day journey from Lae to the village of Ronji, a remote community in Papua New Guinea’s Morobe Province. My traveling companions are Woodland Park Zoo's Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program Director Dr. Lisa Dabek, and TKCP staff members Benjamin Sipa, Karau Kuna and Mikal Nolan. We’re traveling to the coastal village of Ronji to participate in a ceremony celebrating the community’s new bridge and field office. TKCP helped construct the bridge and office at the community’s request, thanks to support from Conservation International, the German Development Bank and Woodland Park Zoo. I glance back to the stern, where the captain is shouting to one of his compatriots. We’d be lost at sea without “the boat guys,” four expert boatmen who coax the outboard motor into a steady, reassuring hum.

En route to Ronji.

That Ronji’s bridge and field office were completed is truly something to celebrate. Ronji is a five-hour boat ride from Madang, the nearest major city. As with many communities in Papua New Guinea (PNG)including major citiesthere are no roads to Ronji. The country’s incredibly steep, mountainous terrain has stymied efforts to create a national highway system. Besides by boat, the only other way to get to Ronji is to walka multi-day trek along slick, steep jungle trails. As we bump along the ocean in our banana boat, I reflect that just transporting the construction materials for the bridge and office must have been a huge undertaking.

An opportunistic attempt to catch a tuna on the way to Ronji was not successful.

Why did TKCP, a conservation organization, invest in a bridge in this remote community? The answer lies in TKCP’s holistic approach to conservation. One of Woodland Park Zoo’s signature field conservation programs, TKCP fosters habitat and wildlife conservation and supports local community livelihoods in Papua New Guinea. For more than a decade, TKCP has been working with local landowners to create PNG’s first official Conservation Area. In PNG, a Conservation Area offers the highest level of protection available under national law. A Conservation Area can be created only when communities set aside parts of their own land to be protected from resource extraction, including hunting, mining and logging. Along with dozens of other villages on PNG’s Huon Peninsula, landowners in Ronji have worked with TKCP to pledge part of their land towards what is now known as the YUS Conservation Area. In so doing they became eligible to participate in TKCP’s education, health, and community livelihoods programs. The bridge and office were constructed as part of this effort.

Ronji village is included in the YUS Conservation Area in Morobe Province on PNG’s Huon Peninsula.

I look up and notice we’re headed towards shore. As we pull up to the beach in our little boat, I see no sign of houses or other buildings. I’m looking forward to getting off the boat, but I’m anxious about what we’ll find. Will people be happy to see us? I have no idea what to expect. We’re greeted on the beach by a reserved group of older women and young men. There’s a series of awkward hellos and shy smiles as Ben and Kuna settle up with the boat guys. It’s not clear what’s next, but soon a group of rambunctious kids arrives to break the ice, and I find that the silly faces I make for my little cousins back home work just as well in Ronji. Later that night, after a dinner of boiled plantains, sago and greens, we gather on the porch of the field office. By the light of our headlamps, the kids use one of TKCP’s field guides to show us which animals they encounter near their village.

The children of Ronji greet us on the beach.

Discussing the local flora and fauna with the help of field guides.

The following morning we get up early. Lisa, Mikal and I are planning to travel further up the coast to see the bridge, several miles from the village proper. As luck would have it, a boat has arrived to take a group of local peoplealong with baskets of vegetables and an unhappy pigin the same direction. We’re able to hitch a ride as well, saving us a three-mile walk along the coast to the mouth of the river.

The boat and its passengers.

TKCP achieved an important milestone in 2009, when the PNG government officially declared the gazettal of the Yopno-Uruwa-Som (YUS) Conservation Area. Named after the region’s three major watersheds, the YUS Conservation Area protects an area of more than 180,000 acres and extends from sea level to 4,000-meter mountain ranges. As we travel up the coast, we gaze up at miles of protected rain forest habitat, home to hundreds of plants and animal species found nowhere else on earth.

Lifestyles in this part of the world are by their very nature “sustainable.” Nearly everything in Ronji is made from renewable bush materials, from homes and buildings, to simple household items.

Pointing out the sights.

Today’s boat ride is far more pleasant than yesterday’s, so I’m almost disappointed when it’s time to disembark at the mouth of the Uruwa river. Our guides are two men including Nilbert, one of our hosts in Ronji, and a girl I gather is Nilbert’s daughter, Komptor. The language barrier makes communication difficult, but spirits are high as we traipse up the flat, grassy valley towards the bridge.

Day hike up the river. The Uruwa River is one of three major rivers that make up the Yopno-Uruwa-Som watershed after which the YUS Conservation Area is named.

With the YUS Conservation Area now established, TKCP is focusing on its sustainable long-term management. Worldwide, too many Conservation Areas are protected in name only. Protecting them over the long-term requires tremendous ongoing investment on the part of local communities. In Papua New Guinea, more than 80% of people are subsistence farmers who make their living gardening small plots carved into the jungle, fishing, and hunting. The country’s diverse communities are proud of their way of life, but like people everywhere they seek to improve their standard of living. TKCP helps local communities gain access to better public health, send their children to school, and gain access to markets for locally-grown coffee or cocoa, while at the same time providing a mechanism to preserve the region’s unique biodiversity.

Inspecting the bridge.

Once we reach the bridge, it’s obvious why the community requested its construction. It’s the dry season, but even so the Uruwa River presents a powerful flow the color of chocolate milk. In the rainy season the waters reach 15 feet high. Anyone seeking to travel across it for work, trade or school would find it a formidable barrier. The bridge provides a link between communities and makes travel easier and safer.

The view from the bridge.

On the way back to the village, we stop at Nilbert’s home. We’re eager to see his cocoa fermentation facility, a three-sided affair set up in the yard near his house. Several YUS communities already participate in TKCP's successful conservation coffee project, a partnership among YUS coffee farmers, TKCP, Woodland Park Zoo, and Caffe Vita in Seattle. Through this program, small-hold farmers gain direct access to international markets eager for their high-quality, shade-grown, fair trade coffee. Coffee doesn't grow at low elevations, however, so TKCP is establishing a similar program for cocoa production. TKCP is helping farmers like Nilbert improve the consistency and quality of their cocoa crop, and finding international buyers who will purchase the product directly. Cash earned from coffee and cocoa helps families pay for school fees or medical care.

From left: The author, a local boy and Nilbert at Nilbert’s cocoa fermentation station.

Homes in Ronji are perfectly designed to provide a cool, dry refuge.

The next day, it’s time to celebrate! As guests, we spend the morning outside the village proper so that the community can make final preparations. When the time comes to begin, we’re led to a bamboo and grass “gate” constructed specially for the ceremony.

Preparing plantains. Plantains, sago and other garden foods make up a large percentage of the local diet.

After a formal greeting, our hosts open the gate and the community greets us with a traditional sing-sing. Dressed in their traditional dress, they perform a special song for us, their guests. I notice more than one young person sports a headband made from a tree kangaroo taila reminder that these animals hold special cultural significance. We follow the procession up to a platform built especially for the occasion. I’m surprised to see that even the field office has been transformed, decorated with beautiful flowers, plants and feathers.

The official greeting.

No ceremony in PNG is complete without speeches. We’re not the only visitors who have come to Ronji for this celebration. Epemu, the YUS Local Level Government President, and Timmy Sowang, YUS Conservation Organization President, have traveled several days to participate, and each takes a turn addressing the crowd. As the afternoon air grows hotter, I’m increasingly grateful for the shade of the roofed platform. The speeches are broken up by music and dance performances. Towards the conclusion of the ceremony, we take turns walking down a line of community leaders. Each guest receives gifts of shell necklaces, bows and arrows, or bilums (traditional string bags). Finally it’s time for the mu-mua feast of roast pork and vegetables that took all day to prepare. It’s very moving that so many people have put so much effort into preparing for this day.

Sing-sing participants dressed in their formal attire.

The TKCP field office, transformed with leaves and flowers.

The next day we’re up at 5:00 a.m. The boat guys are eager to get an early start back to Madang. As a small crowd assembles to wish us farewell, I suddenly find it hard to leave. This little village, which seemed so mysterious two days before, has become familiar. I know I’ll often think about Nilbert, Komptor, their friends and family, and the warm welcome we received. And as I return to the land of ice cubes and air conditioning, I also ponder how little waste there is in this remote region. Even as TKCP helps foster habitat protection in Ronji, I can tell that our so-called modern communities have a lot to learn when it comes to sustainability. Perhaps that is the true potential in international conservation.

Waving goodbye.

Editor’s Note: In October, 2013, Woodland Park Zoo Corporate and Foundation Gifts Officer Kate Neville traveled to Lae, Papua New Guinea to lead a grant writing workshop for Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program staff. TKCP is a Woodland Park Zoo Partner for Wildlife. This trip was made possible thanks to the Birnbaum Scholarship Fund, an endowment that provides professional development opportunities for zoo staff.