A brutal war and rivers poisoned with every rainfall: how one mine destroyed an island



Locals living downstream of the abandoned mine pan for gold in mine waste.
Matthew Allen, Author provided

Matthew G. Allen, The University of the South Pacific

This week, 156 people from the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, in Papua New Guinea, petitioned the Australian government to investigate Rio Tinto over a copper mine that devastated their homeland.

In 1988, disputes around the notorious Panguna mine sparked a lengthy civil war in Bougainville, leading to the deaths of up to 20,000 people. The war is long over and the mine has been closed for 30 years, but its brutal legacy continues.




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When I conducted research in Bougainville in 2015, I estimated the deposit of the mine’s waste rock (tailings) downstream from the mine to be at least a kilometre wide at its greatest point. Local residents informed me it was tens of metres deep in places.

I spent several nights in a large two-story house built entirely from a single tree dragged out of the tailings — dragged upright, with a tractor. Every new rainfall brought more tailings downstream and changed the course of the waterways, making life especially challenging for the hundreds of people who eke out a precarious existence panning the tailings for remnants of gold.

The petition has brought the plight of these communities back into the media, but calls for Rio Tinto to clean up its mess have been made for decades. Let’s examine what led to the ongoing crisis.

Triggering a civil war

The Panguna mine was developed in the 1960s, when PNG was still an Australian colony, and operated between 1972 and 1989. It was, at the time, one of the world’s largest copper and gold mines.

It was operated by Bougainville Copper Limited, a subsidiary of what is now Rio Tinto, until 2016 when Rio handed its shares to the governments of Bougainville and PNG.

When a large-scale mining project reaches the end of its commercial life, a comprehensive mine closure and rehabilitation plan is usually put in place.




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But Bougainville Copper simply abandoned the site in the face of a landowner rebellion. This was largely triggered by the mine’s environmental and social impacts, including disputes over the sharing of its economic benefits and the impacts of those benefits on predominantly cashless societies.

Following PNG security forces’ heavy-handed intervention — allegedly under strong political pressure from Bougainville Copper — the rebellion quickly escalated into a full-blown separatist conflict that eventually engulfed all parts of the province.

By the time the hostilities ended in 1997, thousands of Bougainvilleans had lost their lives, including from an air and sea blockade the PNG military had imposed, which prevented essential medical supplies reaching the island.

The mine’s gigantic footprint

The Panguna mine’s footprint was gigantic, stretching across the full breadth of the central part of the island.

The disposal of hundreds of millions of tonnes of tailings into the Kawerong-Jaba river system created enormous problems.

Rivers and streams became filled with silt and significantly widened. Water flows were blocked in many places, creating large areas of swampland and disrupting the livelihoods of hundreds of people in communities downstream of the mine. These communities used the rivers for drinking water and the adjacent lands for subsistence food gardening.

Several villages had to be relocated to make way for the mining operations, with around 200 households resettled between 1969 and 1989.

In the absence of any sort of mine closure or “mothballing” arrangements, the environmental and socio-economic impacts of the Panguna mine have only been compounded.

Since the end of mining activities 30 years ago, tailings have continued to move down the rivers and the waterways have never been treated for suspected chemical contamination.




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Long-suffering communities

The 156 complainants live in communities around and downstream of the mine. Many are from the long-suffering village of Dapera.

In 1975, the people of Dapera were relocated to make way for mining activities. Today, it’s in the immediate vicinity of the abandoned mine pit. As one woman from Dapera told me in 2015:

I have travelled all over Bougainville, and I can say that they [in Dapera] are the poorest of the poor.

They, and others, sent the complaint to the Australian OECD National Contact Point after lodging it with Melbourne’s Human Rights Law Centre.

The complainants say by not ensuring its operations didn’t infringe on the local people’s human rights, Rio Tinto breached OECD guidelines for multinational enterprises.

The Conversation contacted Rio Tinto for comment. A spokesperson said:

We believe the 2016 arrangement provided a platform for the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) and PNG to work together on future options for the resource with all stakeholders.

While it is our belief that from 1990 to 2016 no Rio Tinto personnel had access to the mine site due to on-going security concerns, we are aware of the deterioration of mining infrastructure at the site and surrounding areas, and claims of resulting adverse environmental and social, including human rights, impacts.

We are ready to enter into discussions with the communities that have filed the complaint, along with other relevant parties such as BCL and the governments of ABG and PNG.

A long time coming

This week’s petition comes after a long succession of calls for Rio Tinto to be held to account for the Panguna mine’s legacies and the resulting conflict.

A recent example is when, after Rio Tinto divested from Bougainville Copper in 2016, former Bougainville President John Momis said Rio must take full responsibility for an environmental clean-up.

And in an unsuccessful class action, launched by Bougainvilleans in the United States in 2000, Rio was accused of collaborating with the PNG state to commit human rights abuses during the conflict and was also sued for environmental damages. The case ultimately foundered on jurisdictional grounds.

Two people, one waist-deep in tailings.
Hundreds of millions of tonnes of tailings were deposited in the rivers.
Matthew Allen, Author provided

Taking social responsibility

This highlights the enormous challenges in seeking redress from mining companies for their operations in foreign jurisdictions, and, in this case, for “historical” impacts.

The colonial-era approach to mining when Panguna was developed in the 1960s stands in stark contrast to the corporate social responsibility paradigm supposedly governing the global mining industry today.




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Indeed, Panguna — along with the socially and environmentally disastrous Ok Tedi mine in the western highlands of PNG — are widely credited with forcing the industry to reassess its “social license to operate”.

It’s clear the time has come for Rio to finally take responsibility for cleaning up the mess on Bougainville.The Conversation

Matthew G. Allen, Professor of Development Studies, The University of the South Pacific

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Majestic, stunning, intriguing and bizarre’: New Guinea has 13,634 species of plants, and these are some of our favourites



Bulbophyllum alkmaarense: New Guinea is home to more than 2,400 species of native orchids.
Andre Schuiteman/CSIRO

Bruce Webber, CSIRO; Barry J Conn, University of Sydney, and Rodrigo Cámara-Leret, University of Zürich

Scientists have been interested in the flora of New Guinea since the 17th century, but formal knowledge of the tropical island’s diversity has remained limited.

To solve this mystery, our global team of 99 scientists from 56 institutions built the first ever expert-verified checklist to the region’s vascular plants (those with conductive tissue).

We found there are 13,634 formally described species of plants in New Guinea, of which a remarkable 68% are known to occur there and nowhere else. This richness trumps both Madagascar (11,488 species) and Borneo (11,165 species), making New Guinea the most floristically diverse island in the world.

From tarantula-like orchids to giant bananas, here we reveal some of the more mysterious plants on our checklist. Sadly, unsustainable logging and climate change threaten the conservation of many New Guinean species, and we highlight urgent solutions.




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The majestic flora of New Guinea

New Guinea is a land of evocative contrasts. As the world’s largest tropical island – made up of Papua New Guinea to the east and two Indonesian provinces to the west – its biological diversity spans habitats from fringing mangroves to alpine grasslands.

The flora is diverse, filled with the majestic, stunning, intriguing and bizarre. However, very little is known about the conservation status of many species in New Guinea, which remains relatively unexplored by scientists.

The high hoop pine with thin branches and a full canopy
High hoop pines tower over forest canopy.
Wikimedia, CC BY

There are the few remaining forests of 60 metres high hoop pine (Araucaria cunninghamii) and klinkii pine (A. hunsteinii), that tower majestically up to 30 metres above the already tall rainforest canopy.

Figs, with their copious sap, are present in diverse forms, from small shrubs to vines, or large canopy trees.

And the strongly irritant black sap of the Semecarpus tree, a distant relative of the American poison ivy, causing severe dermatitis, is something naive botanists must learn to avoid!

Three panels showing different parts of Ryparosa amplifolia
Ryparosa amplifolia maintains an intimate association with ants via hollow stems and food bodies.
Bruce Webber, Author provided

Then there’s the Ryparosa amplifolia, a rainforest tree that provides swollen hollow stems for ant colonies to live inside. The tree also produces energy rich “food bodies” – granule-like structures on the leaves that mimic animal tissue and provide the ants with sustenance. In return, the ants act as bodyguards, chasing away insect herbivores, and leaf cleaners.

A giant banana tree with an umbrella-like canopy and a thick trunk towers in a rainforest
The giant banana tree holds the record of being the largest and tallest non-woody plant in the world.
Rodrigo Camara, Author provided

Some of our most popular foods were domesticated from New Guinea, including sugarcane and bananas. But the giant banana, Musa ingens is a a highlight in montane forests. Its leaves can stretch to a length of 5 metres, the tree can grow more than 20 metres tall, and its fruits are massive.

With more than 2,400 species of native orchid species, New Guinea is one of the most spectacular floral gardens in the world. It includes fascinating species such as Bulbophyllum nocturnum, which is the first and only known example of a night-flowering orchid, and Bulbophyllum tarantula, with appendages that resemble the iconic spider.

A close-up of a green orchid with pink blotches and furry leg-like bits
Bulbophyllum tarantula gets its name from its tarantula-like appearance.
Jan Meijvogel, Author provided

An uncertain future

Despite New Guinea’s seemingly high number of plant species, at least 3,000 species remain to be discovered and formally described. This estimate is based on the rate of description of new species in the past decades.

Much of New Guinea, particularly the Indonesian part, has been extremely poorly studied, with very few plant species collected. Even within Papua New Guinea, the distribution of many species is inadequately known. This means our findings should be viewed as a baseline upon which to prioritise further work.

The biggest impact on forest conservation is from logging, both clear-felling and degradation. As land is predominantly under customary ownership, addressing subsistence-related forest loss is a long-term challenge. Climate change adds yet further threats, including increased burning of degraded forest due to drier weather.

This means there’s a high risk of the world losing entire species before they are even known.

Looking down on the jungles of Papua New Guinea
Unsustainable logging and climate change are the biggest threats to the flora of New Guinea.
Shutterstock

To this end, in 2018 the governors of Indonesia’s two New Guinea provinces announced the Manokwari Declaration, a pledge to conserve 70% of forest cover for the western half of the island.

Reversing funding shortfalls and declining engagement

Our work builds on many decades of effort by plant collectors whose countless nights under leaking canvas, grass huts and bark shelters have led to thousands of plant discoveries.

Their stories are astounding. These fearless adventurers have sampled water plants by jumping from helicopters hovering low over Lake Tebera, swam in the Purari River rapids to haul a disabled dugout canoe full of botanists and cargo to safety, and have fallen into beds of stinging plants in the mountains of Wagau without subsequent access to pain relief.

Taxonomy – the discipline of identifying, classifying, and understanding relationships between plants – is the key to unlocking the value of this collecting effort.


A yellow flower with small brown spots and three appendages
Bulbophyllum nocturnum: the first known example of an orchid species in which flowers open after dark and close in the morning.
Jan Meijvogel, Author provided

But the discipline is suffering from global funding shortfalls and declining engagement. For instance, 40% of our co-authors on this work are 55 years or older.

Future opportunities for botanical research with local New Guineans at the helm is also vital – only 15% of the scientific publications on the New Guinean flora over the past 10 years involved local co-authors.

Improved collaboration between taxonomists, scientific institutions, governments and New Guinean scientific agencies could address these critical urgent priorities.

Undoubtedly, the conservation of New Guinea’s unique flora will be challenging and require work on many fronts that transcend single disciplines or institutions. From what we know already, a world of botanical surprises awaits in the last unknown.

After all, as 19th century naturalist J.B. Jukes wrote:

I know of no part of the world, the exploration of which is so flattering to the imagination, so likely to be fruitful in interesting results […] and altogether so well calculated to gratify the enlightened curiosity of an adventurous explorer, as the interior of New Guinea.




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The Conversation


Bruce Webber, Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO; Barry J Conn, Researcher, University of Sydney, and Rodrigo Cámara-Leret, Researcher, University of Zürich

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Meet Chimbu, the blue-eyed, bear-eared tree kangaroo. Your cuppa can help save his species



Healesville Sanctuary, Author provided

Marissa Parrott, University of Melbourne

Tree kangaroos are so unusual that when Europeans first encountered them in Australia in 1872, they were sceptical. Who would believe a kangaroo could climb a tree?

But the recent birth of Chimbu – a Goodfellow’s tree kangaroo at Healesville Sanctuary – gives us the chance to watch one of these unique, and very rare, creatures grow up.




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The Goodfellow’s tree kangaroo is a threatened species found in forests in the Central Cordillera mountain ranges of Papua New Guinea, from sea level to high in the clouds.

Chimbu’s birth in September is the latest success of a complex web of international conservation. Zoos and other organisations around the world transfer and match tree-kangaroos to avoid inbreeding and sustain a genetically healthy captive population.

Chimbu is named after an area in Papua New Guinea where his wild cousins live.

A climbing kangaroo? That’s roo-diculous!

Europeans in New Guinea first described tree kangaroos in 1828. While there have been plenty of disagreements about who is related to whom, we now know there are 14 distinct species.

Early explorers considered the very idea of a climbing roo ridiculous, but these animals are specially adapted to life in the trees. They likely all evolved from a terrestrial ancestor earlier in the Pliocene, 5.3 million to 2.5 million years ago.

Tree kangaroos look like marsupial bears, but can climb trees like monkeys.
Healesville Sanctuary, Author provided

Tree kangaroos have much longer forelimbs than their ground-dwelling cousins and their claws are much larger and strongly curved. This provides much stronger grip when climbing trees and gripping smaller branches.

They still have large strong hind limbs, but their feet are shorter, broader and have a long curved claw on each toe.

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The pad of the hindfoot is single, large and with prominent grooves, all of which enhance the animal’s grip when climbing and walking in the canopy. The tails of tree kangaroos aren’t capable of grasping things like a monkey’s, but they’re long and often held out behind the animal for balance.

But perhaps one of the most obvious differences between tree kangaroos and their terrestrial cousins is their adorably small bear-like ears.

Threatened with extinction

Two species of tree kangaroos are found in the forests of northeast Australia and 12 species in the jungles of New Guinea. All species of tree kangaroos are threatened with extinction in New Guinea, although much about these animals is unknown.

The current population size is unknown, but this species of tree kangaroo is thought to be declining in the wild.
Healesville Sanctuary, Author provided

Traditionally hunted for food, hassled by dogs and threatened by the destruction of their forest habitat, the soft thud of tree roo feet among the trees is falling silent.

But conservation work in their natural habitat and through a globally managed tree kangaroo captive breeding program is helping not only the species, but the people who live alongside them.

Baby Chimbu – a new hope

Chimbu was born in Victoria, but is really an international fellow. His mother Mani came from the National Zoo and Aquarium in Canberra, and his father Bagam arriving from Kreffeld Zoo in Germany.

Baby Chimbu brings hope to a species nearing extinction.
Healesville Sanctuary, Author provided

Mani and Bagam were paired based on the recommendation of scientists and managers who maintain a studbook of Goodfellow’s tree kangaroos around the world.

These gorgeous animals are generally chocolate brown on the back, shading to pale brown or cream on the face and belly, and often with a single or double narrow pale stripe down the back.




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Their beautiful striped tails are one of their most noticeable features. And while the current population size is unknown, this tree kangaroo is thought to be declining due to hunting for food, local trading for cultural purposes, and habitat destruction through local deforestation and shifting cultivation.

Managing tree kangaroos around the globe

The captive population of Goodfellow’s tree kangaroos in our region is coordinated by the Australasian Zoos and Aquarium Association.

The plan is to maintain long-term healthy populations that are genetically diverse, stable and show natural behaviours to ensure the animals are thriving in their zoo homes.

Chimbu ventured out of his mum’s pouch to sample some tasty salad.
Healesville Sanctuary, Author provided

In turn, the regional program is part of a global species management plan coordinated by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

A key feature of these regional/global management programs is to avoid any inbreeding. Detailed histories of all animals in the population are closely managed, and suitable breeding pairs are identified by specialist zoo keepers called “Studbook Keepers”.

This is why Chimbu was born from a long-distance romance and travel by his parents.

Your cuppa can help

Supporting wildlife conservation in the wild and with local communities is the driving force for zoos globally.

An international network of captive tree kangaroos helps conserve this species.
Healesville Sanctuary, Author provided

Although the Goodfellow’s tree kangaroos are officially endangered, we don’t know much about them in the wild. Right now, the Wildlife Conservation Society is working out how many are in the wild and where, so scientists can develop a detailed conservation program.

Cousins of the Goodfellow’s tree kangaroo, such as the Matschie’s tree kangaroo, are more well-known and already have conservation programs in place.




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To help save Matschie’s tree kangaroo, community programs have emerged to address the economic conditions fuelling their over-hunting. Zoos Victoria has partnered with the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program to sell coffee grown by Papua New Guinean villagers. This helps create sustainable alternative income and fund conservation.

Collecting coffee beans for YUS conservation coffee in Papua New Guinea.
Ryan Hawke/Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program, Author provided

Income from coffee sales generates much greater access to healthcare and education, major hurdles in these remote villages. Money from sale of the coffee beans is the only regular income into these villages.

So if you do decide to visit Chimbu at the Healesville Sanctuary (in person or virtually) remember you can also buy some coffee to help his wild cousins.


This article is co-authored by Chris Banks, Manager International Conservation, Zoos Victoria, who has worked with tree kangaroo and community conservation for over 20 yearsThe Conversation

Marissa Parrott, Reproductive Biologist, Wildlife Conservation & Science, Zoos Victoria, and Honorary Research Associate, BioSciences, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The science of landslides, and why they’re so devastating in PNG



File 20180306 146655 nxayso.jpeg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A magnitude 7.5 earthquake took place on February 25, 81km southwest of Porgera, Papua New Guinea.
US Geological Survey

Benjy Marks, University of Sydney

A magnitude 7.5 earthquake struck the Southern Highlands region of Papua New Guinea on February 25, 2018. This was followed by a series of aftershocks, producing widespread landslides that have killed dozens and injured hundreds. The same landslides have cut off roads, telecommunications and power to the area.

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The PNG government has declared a state of emergency in the region. There is growing concern over several valleys that have been dammed by landslides and are beginning to fill with water – now ready to collapse and surge downstream, directly towards more villages.

Why is Papua New Guinea so susceptible to landslides? It’s a combination of factors – steep terrain, earthquakes and aftershocks plus recent seasonal rains have created an environment that is prone to collapse.




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How land becomes unstable

The Earth around us is generally pretty stable, but when the ground shakes during an earthquake it can start to move in ways we don’t expect.

Pressure changes during an earthquake create an effect in the soil called liquefaction, where the soil itself acts as a fluid.

When wet soil is exposed to physical pressure, other physical changes take place.

When lots of water is present in the soil, as is the case now during the monsoon season in Papua New Guinea, liquefaction can happen even more easily.

When liquefaction occurs, the earthquake creates changes due to friction. Imagine a visit to the greengrocer, where an accidental bumping of a carefully stacked pile of apples can cause cause them all to suddenly collapse. What was holding the pile together was friction between the individual apples – and when this disappears, so does the pile.

In an earthquake, two tectonic plates slip past one another deep underground, rubbing together and cracking the nearby rocks. The effects of this movement up at the surface can vary depending on the nature of the earthquake, but one feature is fairly common: small objects bounce around. The sand grains just below the surface do the same thing, but a bit less excitedly. A few metres down, grains could be bouncing around just enough to lose contact with each other, removing the friction, and becoming unstable.

A 2012 landslide in the southern highlands of Papua New Guinea.
dfataustralianaid/flickr, CC BY

Things are normally stable because they’re sitting on top of something else. When that support suddenly disappears, things tend to fall down – this is the classic dodgy folding chair problem experienced by many.

In engineering, we call this “failure” – and in the building industry it usually occurs immediately before the responsible engineer receives a call from a lawyer. Mechanically, this failure happens when the available friction isn’t enough to support the weight of the material above it.




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When soil acts like fluid

Once a slope fails, it starts to fall downhill. If it really slides, then we’re back to the same situation of grains bouncing around. Now, none of the grains are resting against each other, and the whole thing is acting like a fluid.

A couple of interesting things happen at this point. First, as the grains are bouncing around, small particles start to fall through all the newly formed holes that have opened up. This occurs for the same reason that you find all the crumbs at the bottom of your cereal box, and all of the unpopped kernels at the bottom of your bowl of popcorn. Once these smaller fragments accumulate at the bottom of the flowing landslide, they can help it slide more easily, accelerating everything and increasing its destructive power.

Second, landslides typically flow faster at the surface than below, so as large particles accumulate at the top they are also the ones moving the fastest, and they start to collect at the front of the landslide. These large particles, often boulders and trees, can be incredibly damaging for any people or structures in their path.

Simulation of a landslide impacting a structure.
Benjy Marks/USyd

The image above shows a laboratory simulation of a landslide flowing down a slope and hitting a fixed wall. The spherical particles are coloured by size (small is yellow; large is blue). Data from these sorts of studies can help predict the forces that an object will feel if it gets hit by a landslide.

Watching and waiting

These complex dynamics mean that we really need to know a lot about the geography and geology of a particular slope before any kind of reliable prediction could be made about the behaviour of a particular landslide.

In the remote areas of Papua New Guinea, accumulating this data at every point on every slope is a tough challenge. Luckily, huge advancements have recently been made in remote sensing, so that planes and satellites can be used to extract this vital information.

Using sophisticated sensors, they can see past foliage and map the ground surface in high resolution. As satellites orbit quite regularly, small changes in the surface topography can be monitored. Scientists hope that by using this information, unstable regions that haven’t yet failed can be identified and monitored.




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Papua New Guinea is located on an active fault line and has had nine major earthquakes in the past five years. Combined with the often remote and steep terrain, together with a monsoon season that delivers repeated heavy rainfall events, it is a particularly active area for landslides to develop.

The ConversationThe dry season in Papua New Guinea will not arrive until June. During the current wet season we may see even more slopes fail due to destabilisation by the recent earthquakes.

Benjy Marks, Lecturer in Geomechanics, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Kokoda Track blockade alludes to deeper development issues in Papua New Guinea



File 20180208 74506 s6kxd6.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
By preventing Australians from visiting a ‘sacred place’ like the Kokoda Track, it is more likely that local landowners grievances will be met.
ABC News/Eric Tlozek

Nicholas Ferns, Monash University

In recent days, several local landowners have blocked the Owers Corner end of the famed Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea. They claimed they would stop tourists from accessing the track until the PNG government meets their demands.

According to their spokesman James Enage, government promises of economic benefits have not been fulfilled. Understaffed health centres and lack of education funding are causing great resentment among the local population. This is despite the establishment of the Kokoda Initiative, a joint undertaking between the Australian and Papua New Guinean governments that aims to “improve the livelihoods of communities along the track”.

The closure of the Kokoda Track by local landowners is not unprecedented; a similar closure took place at the Kokoda end in 2009.

The current blockade is a product of the complex political and economic issues affecting PNG, which is still dealing with the consequences of a controversial election late last year. It also highlights the complicated relationship between Australian war memory and its developmental assistance to a former colonial possession.

Australian aid preserving ‘hallowed ground’

The Kokoda Track experienced a resurgence of Australian attention following Prime Minister Paul Keating’s 1992 visit. He famously kissed the “hallowed ground” of the former battlefield.

In the 2000s, increasing numbers of Australian visitors sought to make the arduous trek, retracing the footsteps of former Australian soldiers. But with increased visitors came increased pressure on the local population.

In response to growing local discontent (which resulted in the 2009 blockade), the Kokoda Initiative Development Program was established in 2010 to improve living standards in areas along the track. The program includes educational services, provision of health supplies and infrastructure, and maintenance of the track itself.

Despite Australian government claims to have established several of these services, the protests at Owers Corner suggests that Australian aid is not making its way to the intended recipients. This is a common issue in aid delivery, particularly in remote areas such as those along the Kokoda Track.

Maintaining the Kokoda Initiative’s effective implementation is vital to ensuring the local population is able to enjoy the benefits of increased Australian visits to the track.

PNG’s health crisis

Compounding the problems with Australian aid are domestic issues related to the provision of health services throughout PNG. According to the country’s shadow minister for health and HIV/AIDS, Joseph Yopyyopi, PNG is suffering from a “health crisis”. Health workers are going without pay, and numerous hospitals are running out of basic supplies and medicines.

All of this comes despite Prime Minister Peter O’Neill’s promise of free education and health for all. But, if anything, the PNG population’s health has been in decline since O’Neill came to power. There is also little prospect of things changing quickly, given the unstable political situation following the 2017 election.

The Lowy Institute’s Jonathan Pryke and Paul Barker argue that Papua New Guineans experience lower health standards now than during the Australian colonial period prior to 1975. They suggest medical clinics are in crisis.

It is little surprise, then, that local communities suffering from the lack of health and education services have resorted to protests.

Striking a balance

Targeting the entry to a “sacred place” for Australians can be seen as a calculated move on the part of local PNG landowners. By preventing Australians from visiting the Kokoda Track, it is more likely that their grievances will be met.

It also points to a broader issue in PNG, as the problems people like Enage are facing are not isolated. Significant improvements are needed to improve basic services throughout PNG – not just along the Kokoda Track.

PNG continues to require significant amounts of Australian aid. According to 2017-18 budget estimates, PNG is to receive more than A$500 million, making it Australia’s largest aid recipient. This situation is very similar to the mid-1970s, when the colonial grant to PNG constituted two-thirds of Australian “aid”.

The ConversationAustralia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade claims it is providing “tangible and lasting benefits” to the local communities surrounding the Kokoda Track. The blockade suggests this is not the case. Improved aid provision and governance within PNG is required to meet the needs of the people living near this “sacred place”.

Nicholas Ferns, Teaching Associate, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The good news and bad news about the rare birds of Papua New Guinea


Robert Davis, Edith Cowan University

The rainforests of Papua New Guinea are home to one of the richest bird populations in the world. But many are threatened by logging and palm oil farming.

Now, a team of researchers led by Edith Cowan University have surveyed the PNG island of New Britain to see how the bird population is faring.

The good news: several bird species, like the Blue-eyed Cockatoo, were found to be doing better than before.

The bad news: the researchers saw only a few New Britain Kingfishers, and some vulnerable species, like the New Britain Bronzewing, Golden Masked-owl and Bismarck Thicketbird, were not seen at all.

The ConversationTheir results, recently published in the journal Bird Conservation International, help to inform the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

Robert Davis, Senior Lecturer in Vertebrate Biology, Edith Cowan University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tiny frogs face a troubled future in New Guinea’s tropical mountains


Paul Oliver, Australian National University and Mike Lee, Flinders University

At night, the mountain forests of New Guinea come alive with weird buzzing and beeping calls made by tiny frogs, some no bigger than your little fingernail. The Conversation

These little amphibians – in the genus Choerophryne – would shrivel and dry up in mere minutes in the hot sun, so they are most common in the rainy, cooler mountains.

Yet many isolated peaks, especially along northern New Guinea, have their own local species of these frogs.

So how did localised and distinctive species of these tiny frogs come to be on these isolated peaks, separated from each other by hotter, drier and rather inhospitable lowlands?

Our new study of their DNA, published this week in the open access journal PeerJ, reveals how they achieved this feat. It reveals a dynamic past, and more worryingly it highlights the future vulnerability of tropical mountain forests and their rich biodiversity.

A hotspot of frog diversity

New Guinea has an astounding diversity of frogs: more than 450 known species and counting. This is nearly double the diversity in Australia, a landmass ten times larger.

Remarkably, a majority of these species are in a single species-rich, ecologically diverse group that have dispensed with the tadpole stage.

Instead they hatch out of their eggs as tiny little replicas of the adults. Because they do not depend on still pools of water to breed, they do really well in the incredibly wet, but steep mountains of New Guinea.

One of our group (Stephen Richards) has been collecting DNA from frogs across New Guinea for the past 20 years. This work is at times arduous and painful. Having a leech worm its way into the back of one’s eye, and then stay there for more than a week, is not pleasant.

But these trips are also extremely rewarding. So far we have described more than 70 new species, and discovered many more that await description.

They also provide opportunities to explore some of world’s most wild places. Perhaps the best example is the first scientific expedition to the remote Foja Mountains.

This isolated mountain range in northern New Guinea was previously almost unexplored, but revealed a treasure trove of diversity, including a “lost” bird of paradise, a completely new species of another bird, and a bizarre treefrog with an erectile nose.

We also found several species of Choerophryne frog. DNA from these allowed our team to test two potential ways that miniature frogs could have come to occupy distant mountain peaks that are separated by inhospitable lowlands.

Across the Fojas by frog

The first way involves mountain-top frogs evolving separately on each isolated peak, potentially from larger frogs capable of surviving in the hotter and drier, nearby lowlands.

If this were the case, the frog on any given mountaintop would be most genetically similar to frogs from adjoining lowlands.

The other way involves exploiting climate change. During past phases of global cooling (glacial periods), the colder, wetter, mountainous habitats of New Guinea expanded downhill, a process termed elevational depression.

If depression was extensive enough, the frogs on one mountain might have been able to travel across tracts of cool, wet lowlands to colonise other mountains.

Later, a warming climate would wipe out the lowland populations, leaving two isolated mountain populations, which might eventually become new species.

If this were the case, we would expect the frogs in different mountains to be genetically related, since they almost literally hopped from one peak to the other.

Our new study of the DNA of the little Choerophryne frogs indicates they used both routes to conquer the peaks of New Guinea.

In the remote Foja mountains, for example, there are three species of Choerophryne. One species has evolved in situ in northern New Guinea from nearby lowland frogs.

The other two are related to frogs from distant mountains of central New Guinea, and presumably moved across the intervening lowlands during cooler glacial periods.

The little frogs and the future

Why does it matter how the tiny frogs moved to their mountain habitats? Because it could be a warning to their future survival.

Tropical mountains have some of the most biodiverse assemblages of plants and animals in the world. Their ecosystems are also far more dynamic than is popularly recognised.

Just like glaciers, the movements of frogs (and other organisms) up and down mountains has tracked global temperatures. As we’ve shown, the global cooling in past glacial periods allowed the mountain-dwelling frogs to move down across the lowlands to find new mountain peaks.

But today, as global temperatures soar to levels not seen for millions of years, their habitable cool zones are heading in the other direction: shrinking uphill.

We have no idea how quickly these frogs will respond to these changes, but recent research elsewhere in New Guinea has found birds are already shifting upslope rapidly.

We don’t yet know what could happen to these cute little amphibians should temperatures continue to climb, and they in turn run out of mountainside to climb.

It’s more than ten years since the first expeditions to the Foja Mountains, and this study provides a great demonstration of the ongoing value of the scientific data collected on these trips.

We now have a snapshot of the distinctive frogs (and many other animals) that live at the tops of these remote mountains, and a window into their past.

This provides an incredibly important resource to help us understand the dynamic history of these mountain forests, and reminds us that despite their inaccessibility, they face an uncertain future.


Stephen John Richards, a research associate in systematics, biogeography and conservation of amphibians, at The South Australian Museum, was a co-author on this article.

Paul Oliver, Postdoctoral Researcher in Biodiversity and Evolution, Australian National University and Mike Lee, Professor in Evolutionary Biology (jointly appointed with South Australian Museum), Flinders University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Papua New Guinea: New Guinea Big-Eared Bat Rediscovered


The link below is to an article that looks at the rediscovery of the New Guinea Big-Eared Bat.

For more visit:
http://theconversation.com/lost-bat-species-rediscovered-after-120-years-in-the-wilderness-26062