Thursday, 10 January 2008

Threats to Woodlark Island

Kelly Jacobs, the WLT's new Education and Training Officer sent me the following, which I thought I would share with my readers:

I was shocked and saddened to hear the news that 70% of the rainforest on a single small island is to be destroyed for palm oil plantation.

The government of Papua New Guinea has granted a permit to Vitroplant Ltd., a Malaysian biofuel company, to convert 60,000 hectares of the 80,000 hectare Woodlark Island into palm oil plantation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the villagers inhabiting the island were largely unaware of the project until after its approval. Although they oppose the development they feel helpless against a giant corporation. Short term benefits of improved infrastructure and jobs are far outweighed by the massive impact this development will have on the culture and lifestyles of the 6,000 islanders.

I can't help feeling angry at the low regard in which the government holds the islander's claims to the land. The local culture of gardening, low impact cultivation, hunting and fishing will eventually be devastated by, not only the initial deforestation but also, the continuing environmental impact of monoculture plantations on the biodiversity and likely ongoing pollution to the land, water supplies and coral reefs surrounding the island.

With at least 20 endemic species found on the island, ranging from the Woodlark Cuscus to damselflies, it is likely that the deforestation and ensuing pollution of the habitat that will arise from the plantations will result in the endangerment and possibly extinction of certain species.

Dr Chris Norris, a zoologist and palaeontologist, and Dr Kristopher Helgen, a mammalogist, have both commented on the strong possibility that there are more endemic plants and animals yet to be named, described or even discovered. If the clearance of 70% of the island for monoculture palm oil trees goes ahead, these species could go extinct without ever being discovered. In this enlightened age we all feel not only an emotional connection to threatened habitats and wildlife, but also share the knowledge that once a species is extinct it is gone forever and once a forest has been cleared it can never be restored exactly (and the release of carbon, with the forest being felled, cannot be 'undone').

100 of the 6,000 Woodlark Islanders travelled to the capital of Milne Bay Province, Alotau, to protest against the biofuel industry taking precedence over native rights. But this disregard for local communities is by no means a one off. In January 2008 the news came that a Penan chieftain who long campaigned against logging in Borneo had been found dead, believed to have been killed by loggers - and he wasn't the first (
Suddenly it seems a much bigger issue than saving a single, though highly significant, island. It seems to me that the freedoms we enjoy in our comparably cosy lives are such that the people living in rainforests and trying to protect them can never imagine. No wonder they are calling for international aid and awareness raising. Threatened and bullied by giant corporations that are inevitably headed by wealthy developers these people on the front line will eventually be cowed into submission and all we will do from afar is lament the loss of the forests and wildlife.

We shouldn't think that there is nothing that we can do and just shrug our shoulders. There are governments to write to, petitions to sign and that age old adage of 'voting with your feet' to employ. Sign the Earth Action petition to the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea and add your voice to the more than 2,600 others from 71 countries for saving Woodlark Island. It takes less than 5 minutes; surely you can spare that, sat in your chair at your computer? I'm not holding a gun to your head, beating you with a stick or threatening to run you down with an excavator. Put yourself on the front line for a moment - I bet in your head, you run back home pretty quick!

If, like me, you are outraged by this news, read more about it at and sign a petition to the PNG government at

Thanks Kelly for bringing this to my attention, and I hope some of our readers will respond.


  1. It looks like pressure from organisations and individuals has worked: I received this press release a couple of days ago:

    Woodlark Rainforests Spared for Now from Clearing for Oil Palm

    Ecological Internet's international protest supporting local Papua New Guinea resistance blows the project out of the water

    January 16, 2008
    By Ecological Internet, Contact: Dr. Glen Barry, +1 (920) 776- 1075,

    (Woodlark, Papua New Guinea) -- Ecological Internet welcomes reports that Vitroplant, shady developer of a proposed oil palm project on Woodlark Island in Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea (PNG), has withdrawn. PNG's Minister for Agriculture and Livestock says no oil palm development will take place on Woodlark Island. Vitroplant's withdrawal was due to local and international pressure to conserve Woodlark Island's natural habitat.

    The ill-conceived project was to have cleared 70% of the rainforests on biodiversity rich Woodlark Island, some 60,000 hectares, in order to establish a massive oil palm plantation.
    Following the direction of local peoples, Ecological Internet's Earth action network was able to generate nearly 50,000 protest emails from 3,000 people in 72 countries.

    The protest embarrassed the PNG government and highlighted the hypocrisy of their support of carbon payments for avoided deforestation, even as Woodlark was approved for clearance, and a rogue rainforest timber export industry continues unhindered.

    "We welcome reports that the Woodlark oil palm project is dead," states Ecological Internet's President Dr. Glen Barry.
    "Yet campaigning will continue until Woodlark is legally removed from consideration for agricultural deforestation, and the land is returned to its residents."

    Ecological Internet's PNG rainforest campaign seeks legally binding assurances that palm oil and other biofuels will not be developed on currently forested lands, and the elimination of PNG's industrial log export industry. Only then will payments for rainforest protection be justified.

    "The power of networks of informed Earth citizens to support local conservation action and an end to ancient rainforest logging has again been demonstrated. The forces of ecological destruction must be confronted and defeated," asserts Dr.


  2. now has a whole article on how Woodlark Island was saved, thanks to action from local and international individuals. It is good to know that even by taking a simple action such as sending an email to the involved parties it *is* possible for individuals to make a difference.

    How activists and scientists saved a rainforest island from destruction for palm oil

  3. The fight goes on. The Malaysian rainforests are now under threat.