Paradise Lost
October 2008

by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

My view is filled with green, green as far as I can see: dark green, vibrant green, tired looking green but all green with the occasional splash of muddy brown. I'm in a helicopter flying over the rainforests of the Gulf and Western Provinces, Papua New Guinea (PNG). I'm on assignment for Greenpeace to document the illegal logging practices taking place within the Paradise Forests.

© Greenpeace/ Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert 2008
A child from Omati village, wearing a shell necklace, stands in front of the remains of a limestone hill (a sacred site for the villagers) which has been logged and then mined for limestone (for use as road surfacing) by loggers, in the rainforests of the 'Turama extension' logging concession, near the village of Omati, Gulf Province, Papua New Guinea, Sept. 3, 2008.
For what can be a challenging country logistically to work in, I've been very fortunate. My client has done the legwork, taken care of logistics and is getting me into the places I need to be. And this is one part of the country where it helps to fly by helicopter--moving on land, or more accurately, waterways, can be either painfully slow or it doesn't happen—like today but maybe tomorrow.

When I came to PNG on my first assignment covering the logging issue, I was expecting to see hectares of cleared forests but not so in this region. Here the multinational logging companies and their PNG offshoot companies carry out selective logging. This means they go through land for which they've obtained logging concession permits (not always by fulfilling the correct legal requirements and procedures) and at will the logging company surveyors carve up the virgin forest as they look for and mark with ribbons the prime timber to harvest. They work like a slow cancer eating away at the expansive forests from the inside. A chainsaw gang will follow behind with one operator felling up to 35 previously selected trees a day. Behind this group a bulldozer operator and his team move heavily along in their monstrous yellow machines (and in the process, scare away the animals and birds that flee further and further from the villages where they are badly needed by locals as a food source). The dozer crews extract the felled trees with metal cables one or two at a time, dragging them to roadside 'ponds'--areas where logs are collected. From here the logs will make their way to 'logging station ponds' for loading onto pontoons. Then the logs are pulled by barges down the waterways to ports and loaded onto ships carrying the highly prized, but at this stage under-priced timber (and therefore have lower export taxes due) to the ports of China or Japan and worldwide.

© Greenpeace/ Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert 2008
A local villager, wearing a headdress of cassowary feathers, paddles his canoe next to a pontoon barge laden with timber felled in the rainforests of Gulf Province, Papua New Guinea, September 3, 2008.
I came expecting to be shocked by the forestry devastation but instead I find myself more shocked by the conditions that the local workers and people live in. Using slave-like practices the companies hold the workers in their jobs and squeeze every last PNG Kina out of them, all the while raping the land and reaping millions of dollars' worth of soft and hard woods from some of the last rainforests left on the planet.

In the midst of the forest, with suffocating humidity that seems to suck out all the air for breathing and insects buzzing around, I speak with Henry, a local chainsaw operator. I ask him about his job. He explains that he gets paid by the cubic meter of wood felled but that the company regularly cheats him. He has never been given any protective safety clothes: no steel-toed boots, no earphones, no goggles, no chaps for his legs, no hard hat. He stands in the yellow clay-like mud in a pair of two right-feet plastic boots, one ripped and hanging off his left foot. His t-shirt that has seen many months in the humid forest air has many holes--it hangs limply, barely holding together. It looks like it gave up being a t-shirt years ago.

© Greenpeace/ Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert 2008
A chainsaw operator cuts down a tree in the 'Turama extension' logging concession, Gulf Province, Papua New Guinea, Sept. 7, 2008. Twenty percent of global greenhouse emissions annually are caused by the deforestation of natural forests worldwide.
I watch nervously and photograph as Henry starts chain-sawing a large mala tree. I constantly ask him, "Are you sure it'll fall in that direction?" He smiles and assures me it will, but as his crew stands all around the base of the tree I'm not convinced. Finally the tree cracks, groans and starts to fall. We all move back, the clay sucking at our feet, the leeches on our legs sucking at our blood. The tree falls, taking others nearby with it; destruction has a domino effect in this tightly packed forest. The tree crash-lands and all around us vibrant green leaves flutter down, all catching the light from the newly created hole in the vegetation canopy. I feel like I'm caught in a snow globe of green leaves. It's quite beautiful to watch.

But there is a problem: the tree is rotten in the middle; it is hollow. "There is a hole in it, it is a defect, it is no use. We leave it still as it is. We're not going to be paid for it, it's just waste," Henry explains as he and his crew look at it. On top of the log large black ants lift up larvae from their disturbed nest exposed by broken bark and scurry manically, looking for a new home.

© Greenpeace/ Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert 2008
Workers for Turama Forest Industries tie a cable around two felled trees in order for the bulldozer to extract them from the forest near Morere, in the 'Turama extension' logging concession, Gulf Province, Papua New Guinea, Sept. 6, 2008. Twenty percent of global greenhouse emissions annually are caused by the deforestation of natural forests worldwide.
Back at the roadside we talk more. Watched and encouraged by some of his fellow workers he tells me in broken English of their complaints, "Sometimes we feel sorry for our environments and customary lands. Before, ancestors had been living on it, they had coconuts and sagos which our people benefit out of it but then company logging machines destroys [sic] everything with no compensation."

Henry continues, willing to share his story. He speaks of having to spend his wages in the expensive company canteen where prices are not on display, the money debited against his monthly wage packet. I ask him about his feelings for his job. He responds in fractured English: "Regarding about the forest, forest is helpful to us because ground produce what we live on and what we get out of it and money is a just a short term of period that we live on it and money's is here today. We get and goes back to store and finishes. But ground remains, forest remains, every days environment remains. We live with it. We benefit out of it. We cultivate our soil and we have something. But when company comes in and do's damages we feel sorry for our environments as well."

Henry pauses, thinking. Behind him his fellow workers watch and shuffle around worried that a "boss-man" might arrive and see them talking with foreigners. "We work for company as slaves. We sweat our guts in order to have finance for our families as well as school fees for our children."

© Greenpeace/ Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert 2008
A makeshift cross for church services stands in front of the basic accommodation block for Papua New Guinean workers employed by the giant Malaysian logging company Rimbunan Hijau, in Pulpul logging camp, East New Britain Island, Papua New Guinea, Sept. 21, 2008.
I thank Henry--in a few short lines he has told a sorry story not particular only to him but to many Papua New Guineans trapped within the logging industry. As I continue my assignment over the coming weeks local resource owners and workers within the province "down tools," a protest against the logging companies. The protestors ask for a review of the logging concession permits and the royalties due to the landowners. Greenpeace activists lock down a shipment of illegal timber and hang a huge banner that reads: "Protect Forests, Save our Climate." Governor Havila Kavo of the Gulf Province also speaks out in a national PNG paper, The Post Courier, declaring "My people have been grossly abused," that the logging companies are failing to fulfill permit obligations to locals communities and that they need to shut down their operations or face a legal battle. Another newspaper article declares that during a recent audit the National Forest Authority could not account for U.S. $40 million.

It seems sentiment against the logging industry is building from the muddy grounds of the rainforest upwards; people are unhappy. My assignment is nearly over but it looks like for the local resource owners and workers their battle still stretches out far ahead of them.

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© Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

See Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert's first dispatch on Papua New Guinea:

Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert grew up in Scotland, a place he loves dearly, but wished to make life tricky for himself and so he relocated to Tokyo, Japan, where he now lives and works for editorial, NGO and corporate clients worldwide. His photographs have appeared in magazines such as Time, The Sunday Times Magazine, National Geographic and many more. They also have been exhibited in Europe, Asia and the U.S.A. Examples of his work and his contact details can be found by visiting his Web site http://www.jeremysuttonhibbert.

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