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Wrong Path to Conservation in Papua New Guinea | The Nation

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Wrong Path to Conservation in Papua New Guinea

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What followed the voyage of the Reef Encounter was one of the most glaring worldwide examples of botched conservation. Within four years--in November 2006, when I arrived in Milne Bay--the project's $6,443,022 budget had been spent (two years before it was supposed to have been) on high-salaried scientists, expatriate staff, SUVs, fast boats, plush offices, first-class air travel, complex marine monitoring technologies and CI's management fee. (Funders included the World Bank's Global Environmental Facility; the United Nations Devel opment Program; the governments of Japan, Australia and Papua New Guinea, or PNG; and the Moore Foundation.) According to the UNDP's project evaluation, somewhere between $800,000 and $1.2 million was unaccounted for, and in an interview, a UNDP representative told me they were unsure whether CI had ever contributed the $1.6 million the organization had committed to the project. (After initially refusing to tell me whether CI would ever account for the missing funds, CI asserted that the UNDP's figure had "no basis in fact," and claimed that it had contributed $2.3 million to the project.)

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Mark Dowie
Mark Dowie, an investigative historian based in Point Reyes Station, California, is the author of the forthcoming...

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There was very little in the way of conservation to show for this massive investment of public and private funds. Moreover, the Milne Bay governor wanted CI out of his province immediately and was calling for a forensic audit of what he called "the grossly misnomered" Milne Bay Community Based Coastal and Marine Conservation Project. "These large NGOs...believe they are above the law," Governor Tim Neville told PNG's Parliament the following week, "and can simply do and say as they please, without respecting the people of the countries where they work."

The day I left Alotau, Neville was threatening to confiscate all of CI's equipment, evict its last two staffers from their offices, seal the doors and ask the country's prime minister, Sir Michael Somare, to expel CI entirely from Papua New Guinea. Somare is the longest-serving national leader in Melanesia and is highly regarded among his peers in the region. An expulsion from PNG could spawn a domino-chain of evictions against CI through the entire South Pacific. And CI has grand ambitions in the South Pacific.

So Seligmann is fighting back with all the PR muscle and diplomacy he can muster. A global reputation is at stake, and scores of supporting foundations, banks, national governments, development agencies and corporations are watching. CI admits that the Milne Bay Project faltered, but it blames the outcome on "insurmountable political and institutional issues, that, despite our best efforts, we were unable to resolve." That is code for Governor Neville, who, says Seligmann, made a frontal attack on CI when he sensed that his people were being "tricked into embracing conservation." Seligmann also denies any financial impropriety and invites the audit that Neville threatened. And Seligmann predicts that once the storm settles from CI's first foray into Milne Bay, phase two will commence and CI will be back in action.

No one I interviewed in Papua New Guinea, some of whom were serving out their last days on the CI payroll, held that assessment. They, the UN, the Global Environmental Facility and the project's three independent evaluators all placed blame for the fiasco squarely on the shoulders of Seligmann and CI's leaders, who, they say, ran the "community-based" project with minimal concern for or understanding of the culture, historical practices or traditional ecological knowledge of the islanders.

Until Christian missionaries flooded the South Pacific with Bibles and rosaries in the late nineteenth century, cargo cults were common. These bizarre sects literally worshiped the goods that were unloaded from the shiny boats and airplanes that floated and flew mysteriously into the region as global trade expanded. Cargo was manna from heaven, and the white men who brought it were revered as demigods. When missionaries gave the islanders something more powerful to worship than cargo, most, though not all, of the cults disappeared. What has not completely dissolved in Melanesia, however, is the cargo mentality, a residual desire for material goods that makes it easy for a super-wealthy organization like CI to get attention by promising schools, clinics, boats and community centers--cargo--in return for compliance with a conservation agenda designed in and imposed from Washington. And that, to the horror of CI's regional staff, is precisely the path Seligmann followed as he and his boatload of demigods cruised through the islands of Milne Bay.

At Nuakata, Seligmann and his fellow travelers displayed their wealth by purchasing its small fleet of rustic but well-crafted outrigger canoes, which were loaded onto the Reef Encounter's upper deck and shipped back to America to adorn CI's offices. The $50 per canoe was a steal by American standards but a windfall to a people who have only recently seen the face of Ulysses S. Grant. Although Seligmann was repeatedly warned by his local staff that trading cargo for conservation would never work, he persisted.

Long before the Reef Encounter arrived, the islanders and the national government of PNG were aware that the 210-island archipelago of Milne Bay was ecologically important. Local long-line fishermen and others from faraway ports were depleting vital fish stocks and had killed thousands of endangered sea turtles in the process. Aggressive harvesting of shark fins and bêche-de-mer (sea cucumbers) for the booming, delicacy-obsessed Chinese culinary market was threatening those species, while rotational agriculture and a growing human population put stress on shoreline ecosystems.

Seligmann had heard or read all this from preliminary research conducted by CI social and biological scientists in the two years before he set sail. But like so many leaders of global conservation, he tended to pay more attention to ecological findings than to the advice that came from sociologists and others who had studied and knew the traditions and cultures of Melanesian islanders, people like anthropologist Jeff Kinch, who repeatedly warned Seligmann and others at CI's Washington headquarters about the hazards of cargo conservation. In short, Kinch told them it would backfire. "Peter could not have picked a worse place to make promises," he told Bruce Beehler, CI's Washington-based overseer of Melanesia. "These promises will now spread throughout the other islands in the area and people will have their hands out, opening the way for 'conservation blackmail.' "

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