Wrong Path to Conservation in Papua New Guinea | The Nation


Wrong Path to Conservation in Papua New Guinea

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Kinch is Australian, married to a Papuan and has three children. He has lived in PNG and plied the waters of Milne Bay for ten years. He knows many of its leaders by their first names. For the two years before the project's start-up he researched and co-wrote two studies for CI and sent voluminous memos to Port Moresby (PNG's capital) and Washington on the ecological and social conditions of the islands in Milne Bay. Many in and outside CI believed he would have made an ideal chief technical adviser (CTA), the project's top management position, which would be filled as soon as the funds arrived from the Global Environmental Facility and other supporters.

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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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But when the money was delivered in January 2004, CI imported another Australian to be CTA. Peter MacKay could not be more different in style or philosophy from Jeff Kinch. MacKay had an impressive résumé, with experience managing large projects. He was a high-powered, systems-oriented micromanager but knew next to nothing about Milne Bay islanders or the complex ownership systems and local conservation practices they have developed over centuries, things Kinch knew by heart and had described in memos. Kinch strongly urged "not only that local communities be fully involved [with the project], but also that the decision making authority remain with local communities."

The problem with cargo conservation, Kinch warned, is that the local incentive to conserve natural resources shifts from restoring food security to obtaining cargo. So when promised goods are not delivered, the conservation motive disappears. Local leaders may then begin putting a hand out for more cargo--this time from commercial fishing companies and other exploiters of the reef. With few heeding his advice, Kinch resigned in 2003 shortly before MacKay came on board.

"Peter MacKay was a bully," recalls Gay Kula, CI's PNG director and a PNG citizen who says he tried but failed to rein him in. "It's amazing how much damage one man can do." But CI Washington kept MacKay on and persisted in trading promises of cargo for conservation agreements. Things grew worse in Milne Bay as cargo enticement evolved--as Kinch predicted it would--into a form of conservation blackmail wherein promises of cargo were withheld from communities that did not sign on to the CI strategy. In the end, Kula says, "money killed conservation."

In the months that followed, the project descended into disarray. Morale collapsed, money was squandered and funders began to have second thoughts about CI's choice of a project manager. CI, which had created so many promising and generous jobs for so many scientists and local leaders, some of whom told me it was the best job they'd ever had, was becoming the bête noire of Milne Bay and, worse by far, of the conservation funding community.

In their assessment of the CI project, completed in July 2006 for the UNDP, independent evaluators Peter Johnston, John Duguman and Graham Baines described a gradual de-cline of staff morale and deep community frustration in the Milne Bay area, caused by a combination of overbearing control, bad communications, slipshod management, lack of transparency, cultural insensitivity and a long string of broken promises. In their two-month review the three evaluators interviewed more than 100 project staffers, village and civic leaders, government officials and church leaders. The most common response from local citizens was characterized as "Big cars, fancy office, lots of talk but nothing to show for it." One CI staffer predicted that "the only thing that will save this project is the forgiving nature of the Milne Bay people."

"Project management by CI has been extremely poor, indeed negligent," reads the evaluation, "with poor reporting, excessive charges for overhead expenses, a poor relationship with provincial government officials and little or no effective oversight or control of project activities.... There are records from early 2005 expressing serious concerns.... Yet CI Washington made no effort to investigate and resolve the issues. Had CI intervened at that time the project could have delivered good results." That was written by people who told funders and local Milne Bayans that in composing their final report they had restrained their negative opinions of CI.

To be fair, the Milne Bay Project was not a total failure.The biodiversity assessment it produced between 1997 and 2002 is still of some use. And while CI's behavior painted an unfortunate picture of international conservation, conservation remains part of the daily conversation in Papua New Guinea's island communities, and several grassroots efforts have emerged since CI left the area.

And to be fair to Seligmann, one must keep in mind the nature of his job. Supporting huge staffs and infrastructure demands that the CEOs of enormous, quasi-corporate entities like CI keep fundraising high on their agenda; goal one, in fact. When you have to raise $100 million a year just to break even, there isn't time to think about much else.

By most accounts the Milne Bay area's marine health is pretty much as it was before 2002. The large fish--tuna, marlin, barracuda and sharks--are back. If they left at all it was only for a while, perhaps drawn eastward by El Niño, a warm current of water that appears every three to seven years in the eastern Pacific and temporarily disrupts the oceanic food chain. When I first interviewed Seligmann I asked if he knew that 2002 was an El Niño year. He refused to answer that question, among many others. Later, through his media director, he asserted that CI had every intention of returning to Milne Bay to complete its mission there. Then, shortly before this article went to press, The Nation received Seligmann's replies to my questions through CI's lawyer. Seligmann now says he had known it was an El Niño year and claims that "an independent audit of the project found no financial irregularities." He did not say who had performed or paid for the audit, or provide any documentation of its existence.

If Milne Bay's new governor, John Luke Crittin, opens his arms to CI, the organization will be returning to a very different and wary community. As a somewhat embittered Modi Pontio, community engagement coordinator for CI's Milne Bay Project, told me the day before I left (the day before her office was closed and sealed by the government), "We don't need scientists who we don't know coming back in here to tell us how to manage our ecosystems."

"We were used, and it will be hard to face some of the people we worked with in the future," remarked local program manager Bena Seta the same day.

"It's going to be difficult to achieve conservation in Milne Bay in light of all the broken promises," says Geoff Callister, an anthropologist on the project, who, when I spoke with him in November, was suing CI for six months' back pay. "WWF [World Wildlife Fund] is good here, and so is TNC [The Nature Conservancy], but they and all foreign conservationists have been tarred by the CI brush. It's hard for any of us who worked on the project to find work here." Fortunately for the international conservation establishment, TNC and WWF maintain respectable footholds in Papua New Guinea, staffed largely by locals who respect and understand the hundreds of complex cultures that make up their country.

While failures of this magnitude are rare in transnational conservation, the Milne Bay fiasco is not a unique episode, nor is CI a lone culprit in the insensitive treatment of local peoples. The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, the African Wildlife Foundation and the Wildlife Conservation Society all share CI's global reputation for imperious behavior, and they also have failures on their project lists. But the Milne Bay story best illustrates the folly of cargo conservation and the arrogance so often projected by well-endowed Northern environmental NGOs in the global South.

What is ironic about this project, and unjust in a way, is that a people who have been living sustainably in a relatively healthy environment for thousands of years were in effect being blamed for its recent decline in ecological health by staffs and organizations whose support comes directly from the economic surplus of a civilization that is doing the real, long-term damage to coral reefs and oceanic marine ecosystems. In fact, it's damaging the entire planet, which international conservation seeks to protect. One lesson to be learned from the Milne Bay fiasco is that the people who will help you most in conservation are the ones who depend on the environment for their livelihood. Another, from a Papuan aphorism: "When you visit a community, walk in, don't fly."

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