Coming of Age in Papua New Guinea
Mark Dowie’s “The Wrong Path to Conservation” [Sept. 29], a distorted account of an ambitious project that encountered difficulties but also accomplished important results, failed to help your readers understand both the challenges and promise of modern conservation work.
Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a global conservation priority that faces multiple threats to the ecosystems and natural resources vital to its people and their livelihoods. Conservation International (CI) has worked in PNG since 1991 and has invested more than $16 million in the cause of conservation there.
In 2001 our work with PNG conservationists led us to seek an expansion of our efforts in Milne Bay, an archipelago stretching across hundreds of miles in one of the most remote places on earth. We entered into an agreement with the UN Development Program (UNDP), the Global Environment Facility and the Milne Bay provincial government to develop a network of protected marine areas to be managed by local communities. It was the biggest project of its kind at the time.
The goal was to empower Milne Bay communities to manage their fish stocks and coral reefs, which were under threat. All involved, from international organizations to local communities, embraced the project as sound and desirable. It had nothing to do with a “cargo” mentality of trading money for conservation, as Dowie asserted. Effective and sustainable conservation means linking people’s livelihood and quality of life with saving the biodiversity essential for human survival.
After we suspended the project in 2006, a UN report graded our achievement of objectives and outcomes “satisfactory.” Valuable biodiversity data had been gathered, local communities engaged and draft conservation agreements negotiated.
But the report also cited problems in management that caused the project to run out of money a year early. CI accepts responsibility for its role in the lack of sufficient oversight, and we have made necessary changes in oversight in our work worldwide. Contrary to Dowie, CI accounted for all the money in the project, UNDP approved the financial reports and a final audit by international accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers found nothing wrong. Also contrary to Dowie, CI never left Milne Bay and continues there with three full-time and five part-time staff. All are Papua New Guineans.
The purpose of my 2002 trip to Milne Bay was to match committed and passionate donors with projects. People willing to contribute time and resources to environmental causes are essential to our work and to many other organizations striving to improve global sustainability. Of course, these donors want a firsthand look at what they are supporting. Such exposure should be encouraged, not mocked.