The National

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (May 28, 2009) – Long before scientists discovered the hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica, elders who had never seen the inside of a classroom on the border between Madang and Western Highlands provinces noticed changes in the behaviour of mosquitoes and certain plant species.

In the case of mosquitoes, they were pushing away from the Ramu plains and moving inland towards the mountains. People who had moved away from the plains to escape malaria, suddenly found the disease following them inland. They talked about it and put it down to mosquitoes adapting to the cold and following humans.

The same people discovered that certain types of taros and pandanus crops which would grow in the lowlands in warmer climate were now growing in the colder regions. This puzzled the people for a while and then they finally felt it in the air. It was getting warmer.

So the people rotated their crops and people in mountainous regions who could grow root crops now enjoyed farming. Building designs changed. Houses which were normally built to keep cold air out were now built with ventilation in mind.

Slight changes of this nature were being made by the people but paled beside the changes brought in by modernisation, so little notice was taken of the local knowledge and wisdom of the elders passed down for generations.

And then the scientists announced global warming but our people already knew. Papua New Guineans needed no scientist to tell them about the hot days, the shifting water levels, the tell-tale changes in plant and animal life and movements. They knew the climate was changing. They just did not appreciate why it was happening.

Our people planted trees to mark boundaries and for shade. They left land fallow so that nature could restore the nutrients to the soil. They did selective logging when cutting down trees for buildings, fencing or building a canoe.

And they apologised to the forest for having to cut down a big tree. They told the tree spirits that a great tree had to fall because it was necessary to sustain human lives. There was respect here and it was and is a sustainable way of life.

But the modern world intruded and, suddenly, we find it necessary to adjust to the new culture that has crashed in on us. The world of cash and market economies demanded that greater areas be cleared to plant for more than the individual or community need.

And so changes we must make, and adjustments we must make, but such knowledge as Papua New Guineans have retained is the knowledge this new world now desires a return too. In that sense, PNG is already way ahead of the rest of the world.

We can teach others around the world to respect nature, to listen to it and to be taught by it. The knowledge of the elders must not die but it is knowledge that should now be used to save the world.

It is knowledge that did not require change or supremacy but partnership, respect and harmony. In our traditional cosmos, nature was superior. Man lived at nature’s behest and obeyed its laws, not the other way around.

The modern world is discovering that trying to tame nature or at least disrespect for it can have nasty consequences indeed.

As we prepare for the worst of climate change, we must also take advantage of the opportunities presented by the global weather phenomenon. This is one nation where we can be 100% climate friendly in our power generation. There is no reason for diesel generators in this country where we have multiple thermal regions, where we have adequate sources of wind and solar power and many rivers for hydro power plants scattered through most parts of the country.

PNG is home to the third largest tract of untouched tropical rain forest and is arguably the largest source of bio-diversity in the world. More than just being proud of this, we can use this as an edge in negotiating better conditions for our people.

If our virgin forests suck up so much carbon out of the air, then the world must pay for forest resource owners to keep the forest in its pristine state and to reforest degraded and deforested areas. This is a very strong position to have.

In exchange, we require faster transfer of knowledge and technology from the rich so that we can prepare for changes in disease patterns, in crop failures and to build environment friendly cooling systems for our homes and places of work.

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