SYDNEY Thirty years of satellite imagery of Papua New Guinea's rainforests has revealed destruction on such a rapid scale that by 2021 most accessible forest will be destroyed or degraded, a study released on Monday said.
Papua New Guinea has the world's third largest tropical rainforest, after the Amazon and the Congo, and its government is seeking compensation for conserving its forests as carbon-traps to help reduce global greenhouse gases.
Papua New Guinea has allowed widespread logging of its forests and the new report, by the University of Papua New Guinea and the Australian National University, questions its commitment to saving rainforests in the mountainous South Pacific nation.
"Forests in Papua New Guinea are being logged repeatedly and wastefully with little regard for the environmental consequences and with at least the passive complicity of government authorities," said Phil Shearman, director of the University of Papua New Guinea's Remote Sensing Centre.
"Government officials may claim that they wish rich countries to pay them for conserving their forests, but if they are allowing multinational timber companies to take everything that's accessible, all that will be left will be lands that are physically inaccessible to exploitation and would never have been logged anyway," said Shearman.
Destruction of forests produces about 20 percent of man-made carbon dioxide emissions, so their conservation is vital to limiting rises in global temperatures.
The report, which measured PNG's forests from 1972 to 2002, found that accessible forests were being cleared at a rate of 362,000 hectares (895,000 acres) a year in 2001, or about 1.41 percent of the country's forests annually.
In 1972, PNG had 38 million hectares (94 million acres), of rainforest covering 82 percent of the country. Between 1972 and 2002, around 15 percent of its rainforests had been cleared.
In 2002, PNG's forests covered 33 million hectares (81.5 million acres), or 71 percent of the country's land mass, and supported 6 to 7 percent of the world's animal and plant species.
By 2021 an estimated 83 percent of accessible forest and 53 percent of PNG's total forests would be destroyed or severely damaged, said the report.
FORESTS NOT LIMITLESS
"Papua New Guinea is still one of the most heavily forested countries in the world," Shearman said in a statement.
"For the first time, we have evidence of what's happening in the PNG forests. The government could make a significant contribution to global efforts to combat climate change. It is in its own interest to do so, as this nation is particularly susceptible to negative effects due to loss of the forest cover."
The report said deforestation was occurring at the same rate in protected and unprotected areas and justified a significant reduction in logging in PNG.
Any new forestry programmes should involve small and medium-scale, locally-owned and managed operations where commercial activities are more likely to be environmentally sustainable, it said.
Minister for Forests Belden Namah said economic development had taken precedence over conservation in PNG, a developing nation that has struggled to prosper from its vast mineral wealth. Most of its 6 million population live subsistence lives in villages.
"Over the past decades we have imagined that our forests are limitless. If this report is the bitter pill that we need to swallow to ensure that we maintain our forests into the foreseeable future, so be it," Namah said in the report.
"If in 50 years, PNG is left only with scraps of forest inside national parks then we have all failed."
(Editing by Alex Richardson)