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Weaving Best Conservation Practices into Culture
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New Guinea is a land of superlatives. It is the world’s largest tropical island and is one of the world’s most significant centers of biological and cultural diversity. Of the three great tropical forest wildernesses on earth —the Amazon, the Congo and New Guinea —New Guinea is the least explored. The island of New Guinea is home to over 700 species of birds, the world’s largest and smallest parrots, the largest pigeons and the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing butterfly—again the world’s largest. Although logging has ravaged most tropical forests, New Guinea is still covered with 75% of its original vegetation. These forests contain an estimated 9,000 species of plants, including 1,500 species of trees and 2,700 species of orchids. More importantly, this incredible biological diversity is matched by the island’s cultural diversity, with 1,200 distinct languages spoken on the island.

In order to conserve this diversity, we have introduced an initiative called the Papuan Forest Stewards.  Building on twenty years of experience in New Guinea and a UNESCO certified "Best Practice," – see -- the Papuan Forest Stewards represents a paradigm shifting rural development. The residents of these forests are remarkable stewards of the region’s natural heritage—it is their presence that has protected much of New Guinea’s forests. The aim of the Papuan Forest Stewards initiative is to build on this stewardship by are assisting interested communities with the conservation of their traditions and by partnering them with institutions dedicated to bio-cultural conservation.

Our initiative began with the Hewa community in New Guinea’s Central Range (142 30’E, 5 10’ S; elevation 500-3000 meters). They are the sole speakers of their unique language and the only inhabitants of ca. 65,000 hectares of forest in the Laigaip catchment of the uppermost Strickland River. This is the eastern edge of a rain-soaked upland zone in the center of New Guinea that recently identified as the richest in biodiversity on the island. This is where the four great river systems of New Guinea converge (Sepik, Fly, Digul, Idenburg), and the Hewa inhabit the forests where the Strickland meets the torrential Lagaip River. After years of recording the Hewa traditional environmental knowledge, the fifteen Hewa clans have agreed to set aside the drainages that comprise their clan boundaries as "Roads of the Cassowary." These lands will be allowed to return to primary forest. No gardens will be cut here. No hunting for cassowaries will be permitted. Hunting for any species with snares or shotguns is taboo. Fifteen pairs of paid teachers and apprentices are currently surveying their clan boundaries with timed-stamped digital cameras on a bi-monthly basis. The teachers are paid for their efforts. 

In the long-term, the Papuan Forest Stewards model envisions:

  • Working partnerships with international cultural and natural history institutions supports creating a local, sustainable, knowledge-based economy through conservation program that. 

  • Partnering with traditional rural societies throughout Guinea that will build their future upon the conservation of their cultural and ecological resources.

  • Expanding the current model based on traditional environmental knowledge to include the include Mt. Kaijende and the entire Laigaip watershed.


The Forest Stewards initiative is an innovative plan to conserve the traditional knowledge of New Guinea's most remote societies by partnering them with external institutions. The Forest Stewards initiative recognizes that the forests of New Guinea are biocultural phenomenon -- the product of thousands of years of interaction between humans and their environment. These forests and the cultures that shaped them are important global resources threatened by the forces of globalization and worthy of conservation. This initiative offers the possibility of meeting the aspirations of developing societies, while conserving globally significant forests. By fostering intergenerational and cross-cultural communication, the Forest Stewards allows communities to forge a new path -- one that allows them to employ their traditions to more fully participate in resource conservation decisions. Participating communities will be compensated to keep their languages, cultures and forests alive as an essential part of the knowledge conservation project. In remote areas with no other source of income, we believe that this will be sufficient incentive for people who are already proud of their heritage, to secure their way of life and continue to steward their language, tradition and forests into the next generation. 

We are building on twenty years of experience in New Guinea and a UNESCO certified "Best Practice,"( to conserve the biocultural diversity of New Guinea's Snow Mountains region -- the largest expanse of forest in the Pacific and a region of global significance containing the headwaters of the Fly, Sepik, Digul and Idenburg Rivers.

Our pilot project with the Hewa people along the Laigaip River began in 2005 and has expanded to include the Sisimen and Yana people living in this same watershed. In 2011, we plan to begin working with the societies that share the hunting areas surrounding Mt. Kaijende, thus including all the cultures and biodiversity of the upper Laigaip catchment under the umbrella of the Forest Stewards. In the field seasons stretching from 2006-08, these societies have worked with representatives from Harvard University; the Smithsonian; South Australia Museum; and Conservation International to document the region's biodiversity.

The Forest Stewards initiative is building environmental and cultural stewardship in traditional forest societies, by creating in each community a locally-managed knowledge conservation program that is supported by working partnerships with international cultural and natural history institutions. The initiative benefits a participating community by conserving its biocultural heritage and providing long-term employment through the exchange of this knowledge for compensation. Through local empowerment and capacity building, this approach offers an isolated forest society a pathway to a sustainable future.

These societies are the gatekeepers to the millennia of nature observations now embedded in their language. 
We have established a common ground on which indigenous societies and conservation NGO's can build a conservation program for these forests. . 

In addition, by relying on traditional knowledge, local informants are afforded a status outside of their community. The finest of these informants will become paid participants in the knowledge conservation phase of the Forest Stewards program. We believe that by establishing this linkage between the local economy, conservation and culture, we will help these communities create a sustainable future.


As the sole speakers of their language, the Hewa are the gatekeepers of millennia of observations about the natural world embedded in their language and culture. The biggest difficulty faced by researchers and outside interests in working with a population that speaks a unique language, is communication. In this case, the problem of cross-cultural communication was complicated by my desire to establish a common understanding between Hewa and western naturalists concerning the relationship between their traditional lifestyle and biodiversity.  Although the Hewa territory was designated a conservation priority, Papua New Guinea’s national government expects conservation initiatives to be generated entirely by local landowners.  If the Hewa were to work successfully with western scientists, we needed to develop a communication tool that would overcome language difficulties and present their traditional knowledge in a way that promoted cross-cultural communication. We hoped that the Forest Stewards initiative would become the basis for a local conservation plan. 

Ultimately, the Hewa understanding of birds has provided a way to use traditional knowledge to facilitate cross-cultural communication. Birds are an established indicator of biological diversity (Schodde 1973; Coates 1985; Beehler et al. 1986). By recording traditional knowledge of birds and the impact of human activity on them, we have established a common ground on which to build a conservation initiative for these forests.  This was what enabled me to establish my initial contact with Bruce Beehler.  Because we were able to describe the impact of human disturbance on the birds of the forest, we were able to portray a dynamic that a seasoned naturalist would understand. We were now speaking a common language and establishing a framework for cooperation.

Cross-cultural communication of this sort is somewhat unusual. By producing a book containing the basics of avian ecology (in effect a bird finder) we hope to conserve this knowledge for future generations; develop an educational tool for the first generation of literate Hewa schoolchildren and encourage the conservation of biocultural diversity by educating outsiders to the richness of traditional knowledge. If our first collaboration is a barometer, we believe that by making Hewa TK more accessible, we will expand the interaction with western scientists

Sample page from bird book

BRINGING INVENTORIES TO LIFE: Using Social Network Analysis to bring Traditional Environmental Knowledge to life


While there is an increasing interest in recording traditional environmental knowledge, it has been difficult to make the resulting inventories relevant to conservationists. We believe that this situation can be remedied by employing Social Network Analysis to graphically portray the information embedded in these inventories. Drawing on the traditional environmental knowledge of a New Guinea society -- the Hewa – we use Social Network Analysis to organize their traditional knowledge of pollination and seed dispersal in their homeland.

Key words: New Guinea, traditional environmental knowledge, pollination, seed dispersal, Social Network Analysis




Echidnas are small mammals that are covered with coarse hair and spines, superficially they resemble both the anteaters of South America and other spiny mammals like hedgehogs and porcupines. Their elongated slender snouts function as both mouth and nose. They have very short, strong limbs with large claws and are powerful diggers. Echidnas have a tiny mouth and a toothless jaw. They feed by tearing open soft logs, anthills and the like, and using their long, sticky tongue which protrudes from their snout to collect their prey. The short-beaked echidna, also called the spiny anteater, (Tachyglossus aculeatus) has a diet that consists largely of ants and termites.  The long-beaked echidna (Zaglossus sp.) typically eats worms and insect larvae.

Short-beaked echidnas live throughout Australia, Tasmania, and the lowlands of New Guinea. Long-beaked echidnas live only in the New Guinea Highlands, confined to alpine meadows up to 12,000 feet (3,660 meters) above sea level, and to the humid mountain forests of the New Guinea highlands.
The short-beaked echidna is still plentiful in Australia, and has no special conservation status listing at present. On the other hand, the long-beaked echidna of New Guinea, is faring poorly. Its forest habitat is being cleared for logging, mining, and agriculture, and people hunt the echidna for food with packs of trained dogs. Because of these threats, the long-beaked echidna is listed as endangered.
Now the Papuan Forest Stewards are teaming with Les Stroud, SPOT Satellite Messenger and the Smithsonian Institution to develop a conservation plan for the long-beaked echidna.  Using the SPOT locator beacons, the Papua Forest Stewards will be locating active echidna dens, and transmitting their location to Smithsonian researchers. This will begin to build a database on echidna numbers and density for this region, showcase the ability of Hewa naturalists and encourage researchers to take advantage of this unique research opportunity.  The end result should lead to greater protection and increased population numbers for this species on the edge of extinction.


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New Front Cover
Strickland Gorge view © D.Willis
Ok Om river bowman © D. Willis
Ok-Om mumu © D. Willis
The North Central Range © D. Willis
Kaijende Front Cover
Woman preparing food © D. Willis
Hewa man at home © D. Willis
Strickland Gorge ©D. Willis
Hewa Family
Hewa archer draws bow © D. Willis
Hewa dancers Hagen show © D. Willis
Hewa boy on platform. ©David Willis

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