The Tenkile Conservation Alliance (TCA) has worked for more than two decades now with communities in the Torricelli Mountains of northwestern Papua New Guinea to benefit the three species of tree kangaroo that reside in the region.
Several dozen communities signed on to a moratorium on hunting tree kangaroos, and today, species numbers are substantially higher than they were before the TCA’s work began.
The communities have also benefited from the TCA’s economic development projects, which have included rabbit rearing, rainwater catchment systems, and solar-powered lighting installations.
The TCA has also been working toward official government recognition of the proposed Torricelli Mountain Range Conservation Area. However, progress toward gazetting the protected area appears to have stalled, and mostly foreign logging companies continue to operate in the area, putting pressure on the forests of the Torricellis.
MUKU, Papua New Guinea — Fidelis Nick’s eyes lock onto the police vehicle as it passes through his village in northwestern Papua New Guinea. A few people wave greetings as it passes by, but Nick isn’t one of them. He watches as a truck from the construction company working on a new road here in Muku follows directly behind. He doesn’t seem fearful, but he’s clearly on alert.
Since the first crews arrived in May 2021, Nick, now 39, has led the resistance to the road, rallying members of his community and others in the area to oppose its construction. These villages sit in the heart of the Torricelli Mountains, rainforest-covered peaks rising to 1,650 meters (5,410 feet) spread across some 1,850 square kilometers (714 square miles), an area two and a half times the size of Bengaluru, India. In addition to the road cutting through Nick’s land, he worries about the impact it could have on the region’s unique biodiversity.
Turning a well-worn foot path into a road would make it easier to move goods and access services from the forest-dappled peaks of the Torricellis to the coastal port of Aitape, which sits less than 32 km (20 mi) as the crow flies from Muku. But Nick and his colleagues at the Tenkile Conservation Alliance (TCA) say they worry that it would also open up the region to more logging and hunting in a place that’s home to critically endangered tree kangaroos and a host of other biodiversity. They also argue that it would be more cost-effective, and less disruptive to the ecosystem, to upgrade the existing Mai-Tadji road, which sits nearby and also connects these communities to the coast, to address the landslides that often impede and slow travel along it.
The TCA, where Nick is a project officer, has been working to conserve this part of the Torricellis for more than two decades. The pinnacle of that effort would be the official designation by the Papua New Guinea government of a long-in-the-works protected area. As recently as 2019, it seemed the country was on the cusp of recognizing the 1,850-km2 Torricelli Mountain Range Conservation Area (TMRCA). Since then, however, progress toward that goal has stalled.
Neither PNG’s Conservation and Environment Protection Authority (CEPA) nor the office of Wera Mori, the minister of the environment, conservation and climate change, responded to Mongabay’s requests for comment about the status of the proposed TMRCA and accusations that companies operating in the Torricellis are working with police to intimidate local opponents to logging and road construction like Nick.
The Torricellis is the only place on Earth where the ranges of three species of tree kangaroo overlap. By the late 1990s, hunting and habitat loss, mostly due to logging, had winnowed numbers of two of the species — the tenkile (Dendrolagus scottae), or Scott’s tree kangaroo, and the weimang (D. pulcherrimus) — such that biologists fretted they might soon go extinct. The grizzled, or Finsch’s, tree kangaroo (Dendrolagus inustus finschi) also lives in the Torricellis, but is not considered endangered.
Over the past two decades, the TCA has worked with dozens of communities in the Torricellis to reverse that trend. Headed by Australian zookeepers Jim and Jean Thomas, the organization convinced communities to stop hunting within the mountain rainforest habitat of the tree kangaroos. Alongside those efforts, they introduced projects aimed at replacing that source of protein, such as rabbit raising and fish ponds, as well as economic development and social welfare for the communities that signed on to a hunting moratorium, such as the installation of rain-fed water tanks and solar panels.
The benefits to all three tree kangaroo populations were “unimaginable,” considering how low they’d fallen, Tim Flannery, the Australian zoologist who first described the tenkile and weimang for science, told Mongabay. By 2013, scientists estimated that the tenkile population had grown from fewer than 100 in the ’90s to more than 300 based on TCA surveys.
More recently, the TCA has expanded its work to include villages beyond the tree kangaroo species’ current ranges, bringing thousands of solar-powered lighting kits to more than 100 “feeder” villages that weren’t part of the original moratorium. Many of these villages sit along the Sepik highway, which TCA teams travel frequently.
Today, however, construction on the road continues, despite a brief pause in response to opposition to it in June 2021 and periodic shutdowns as a result of protests. A road construction company called Hicz has set up a base about 20 minutes’ walk from Nick’s home in Muku. The company’s on-site public relations officer, Simon Nick, who was hired from the community and is Fidelis Nick’s uncle, said many people in the community in fact want to have a road that connects them to the coast. He also said the company intends to respect the TCA’s conservation programming, though he didn’t provide details on what that would entail.
Conversations with men and women from Muku and the surrounding communities revealed ambivalence about having the road cut through their communities: They expressed concern about the effects on the environment, but also said they realize it may ease the challenging travel to Aitape, where they can buy and sell the goods they need.
Fidelis Nick’s opposition remains stalwart, though, and for that, he’s paid a price. He said the police have visited his home multiple times and told him to back off his encouragement of widespread resistance in Muku. Still, Nick said he sees the road as a threat to the integrity of the largely pristine forests of the Torricellis and the countless species they support, tree kangaroos and humans among them.
“The timber and land are their resources,” Nick says of communities like Muku, so he spends a lot of his time meeting with villages and explaining the changes that could materialize with the road. Along with the road construction, new logging outfits have appeared in the area. And their backers have made inroads with some villages, convincing at least a few key members of the community that the money they’ll be paid for their timber will be worth allowing the companies to operate on their land.
Meanwhile, the TCA is holding out hope that it can still secure more durable protection for the tree kangaroo habitat in the Torricellis, perhaps by working with the individual clans to secure conservation deeds through the Sandaun provincial government. Jim Thomas said this process has the potential to be more inclusive by incorporating a wide range of views from the communities, but it would require securing some 230 individual deeds.
Mongabay’s John Cannon met with Nick in Muku to discuss the current situation. This interview was edited for clarity and length.
Mongabay: How will the creation of the Torricelli Mountain Range Conservation Area impact the villages in this area?
Fidelis Nick: If the government gazettes the TMRCA, that will bring more power back to the villages. They will take back ownership of the forest and the biodiversity and these rights to protect their land.
Mongabay: A big part of the TCA’s strategy has been to bring development to these villages. What are your thoughts on the services provided by TCA and those provided by the government?
Fidelis Nick: [When] we’re talking about government, it’s really focusing on the major developments of projects such as roads and education — all major government services, which are funded by government every year through their budget. But compared to the rural village development, government really doesn’t benefit the people — livelihood projects [like] light, water and sanitation.
From my experience, the TCA is delivering the basic services, while the government just wants to focus on the major developments of the country. TCA is conducting good livelihood projects based on village-level needs. Government doesn’t focus so many times on the village development projects. We believe TCA is really doing the best development projects at the community level. But it’s within the project area only, not in all villages of the district.
But recently, we’ve just worked with another 100 villages along the Sepik highway. This depends on the funding that TCA can find to help them. When we conserve the environment and biodiversity, some of the biodiversity will be traveling to the neighboring villages.
Mongabay: Why are these “feeder” villages important?
Fidelis Nick: They are important to the biodiversity and [dealing with] the threats. Some of the tree kangaroos will be passing through our land and will reach their land. We think that they’re so important. They should be part of the program so that we can support them and tree kangaroo conservation.
They are really part of the program. They [supported] us in terms of project delivery. We need to work with them to address the issues and all that’s related to the project.
Mongabay: Can you tell me about the road the government is building here through your village?
Fidelis Nick: The road the government is building is giving us so many challenges. The government uses force. Everywhere, the government works with the policemen. That’s why the village people may find it very difficult to express their rights to speak on behalf of their land. When they speak and try to stop the operation of the road that the government built, all the time the government uses force. When [the people] see police, they are just afraid and find it very difficult to say, so they just sit and watch the government build the road.
Mongabay: What level of force do they use?
Fidelis Nick: They threaten the people, threaten them by saying that if you stop the road, they’ll beat [you] down. Actually, I’m the main one [receiving these threats]. They are already focusing on me. I am the one to organize the villagers to stop the road. I stopped this road here six times with the village people.
Mongabay: How did they threaten you?
Fidelis Nick: They came to my house and threatened me [and said] “You will never stop the road.” But honestly, I will stop the road because this is my land. I haven’t signed any consent form, any sort of free, prior, informed consent. I haven’t signed it. So I have all rights to stop the road from coming into my land and destroying my property.
Mongabay: The policemen here, are they from the community, or did they come from another part of Papua New Guinea?
Fidelis Nick: The policemen came from outside. They’re not community members.
Mongabay: What do you plan to do if the road is built in spite of your opposition?
Fidelis Nick: The villages will come up with some laws, and we will give [these] conservation laws [to the company], which they should abide by while transporting the logs [through the] conservation area. We are proposing a billboard to put in the conservation area, telling the company and traveling public that this is a conservation area. You should drive the speed limit. Don’t throw out waste or plastic bags. At the same time, [the road] can help researchers go straight to reach a good part of [the conservation area].
Mongabay: Have you met with the logging companies?
Fidelis Nick: I’m going to try to speak with the logging companies. They should abide by what we are going to tell them because they are using our road to transport the logs down to the seaport. I will try my best to convince them, talk to them, before they are using this road.
This is PNG, so we will find it very difficult to address this issues. Politics is involved and corruption — it’s very hard. At the same time, lots of people are illiterate, and they don’t understand.
Mongabay: You mentioned free, prior and informed consent and that you have not given that for the road through your land. What does that mean to you?
Fidelis Nick: Some don’t understand the real meaning of free, prior and informed consent. Actually, the real meaning is, we will express our feelings or express our thoughts based on whatever the projects they are trying to do. They should give us a time to listen to us. That’s what the real meaning is of free, prior, informed.
Mongabay: Have there been any attempts to do that, to sit and listen to villagers’ views on the road?
Fidelis Nick: No. They just come and [have people] sign the consent form, giving them the power to do whatever they want.
Mongabay: You mentioned there are high illiteracy rates and that many people do not speak English, only Tok Pisin. Are the consent forms in English or Tok Pisin?
Fidelis Nick: English. They just call the middlemen, whoever supports them [in the villages]. Then they just sign on behalf of the clans.
Mongabay: Is there a difference in the way you view conservation compared to the younger generation in your opinion?
Fidelis Nick: For me and my parents, the forest was very important to us in terms of traditional identity. We respect our forest. We don’t really think about using money because our parents and our ancestors, our lives depended on our land and our forest. So we put all of our time in our forest. But looking at some of the youngest as they grow up, they want money, and they will see that forest is nothing important to them. They focus on money. So when they grow up, they’re convinced by some people outside telling them “We’ll give you big money, and we will come and harvest the logs.”
Mongabay: Are there young people who want to protect the forest?
Fidelis Nick: Some of the people in the villages, they really understand the conservation properly. They really love it. They benefit more from it. But the outsiders trying to influence them to harvest the logs, they just go straight to younger ones.
Mongabay: How do you influence the younger generation to care about the forest?
Fidelis Nick: Through TCA programs, I put all my effort with the young boys, and they really support the conservation program because they are benefiting more from the conservation. They see the importance. The animals have grown in numbers, which is really important to them.
Mongabay: What do you find that young people respond to? What is it that makes them care?
Fidelis Nick: They see themselves as part of the family that owns the land. They don’t want the land to be affected. They will defend the forests.
Banner image: A tenkile (Dendrolagus scottae), or Scott’s tree kangaroo, at the Tenkile Conservation Alliance base in Lumi, Papua New Guinea. Image by John Cannon/Mongabay.