Could you tell us about the biological and cultural diversity of Papua New Guinea, and how they are connected?
Papua New Guinea contains, I think, somewhere between 5 – 7 per cent of the world’s biodiversity. Estimates vary as PNG is one of those areas that is still very under-studied, due to its remoteness. It has a range of different habitats from the coastal regions and swamplands through to what’s called ‘transitional’ (a mix of coastal and montane) and then the higher altitude mountain areas where you have the highest endemism (species unique to one particular area). This geography and the geological terrain make it very challenging to navigate to areas where there is intact forest.
On top of that, for every major mountain area you encounter, there will be two or three different tribes or language speaking groups living on either side. These groups all have their own unique languages, and it is fascinating to learn about their specific beliefs and ways of associating with the environment, expressed through each language, their ways of using the resources around them and their different customs. Papua New Guinea has the highest diversity of languages in the world, but it is not just the languages themselves that are diverse and precious, it is also the knowledge of the environment contained within them.
When these languages are at risk of dying out – as many are – we risk losing all the very specific environmental knowledge they contain.
In terms of biodiversity, these mountains host a huge variety of unique species which vary according to altitude. A particularly unique and diverse group here in Papua New Guinea – on the island of New Guinea in fact – are the birds of paradise. There is also an incredibly high diversity of amphibian species and the island of New Guinea has the highest plant diversity of anywhere on Earth. This high diversity reflects how species have adapted over time to the vast range of different habitats and microhabitats on the island and to their isolation due to geographical barriers such as mountains.
You mentioned the fact that languages are threatened, but of course the natural environment itself also faces great pressures in PNG, just as in so many other parts of the world. What are the greatest pressures on nature in PNG, and to what extent would you say these are related to threats to cultural and linguistic diversity?
Oh, I don’t know where to start – that’s a big question! I think one of the greatest pressures on nature is simply the fact that the natural environment is undervalued. Not in the sense that people don’t realise its importance, but when it comes to ‘development’ activities, whether it’s mining or natural gas, there’s more emphasis on the economic value of one resource and much less value placed on local people, the traditional custodians who have lived on that land, and their association with the natural environment.
Undervaluing nature is one of the biggest threats, and it’s cross-cutting, because it affects not just the environment, but also social norms – it alters the community’s perception of what should be important and opens the door for other ways of thinking and other values.
Not all of those are bad, of course, but it can affect people’s relationship with nature and perception of its value, and lead to a greater emphasis on materialism. This kind of ‘development’ can bring changes in traditional ways of life. I think some of the ‘modern’ ways of life coming in can make new generations slightly out of touch with their cultural heritage.