An Interview with Miriam Supuma

Detail from 'The blue bird of paradise' by Sir Henry Hamilton Johnstone

By , |2022-02-04T11:44:05+00:00August 2nd, 2021|Biocultural Diversity, Biodiversity, Community, Indigenous Peoples, Interviews|Comments Off on An Interview with Miriam Supuma

Miriam Supuma, Flourishing Diversity Programme ManagerMiriam Supuma has been working for over ten years with conservation organisations in Papua New Guinea, a country that comprises 1% of the world’s land but around 7% of its biodiversity. Miriam joined Synchronicity Earth in April 2021 to lead its Biocultural Diversity Programme (formerly the Flourishing Diversity Programme), which focuses on the recognition of traditional knowledge and its role in safeguarding biodiversity and promoting diverse lifeways. Miriam holds a PhD in Environmental Science and Conservation from James Cook University, Australia. She has a particular interest in the subsistence use of birdlife and its links to culture in the form of headdress adornment.

To start with, can you tell me where your love of nature came from?

Well, I think I was very fortunate. My dad worked for the police department and early in his career – this was around the time of independence for Papua New Guinea – they posted policemen to rural areas to work as patrol officers within communities. Part of their job was to collect important data on population, demography, natural resources and so on. So, wherever my father was posted, we went with him.

One of those places was in the Western Province, a few kilometres away from Merauke in Papua, on the Indonesian side. It’s a region that has amazing wildlife and particularly thriving bird diversity. During the Northern hemisphere winter you get migratory birds coming down, then when it’s winter in the Southern hemisphere you get birds migrating up.

We were exposed to all sorts of wildlife growing up and as kids we had freedom to roam around and explore the forests and freshwater streams. It was a pretty amazing time to grow up and an exciting place to live.

How did your love of nature growing up eventually lead to you making it your life’s work?

I ended up going to the  University of Papua New Guinea to pursue a degree in Science, majoring in Ecology and during my final year, I was one of those selected to participate in a special one-month training course being offered to students. The course was run by Dr. Andrew Mack, who was then the director of the Wildlife Conservation Society. The great thing about this course was that the organisation paid all expenses to take students out to a very remote area, right in the middle of an expansive forest.

We landed on a small airstrip – just a patch of grass really – then hiked for a couple of hours. What struck me most was the sheer remoteness of the place and the simplicity of how the communities lived. Even though it may sound romantic, it’s also an incredibly hard life for the communities. I began to understand how dependent local people in these areas were on the environment around them to get what they needed to survive and sustain themselves.

For me, that was one of the most eye-opening things: we don’t actually need to eat a lot, to consume a lot, but many societies, particularly affluent ones, have become addicted to consumption and this has a profound impact on many underdeveloped nations.

That was when I realised what I wanted to do. Being in my fourth year, I was at the stage of deciding my career path and what to do after university, and that experience pointed me in the direction I wanted to go.

 A remote mountain top village in Papua New Guinea

Hogave village, a remote region of Papua New Guinea Miriam became familiar with through her field work. Image: Miriam Supuma

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 bar