An Interview with Miriam Supuma
Miriam 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.
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 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.
Extractive industries such as mining affect social and cultural norms as well as having a negative impact on the environment. Image: Richard Farbellini
Another contributing factor is the remoteness of many of these areas. Access to much of PNG’s intact forest is very difficult, there is a lack of basic government services, literacy rates are often low and there can be language barriers which mean that communities are not always fully aware of their rights. There is also a lack of any joined-up system for mapping many of these remote areas. On the one hand you have mineral resource authorities drawing up maps for potential mineral exploitation, then you have the petroleum department creating their own maps, the forestry department creating their maps and conservationists creating different maps again and, of course, often these maps overlap with each other!
Maps are fine on paper, but most of them are created by people who know nothing about the communities on the ground.
There’s no cultural appreciation when these maps are drawn up, no understanding of sacred sites or where communities might bury their dead, and this leads to tensions and problems between the communities and the companies trying to exploit the land.
I once had an experience when training with conservation scientists in a very remote area. These scientists had been in the area for twenty years and had built up a very good relationship with the community there, but the area also happened to have potential for mining exploration. Many locals had no knowledge of this fact until helicopters started flying in company employees who drove a transect right through the heart of the conservation area to take samples for the mining company. This created huge tensions within the community and also raised unrealistic expectations about what the company might bring.
It’s clear that these different departments are very siloed and don’t communicate much with each other. We really need a more integrated approach, and when it comes to resource development, people need better information to help them make the best decisions for their communities and their land. In some ways, we are only just coming to realise that what we have in PNG is quite unique, but it’s also very threatened.
When we talk about development and extractive industries such as mining, timber and even deep-seabed mining now, the question of land rights in Papua New Guinea is key, but also very complex! Why is the concept of land rights so central to protecting biological and cultural diversity in PNG?
In Papua New Guinea, land is customary, it’s not owned by an individual, it’s owned by the clan. So, it is through kinship relationships that people have communal ownership over land. One person cannot make a decision for the clan, so if there is potential for a development project coming into a village there has to be a communal consensus for any decision.
Land ownership can effectively change hands without the traditional custodians even knowing about it and then be sold on to anybody, including transnational companies keen to extract economic value from the land. The concept of ‘free prior informed consent’ is often not followed through, so we find ourselves in a situation where communities can be surprised to find, for example, a logging company suddenly turning up on their land because – without their knowledge – the lease agreement has changed hands. There are a lot of what I would call ‘corrupt practices’ which disadvantage local communities.
A Commission of Inquiry some years back showed that a staggering number of leases have been awarded illegally, and this has often had a devastating impact on communities and caused a huge amount of environmental damage.
Sadly, very little actually changed as a result of that Commission.
So, do you see any way for communities to resist these corrupt practices?
The solutions that are emerging involve communities mobilising themselves.
When communities know their rights, when they know that they have a platform to be able to raise their concerns, they can mobilise themselves. Communities on the ground need to feel that they are recognised and supported.
We don’t often hear about it, but many communities are going through very challenging times just trying to fend off the developers, and there are a lot of human rights concerns. But there are also a number of advocacy groups in Papua New Guinea trying to mobilise their communities and bring awareness of their rights, including the right to pursue and seek due diligence and jurisprudence over what has happened. Groups like the Center for Environmental Law and Community Rights, working in partnership with other NGOs, such as ActNOW and Bismarck Ramu Group, are advocating on behalf of the communities and drawing attention to this situation.
Effective conservation is often based on a combination of rigorous scientific research and local knowledge. How important do you see this type of approach for conservation in PNG?
I used to work with a small NGO, the Papua New Guinea Institute of Biological Research, and we really wanted to create something like what you described there. We were all from PNG and we all saw the connection and the importance of bringing indigenous knowledge in and trying to combine it with the more rigid scientific work. There’s a real need for that, because if we only focus on the western way of doing science, we lose the vital knowledge that indigenous people have been carrying over generations, the way they associate with the environment, as I spoke about before. I think it’s very important.
Last week I attended a conservation forum, and there was a lot of talk about the sustainability of conservation areas, and the one thing that resonated most was that local communities have to be the ones driving conservation, and when communities are involved in this way, they realise that their knowledge is only part of what there is to know about the environment. Some of them really want to bring in outside scientists, to combine those two areas of knowledge and see how best they can work together to conserve the natural world around them.
One great example of that in PNG was a community conservation project set up to conserve tree kangaroos. For the locals, this species has great cultural importance, and they have excellent knowledge of where the species is, what it likes to eat and so on. Over 20 years, communities have worked closely with an Australian husband and wife research team, bringing different methods of measuring the population and understanding where the most important habitats are for the species. Because of this combined knowledge, over time, numbers have been increasing. This is just one example, and of course there are challenges too. Communities have different aspirations – they want good health and education as well. So, for the tree kangaroo project, it was only through this long-term commitment and by considering community livelihoods and species conservation together that they began to meet some of these community aspirations.
What are some of the barriers holding back more local involvement in conservation in PNG, particularly for you as a woman?
Well, I think 15 or 20 years ago, going into field biology, or actually going out into the field, was not considered an attractive career for many women to pursue. For one, there’s this cultural perception that women should not be out and about in the middle of the forest. And believe it or not, at the time that I was starting out, it wasn’t really normal to see women wearing trousers – it wasn’t seen as the way a woman should dress! Now, thank goodness, it’s changed, but at the time it was frowned upon.
Then there’s also the question of safety, the safety of a woman – or anyone – going out into the field, in a remote place where you’re entering another tribe or clan’s territory. Sometimes this kind of field trip can create tensions in the community. Most of the time in PNG, conservation work is about managing expectations and trying to manage social relationships, which is a huge challenge in itself.
Let’s talk a little bit about the Biocultural Diversity Programme and your new role at Synchronicity Earth. Can you explain what your role will be and what you’re aiming to achieve?
That’s a very good question, because I’m also learning! First of all, I think Synchronicity Earth is an amazing organisation. It is one of very few organisations that I know of that emphasises the science but also understands the importance of communities and culture. For me, especially here in Melanesia over the years, we’ve seen different donors come and go, but I haven’t seen one that has this great mix of both science and community work.
What can I contribute while I’m with Synchronicity Earth? I think I can help to create a wider appreciation of this world, to bear witness to the diversity of culture that we have, as well as to different ways of living and ways of doing things that can shape how we view the world.
I want to help people understand things from a different cultural perspective and appreciate other forms of knowledge and use this in ways that can support and complement the science that we have.
I also believe I can play a role in helping to amplify the voices of communities, especially those that have their livelihoods threatened by development activities. One thing I can do is create those connections, ensuring that in some way I am helping communities to have that voice, helping to connect them with the outside world to amplify that voice, while at the same time helping those on the outside to recognise and understand the threats they face.
I live in one of the most culturally and biologically diverse places on Earth and I can bear witness to the threats we are facing: they are all too real, and they are having a huge impact on communities, many of which are rural, and isolated, and lack access to information or the help they need to be able to defend and protect their land and resources.
How does it feel joining Synchronicity Earth remotely from the other side of the world? In such a time of upheaval and change it must be quite an experience?
Before Synchronicity Earth I worked with the Christensen Fund, so in that sense it’s something quite familiar as I’ve already been working remotely. I guess that experience was a taste of what was to come with the pandemic – I was already working virtually, from home, so that kind of prepared me for COVID-19. I’m used to it really, although I do miss meeting people and being in an office environment and just chatting over coffee!
I know you have a soft spot for birds of paradise, but I have to ask…what is your favourite species?
Yes, you guessed it! It is a bird of paradise. These amazing birds often live along the ‘garden edges’ in the highlands, and with the human population increasing and their habitat getting smaller and smaller, they are just so vulnerable. If I had to name one, it would be the Blue bird of paradise. It has beautiful blue plumage and an extraordinary courtship display. It lives just along the forest edge in the highlands, close to inhabited areas, so if you’re very lucky, you don’t have to travel far to see it!
Lastly, if there’s just one piece of advice you’d give for anybody interested in protecting the environment, what would that be?
I think it would be to start within the family. At home, teach kids to be careers for the environment, to appreciate it. For example, teaching kids to be responsible with their trash, to appreciate nature, to have respect for life on Earth and share ways of knowing and the diversity of life… start kids early! It’s as simple as that really – start from the home and family.