The power of local communities

Last week UNDP in Papua New Guinea hosted an Equator Prize award ceremony in Madang to celebrate the success of Wanang Conservation Area, one of the winners of the global Equator Prize 2015. The Equator Prize is a biennial award that recognises the work of indigenous communities that are making outstanding contributions to global efforts on environmental conservation, preserving biodiversity, climate action and poverty reduction.

By the numbers:

Papua New Guinea accounts for less than 1% of the world’s land area


Yet it contains more than 7% of the world’s biodiversity


Out of 1400 nominations for the Equator Prize only 21 were selected, one of which is Wanang Conservation Area from Papua New Guinea


We were proud that people from a remote small village of Wanang received this award, competing with applicants from across the world.

UNDP organized a local celebration of this amazing achievement by inviting community members, clan leaders, their partners and children to Madang (the Provincial centre). We wanted to congratulate them in person, celebrate their success and tell the whole of Papua New Guinea about the work that the group have been doing.

We spent two days with the group, sitting side by side and talking about things that mattered to them. It gave us some great insights about the power of individuals and communities and what happens when scientific research is used to strengthen conservation through community action. Here are some reflections:

Communities value and understand sustainability


“I was working with the logging company. It started in Madang, and was spreading deeper and deeper into the forest. We were cutting trees one by one, leaving empty fields behind. Once I saw a dog chasing a pig, but a tree fell down on its way and the dog got stuck. It reminded me that this may happen to us: when the trees will be cut, we will be stuck. There would be nothing to hunt for, nothing to feed from. I went to my community members to talk about this, and found that most of the clan members thought the same. They also saw the forest disappearing, the water going bad. None of us wanted to let our forests go. So when I proposed to team up and protect our forests the idea was greeted by everyone. That’s how we started the Wanang Conservation Area 20 years ago. Along the way, the number of clans committed to conservation decreased — logging companies were quick to offer compensation. When they came to me and offered money — I asked them, okay, I take it, but how about my children, what will they have? They said your children will find other ways to live, you can take money now. I said no. I do not need it. I want my children to grow up in the forest and have everything it offers.”

Philip, clan leader who started Wanang Conservation Area

Without knowing the theories and challenges posed by climate change, local communities understand and value their surroundings and recognise the need to protect nature.

In Papua New Guinea many cultures and ways of life provide living examples of sustainability over centuries. One of the basic values shared by Wanang community and others is that human beings and communities have responsibilities to future generations and to the natural world.

This is something that those involved in “development”, need to understand, value and learn from as we bring new ways of doing things to improve people’s lives.

Communities can be empowered with the support of scientific research

5Wanang villagers assisting a researcher from the Binatang Science Research Centre at a forest plot

The Wanang Conservation Area is an alliance of 10 indigenous, rainforest dwelling clans that together protect 10,000 hectares of forest for research into biodiversity, carbon storage and sustainable livelihoods. The communities host a 50-hectare permanent ‘forest dynamics plot’, which is a part of a global network of tropical forest research. Local communities are supported by the Binatang Science Research Centre which is based near Madang and specialises in research on insects, birds and plants. The research operations include tagging, mapping and identification of 250,000 plants, studying the responses to changing climatic conditions and more.

While researchers (including international scientists) come with theoretical knowledge, it’s local people who assist in conducting studies and practical trials.

“We use the strength of local communities, their knowledge and ability to work in the tropical forests to conduct biodiversity research. We have visiting scientists from Oxford, Sussex, Smithsonian and other recognized institutions, and when they go to the field, they depend on local communities. Our community members, who have engaged with the researchers, are experienced and well equipped to assist this work. While researchers have theoretical knowledge, local people have practical knowledge and the combination of two empowers us to ensure that the research really benefits the communities” says Professor Vojtech Novotny, who founded the research centre more than 20 years ago.

People of Wanang have always been living in an environment rich in biodiversity, and their cultural knowledge of the use of plants, tropical insects, and other forest species significantly enhances the research.

In return, local communities benefit from the research operations and many local people (women and men) now work at the Research Centre and have science qualifications. The research activities open up new opportunities and contribute to changing the face of the villages: it has improved transport and access to emergency medical care, improved the market, helped establish an elementary school and we see more and more eco-tourists coming to the area.


Researcher at Binatang Research Center

8.jpg“Now that we have the research base, we are all getting some income. I make food and sell it to the researchers who stay over. I also see more cars driving around, and I am able to sell visitors some of my crafts. With the money I receive, I can buy more food, and send my kids to schools. Today nothing is bad, we have fewer problems”

Anna, resident of Wanang village

Communities need more support

While these communities govern and sustain themselves they, and others like them, need more support. We need to create stronger partnerships with government (national and local), civil society, private sector and others to expand community conservation. We need to promote policy frameworks and practices that encourage community conservation initiatives and sustainable livelihoods. UNDP in partnership with the Government of Papua New Guinea supports Wanang Conservation Area through its Global Environmental Facility’s Small Grants Program. We are also working with other communities across Papua New Guinea on other priorities including: disaster preparedness; climate change adaptation; community-driven development initiatives; peace building; and gender-based violence. Everywhere we go we see a strong desire for improvement and a real thirst for effective partnerships


Forest office at Wanang

With a shared agreement to support our communities with resources, knowledge, expertise and the crucial political will, we can change the lives and the future.

Reference list: Roy Trivedy. 2016. Retrieved from

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s