Food and Agriculture Organization of the United NationsFood and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Innovating tradition to protect ancient forests in Papua New Guinea

Supporting an Indigenous Peoples’ community to monitor forests with satellites and tablets

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In Papua New Guinea, forest ownership rests overwhelmingly with Indigenous Peoples. The FAO AIM4Forests programme is providing Indigenous Peoples with technological tools to combat deforestation. ©FAO/ Cory Wright


Besta Pulum cannot contain his excitement about the tablet computer he is holding in his hands. “When I was young, I never saw that kind of computer. Now I’m seeing it; I didn’t sleep [from excitement],” says the community chief, who reckons his age at around 60.

Like his father before him, he’s lived his whole life looking after 800 hectares of dense tropical forest in the remote western highlands of the country, about 550 kilometres northwest of Papua New Guinea’s capital, Port Moresby.

“In the past, if I wanted to patrol my boundary, it was very hard,” he says. Within minutes though, Besta has understood that the aerial map of the forest on his screen will help him pinpoint the boundaries of his forest area without having to trek for days. He can now monitor the area using high resolution satellite imagery.

This technological innovation was brought about by AIM4Forests (Accelerating Innovative Monitoring for Forests), a pioneering programme launched in 2023 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the government of the United Kingdom.

The project aims both to provide countries with the technological means to combat deforestation and actively involve Indigenous Peoples in forest monitoring. That’s especially crucial in a country like Papua New Guinea, where forest ownership rests overwhelmingly with Indigenous Peoples.

This South Pacific Island nation harbours seven percent of the world's biodiversity and the planet’s third-largest rainforest. The forest hosts a rich variety of animals and bird species, including the distinctive flightless wild cassowary. It is a country replete with natural resources but lacking the technological tools to monitor and manage them effectively.

“There’s plenty of evidence that Indigenous Peoples are the best custodians of forest, so we’re trying to reinforce that and find technical solutions that allow them to do that even better,” says FAO Senior Forestry Officer, Julian Fox. Besta wants to keep his forest protected to safeguard his community’s source of food, shelter and livelihoods. “We’re trying to find a technical solution to help him do that,” says Fox.

With a new tool called Open Foris Ground, the fruit of a collaboration between FAO and Google, Besta can demarcate and monitor his forest area through a map interface to make sure that the forests stay intact from incursions. ©FAO/ Cory Wright

For Besta, the most exciting solution was the ability to zoom in and out on his forest area. This is done with a new tool called Open Foris Ground, the fruit of a collaboration between FAO and Google. It’s a map interface, which can be used on a tablet or mobile phone, and with a few clicks allows custodians to demarcate their forest simply by marking out points on the screen. From there, they can monitor the area using Google Earth to make sure that the forests and land stay healthy and intact from incursions.

Watching over such a large forest and all its resources is not a simple task, as Besta explains. “Inside our forest there’s plenty of things there. Apart from the wild cassowary, there are larvae of insects in the wood. I cut open the tree and break it open and collect them. If I cut down the forest, I won’t get these wild animals. Those animals will go.”

His way of life and that of his whole community is at stake. “From my side of the forest, I look after it. I don’t destroy my forest,” he concludes.

The forest is also a source of medicines for Besta and his family. “If I cut this down, where will I get the medicine? I have plenty of medicine in my forest. My grandparents used it and now I’m using it. My kids after me will use the same medicine. That’s why I’m still looking after my forest.”

AIM4Forests is being rolled out urgently in a total of 20 countries. The world has witnessed the disappearance of more than 420 million hectares of forest since 1990. ©FAO/ Cory Wright

Besta is just one custodian among many in a total of 20 countries in which FAO, in collaboration with UN-REDD, is rolling out AIM4Forests with a sense of urgency. The world has witnessed the disappearance of more than 420 million hectares of forest since 1990, a loss that not only diminishes biodiversity but also impacts climate regulation and the livelihoods of millions.

Here in the Papua New Guinea rainforest, the AIM4Forests programme seeks to halt deforestation and restore degraded land, as part of a far wider global initiative to restore one billion hectares by 2030. The programme focuses on combining technology with Besta’s traditional knowledge and leadership of a community that has stewarded these lands for generations.

And he clearly shares this vision for the future: “My wish is to send them [three daughters] to school and tell them to do this computer thing.”

Besta understands the importance of his children taking ownership of such technology, which will soon help new generations of Indigenous Peoples protect these precious forest resources across a broad range of countries.

Together with participatory approaches, geospatial and information technologies like this innovative tool, intend to ensure, integrate and document Indigenous Peoples’ rights to Free, Prior and Informed Consent and their active role in any forest monitoring initiatives.

Implementation of the programme has already begun in 11 countries: Bolivia, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Guatemala, Indonesia, Kenya, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Uganda and Viet Nam. In Papua New Guinea and in many more of these countries, the project is wielding the power of modern technology to reinforce the irreplaceable traditional knowledge of past generations.

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The embedded video has been recorded with prior, well informed and free consent of the Indigenous Peoples involved.

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