Papua New Guinea's Road Expansion Plan Would Escalate Deforestation

In a new paper, a team of scientists cautions that plans to add more than 3,700 miles of roads in the next few years could seriously endanger biological wealth.
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A victorian crowned pigeon, a species native to Papua New Guinea.

A victorian crowned pigeon, a species native to Papua New Guinea.

Papua New Guinea hopes to nearly double the length of its road network by 2022, posing grave threats to more than 50 parks and biodiversity-rich areas, according to a new analysis.

The country, occupying the eastern half of the island of New Guinea and a smattering of islands in the South Pacific, is home to a vast bank of tropical rainforest that covers some 127,000 square miles—an area about half the size of Texas. These forests seethe with species found nowhere else on Earth, such as the hedgehog-like eastern long-beaked echidna and several species of tree kangaroos—along with massive amounts of carbon locked in the lush vegetation and soil.

But Papua New Guinea's plans to add more than 3,700 miles of roads in the next few years, as part of broader efforts to lift the country out of poverty, could seriously endanger that natural wealth, a team of scientists cautions in a new paper published July 24th in the journal PLoS One.

"That's fair enough. They need roads. They need economic development," Mohammed Alamgir, the paper's lead author, said at the International Congress for Conservation Biology in Kuala Lumpur ahead of the paper's publication.

But, "The new roads will create many deforestation hotspots for rainforests and carbon-rich peatlands, sharply increasing greenhouse-gas emissions," Alamgir, an environmental scientist at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia, said in a statement.

Research has shown that roads open up previously remote areas to logging, agriculture, and hunting, leading to dwindling carbon stocks and pushing vulnerable species closer to extinction.

To understand the impacts of Papua New Guinea's push for road construction, Alamgir and his colleagues compared the government's development plans with satellite maps showing areas of intact and degraded forest in the country. They also plotted out the locations of parks and reserves, peatlands, and potential or current mining sites, along with the steepness of the slopes throughout the still mostly forested highlands.

The team found that Papua New Guinea stands to lose 1,190 square miles of the large blocks called core forests because they're more than 1,970 feet from the forest edge. The roads will also carve out another 1,440 square miles of "connectivity forests," which form critical corridors that allow the movement of species faced with threats such as impacts from climate change.

More than 186 miles of the planned roads will also traverse around 263 square miles of peatlands, around half of which stretch 13 feet down—in other words, they're the most carbon-rich of Papua New Guinea's swampy carbon sponge.

The project "will lead to a quantum leap in forest loss and loss of connectivity, and substantial areas of peatland forest," says tropical ecologist and co-author William Laurance, also of James Cook University.

That's concerning, Alamgir said, because so many of Papua New Guinea's eight million people depend on forests in some way. As with many such infrastructure projects, he said, the roads are unlikely to benefit the majority of the population.

"A few politicians and land developers are getting very rich, but the rest of the country suffers—with traditional communities potentially losing their forests, fisheries, and clean water," Alamgir said in the statement.

Indeed, he said, the team's work shows that several of the roads will go to areas nearly devoid of people. Instead, proposed mining concessions lie along some stretches, hinting at the value of these conduits to companies involved in extracting resources like gold and copper from the country's interior.

One specific stretch, known as the Epo-Kikori "missing link," slices through dense-canopy forest. It alone would, by the team's calculations, lead to the loss of nearly half of the core forest associated with the project. It also cuts across one of the last blocks of relatively undisturbed lowland rainforest known as Kamula Doso. The researchers argue that leveraging the high levels of carbon that this rainforest contains through a scheme such as REDD+—short for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation—could benefit local communities while keeping the forest standing.

Additionally, many of the roads will be built in Papua New Guinea's highlands, where steep slopes and copious annual rainfall will drive up the amount of investment required for construction and upkeep. Alamgir and his colleagues suggest that investment might be more prudently directed toward repairing and upgrading rather than expanding the existing road network.

As things stand, many of the roads that already exist in Papua New Guinea aren't currently well maintained, raising serious questions about the value of expanding the network so aggressively.

"Two-thirds of PNG's existing roads are nearly unusable," Laurance says. "Why spend a fortune building new roads that you can't maintain? If history is a guide, they'll be big money-losers and will create years of social and environmental crises."

This story originally appeared at the website of global conservation news service Mongabay.com. Get updates on their stories delivered to your inbox, or follow @Mongabay on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

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