In a clearing at the centre of Gadaisu village on the south-east Melanesian coast of Papua New Guinea, several weary looking men sit chewing betel nut and talking quietly. They come from various neighbouring villages, although ‘neighbouring’ is a strong word when the journey takes several hours of trekking through forest. They have heard that there is a meeting with Cool Earth, and some have walked overnight to make sure they’re not late.
One of the waiting party is Sesseni. He’s the son of the chief of Sololo, a village a few miles upriver from Gadaisu.
He’s interested in Cool Earth because he has heard we’ve come to help Gadaisu and is facing similar tough choices. Sesseni tells us that people in his village are isolated and poor. Devastatingly, some are considering the benefits of selling land to the palm oil companies operating nearby.
A year later, Cool Earth is back in Papua New Guinea for a trip to Sololo, hoping that by partnering with us, they won’t have to sell their trees.
It’s a long, bumpy drive up a dirt track, until the track runs out and we have to park up and start walking. The path follows the bank of the beautiful Limodo river: 15 meters wide and fast flowing. The village of Sololo is on the other side so we have to wade through, gingerly picking our way across the stony riverbed balancing bags and cameras above our heads. Safely across, the path climbs a steep bank of lush rainforest before opening out into a grassy clearing where some timber buildings and scratching chickens indicate we’ve arrived at Sololo.
Just over 100 people live here. They catch fish, prawns and eels from the river, and grow shallots, bananas, sugarcane, and pineapple in their gardens. It takes 24 hours to walk to the nearest health centre in Nube. What little income they have comes from selling fish and vegetables at Gadaisu market.
Only one person in Sololo – a 14 year old boy currently studying Grade 8 – is educated beyond primary level. The illiteracy rate is 95%. Along with limited opportunities to earn income, this is seen as the biggest problem facing the community.
For our local coordinator Gellie Akui, addressing this need is the number one priority for Cool Earth:
“If people cannot read and write, foreign and local investors can trick them and get their land. And how are they going to participate meaningfully in livelihood activities? We cannot do conservation without education. Education is enabling for the success of the conservation program.”
The concern about foreign investors is timely. Just a few miles away, villages with no other option are selling their forest to Chinese investors in return for cash income. On the road to Sololo, we saw evidence of logging as well as trucks transporting timber. It’s a concern shared by the community. In fact, some people told us they have heard rumours that Cool Earth itself is an overseas company that buys land. That’s why the first thing to do is getting the whole community together to explain what Cool Earth does and doesn’t do.
We make it clear that Cool Earth never buys land. That we will give funds to the community to spend on whatever they wish. All we ask is that they keep their trees standing.
And that’s exactly what Sololo want, too. The village doesn’t want the forest to be harvested. They want to preserve their forest for their children and work with Cool Earth to improve their livelihood and living standards. One tells us, “this forest is for the people. We don’t want another company to take it.”
The next time Cool Earth returns, Sololo has formed a Community Association and is ready to sign the forest protection agreement. They have appointed Sesseni as the community facilitator because he has such strong people skills and can mobilise the community to work on the partnership activities. We arrive in the nick of time: the village has an offer from a palm oil company on the table. Thanks to its supporters, Cool Earth has cash and the support of our in-country team ready to offer this village an alternative.
Turning away the loggers to work with Cool Earth is a big moment. It means more rainforest protected, more endangered species sheltered, and more carbon locked up in trunks, roots and leaves. But more than that, it means Sololo has a future as a community. The day the forest protection agreement is signed, there’s a traditional celebration with drums, dancing and masks.
But the next morning it’s straight down to work. To improve literacy and build livelihoods will take time, but Sesseni and the rest of Sololo are determined to make it a success.