Papua New Guinean biologists revolutionising knowledge creation

The Binatang Research Centre – a sanctuary for local knowledge and global discoveries

You will have heard of Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard but have you heard of the Binatang Research Centre in Papua New Guinea?

Founded in 1997 and located in a coastal town on the Bismarck Sea, they pioneered an innovative research model called paraecology. It recognises local people as the ones most competent in observing, understanding and researching their natural world. A local environment that their ancestors shaped and one that their descendants will come to interact with and depend on.

Papua New Guinea Biodiversity Officer Jack Joseph Kostolo sits on the forest floor surrounded by green plants. He sits with two students has he conducts a field training session.

Papua New Guinea Biodiversity Officer Jack Joseph Kostolo conducting a field training session.

The Binatang Research Centre’s mission is to highlight the contribution local people make to science, using approaches that are seldom championed in mainstream academia and collaborating with established researchers from around the world.

In 2020, Clifford Yaee, Cool Earth’s Forest Monitoring Coordinator in Papua New Guinea, was invited to visit the research centre. Here is how it went in his own words.

“I visited the Kau Wildlife area, which is where local people work to help researchers collect field data. It was started by an elder who rejected a suitcase full of money from a logging company. However, the younger generations wanted the income, so the model of payment for forest research was established to protect the land and provide skilled jobs.

Science is a way to live a decent life and empower their communities to make their own decision on how they see the future of their land. - Clifford Yaee, Forest Monitoring Coordinator in Papua New Guinea

I spoke with the director, researchers, laboratory staff, people who worked as guides and I realised that they had faced similar challenges as those we see in Wabumari today, a Cool Earth partnership. Namely, that people needed a steady income. And it’s true, too often we expect people protecting rainforest to do it for free, at a time in which nature protection is most needed to fight the climate crisis.

Soon after this visit, the Wabumari paraecology project launched but very naturally because people there were already working hard to observe, understand and research their environment. All that was missing was their salary. For those of you in the UK, you might be familiar with the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch, which is the largest citizen science project in which the public collects data to inform research and policy. Obviously, it’s unpaid.

A biodiversity officer in the process of mapping the forest

The key difference is that the people in Wabumari fill the role of a paraecologist more so than a citizen scientist because they are paid but don’t have the formal education of an academic ecologist. ​In a country as rugged and remote as Papua New Guinea, where over 800 languages are spoken, paraecologists can overcome the geological, social and, more importantly, cultural constraints faced by non-local scientists.

Cool Earth employs local facilitators to translate information to residents and work with biodiversity officers like Isaac Dauge and Italia Kaifona to map their forest. For them, science is a way to live a decent life and empower their communities to make their own decision on how they see the future of their land.

With the training they receive, Isaac and Italia organise field trips, collect data and provide a flow of information between researchers and local people. I’m also really excited to see how the paraecology project and training will give people in Wabumari ownership of their own forest lab, currently in the making, and begin engaging in forest monitoring activities.

I really hope that in the future, they can be employed by conservation researchers, independently of employment by Cool Earth, and inspire the next generation to take up these career paths.​ The knowledge they’ll acquire as employees of research institutions can only benefit their own communities and make them even more self-reliant. It is that control over one’s land and resources that will maintain Papua New Guinea’s unique biodiversity and empower people.”

Find this interesting? Why not share this innovative approach with friends, family and colleagues. Want to back budding paraecologists and invest in future rainforest protecting careers? Donate today