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 Sustainable Tropical Forestry in PNG

“Wokabaut Somils” in Sustainable Forestry

New Hebrides to Old


Alastair McIntosh


Wokabout Somil near Lae, Morobe Province, 1989

This picture was actually used on p. 59 of the 

British Government's 1990 White Paper on the

environment - "This Common Inheritance"

Click here for pictures of logging and this project



"At the projected national carrying capacity ... the cut (due to the somils) would still be about 1% of current large commercial logging. However, these mom-and-pop mills are compromising the ability of the commercial transnationals to log, so their effect is greatly multiplied. The net environmental effect is overwhelmingly positive. The Wokabout Somil urgently needs to become more widely dispersed, particularly in the most vulnerable and ecologically valuable concessions." (Berwick, 1992, Yale University Forests Dept. Study for FSP).



"This choice [portable sawmills] was preferred because of greater landowner control, village employment, and profit from the management of the landowners' forest resources. These landowner choices could reduce overall deforestation in each of the countries by reducing large-scale industrial logging. While this effect could be small, considering the small number of portable sawmill logging operations expected to be initiated by the program during the planned years of operation, the cumulative number of hectares of participating landowners' holdings thereby withdrawn from existing or potential concessions could be large. And if those lands so withdrawn block access to other lands, the effect could be compounded. (U.S. Forest Service Environmental Assessment for FSP, January 1992).


"Reforestation is about finding place for humans in nature" - Sir Bernard Narakobi, PNG Minister for Justice, c. 1986.



The following (less some of the technical specifications) was published in The Tree Planters Guide to the Galaxy, Reforesting Scotland, Edinburgh, No. 4, 1991, pp. 5-7.


I have been invited to write about a programme which I have been involved in with colleagues in the Melanesian nations of Papua New Guinea (PNG), the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu (New Hebrides) – the Pacific Regional Sustainable Forestry Programme. It involves helping village people to use portable sawmills to generate income from their rainforests, thereby hopefully keeping the commercial logging companies out and buying time while developing sustainable harvesting practices.


I joined the staff of the South Pacific Appropriate Technology Foundation (SPATF) as financial advisor in 1984 having previously spent two years in PNG as a VSO volunteer establishing a school for “drop-outs” and setting up a village micro-hydro. The early eighties were a doldrum period for appropriate technology (AT). The failure in Africa and the Pacific of many heady projects from the seventies had shown that there was more to AT than merely delivering gadgets and processes.


People like Andrew Kauleni, SPATF’s Papua New Guinean director were trying to evolve what they called AT software as well - an understanding of integral human development in the context of social, environmental, economic and spiritual factors, without which technical intervention often failed and caused damage. Some indication of this direction may be gleaned from the thoughts of Bernard Narokobi, SPATF board member and current PNG Minister of Justice, wryly expressing the need for those bringing change to study first with respect and humility at, ‘The University of Melanesia.... the eternal… the timeless... the ancient... University of Melanesia. The Village, where courses are offered in living’.


Some of its lessons were tough for idealists who believed that the merits of AT could be isolated from economic reality. For instance, one insight became encapsulated as, ‘profit transfers technology’: unless people find comparative advantage in an ‘appropriate’ technology they reject it. Like it or not, the emergence of a cash economy means that Melanesian rainforest villagers mostly can and do quantify results in monetary terms. Such pragmatism offended one of SPATF’s German funding agencies to such an extent that it threatened to review funding, provoking Andrew Kauleni to counter, ‘So you actually want us to stay poor, do you?’


The peoples of PNG, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu all achieved independence in the late seventies and early eighties. Some 98% of their combined 600,000 square kilometres of land is under traditional ownership with 84% comprising wet tropical forest, much of it primary, though with secondary regrowth from swidden around populated areas. As soon as the colonialists went out the neo-colonialists descended, offering to ‘help’ village people get rich through logging.


‘These white ecologist bastards who tell you net to sell the trees only want to keep you poor and be able to cut the trees themselves one day’, a Taiwanese businessman was telling village people when I was in Vanuatu last summer (1989). ‘The whites cut down all their trees long ago and got rich with the money, and you can benefit likewise if you sign this contract which I offer as your true brother’.


The 20 volume report of Supreme Court Justice, Tos Barnett, published after he had survived an assassination attempt in 1989, reveals that not one foreign logging company in PNG is exempt from being corrupt, and corruption goes right up to deputy prime-ministerial level. When logging proceeds and permit backhanders drive the perversion of democracy through vote buying and favours, purely legislative approaches to rainforest conservation are doomed to be paper tigers.


The royalty of around £2 per cubic metre for species such as vitex, kwila or terminalia seems like a lot of money to a villager not knowing that the true overseas market value of a mature 5 m3 tree is in the order of £1,000. Accordingly, not only have logging companies been stampeding to the Pacific, but village people have been demanding their politicians to let them in so the holy grail of ‘development’ could at last be realised. The fulfillment of a forest thus becomes its ‘development’, its destruction, just as ‘improvement’ of the land was the rationalising motive behind our Highland Clearances, replacing effectively half a million people with sheep or deer, so consolidating Scotland’s status as a wet desert.


SPATF’s initial concern was social more than environmental - with the cultural damage, financial rip-offs and introduced corruption. This, remember, was in the early eighties when most development workers still saw social issues as separate from the environment. The response in 1982 was to develop at the University of Technology in Lae a portable sawmill, the ‘Wokabout Somil’, which could readily be dismantled into modular parts, carried to a tree, and used to saw timber of a quality acceptable certainly for domestic use. A kwila comprising 5 m3 of millable timber at a 60% conversion rate will generate £500 at typical PNG market prices. With the help of Development Bank loans towards the £4,000 (current) cost inclusive of training, and given an average 1.25 m3 (maximum 3 m3) daily sawn timber production capacity it can, in practice, pay for itself within months.


The technology involves a Briggs and Stratton 18 hp petrol two cylinder engine with belt drive transmission, hand-winched along a frame-supported track and driving a 30 inch and a 12 inch inserted tooth circular blade. These rotate at right angles to one another, thereby cutting, from the log lying underneath, dimensioned timber of up to 300mm x 125mm x 7.2m. Potential mean annual production is considered to be 175 m3, though this target is seldom achieved largely due to downtime and other village demands on time.


From 1982 to 1985 Somils were being manufactured by a SPATF-backed worker cooperative in Lae at the rate of one every two or three weeks. By December 1989 production had increased to two a week and in total 416 had been distributed. These were mostly in PNG, though after cyclone Namau, aid programmes imported a number into the Solomon Islands during 1987 to reconstruct housing, and a few are now making it down to Vanuatu.


The programme’s success was due to the rapid payback on capital investment, the common ownership of land, the availability of local financing and spare parts backup, and the training by SPATF of users not just in maintenance but also in timber marketing and handling, social development and advanced repairwork for those who wanted to set up as regional servicing agents. At its best, the acquisition of a Somil becomes a programme in integrated development. Typically a village will work together to raise half the purchase price from copra or cash crops and form a business group to take out a loan for the other half. The Somil will then be used to build a school, church or to improve housing, while spin-off activities may develop such as charcoal production. Because the young men of the village (who normally operate the mills) have meaningful work at home, the incentive for them to move away to the city in search of remunerative employment is reduced and social cohesion increased.


In 1986 I returned from Papua New Guinea and in addition to working for the Iona Community, my [then] wife and I had been invited to develop UKFSP, an autonomous UK sister agency of the international body, Foundation for the Peoples of the South Pacific (FSP International), which had funded the original Somil development. We frequently cited the Wokabout Somil programme as a fine example of village development, but I was aware of certain scepticism from my friend, Ian Edwards, of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh. Ian wanted to know what the ecological consequences of Wokabout Somils were. I said they were manifestly better than what the logging companies would do and in any case, SPATF presumed that they would not do much harm because problems of soil compaction etc. were avoided.


Unable to answer his questions in much more depth, I waited until David Faunt was in Scotland. A one time Australian volunteer now with Papua New Guinean nationality, David had masterminded the Wokabout Somil programme within SPATF and also had extensive experience of its use in the Manus Province (into which he had married). The outcome of an afternoon of heated discussion was an uncomfortable awareness that we actually knew very little about the environmental impact of Wokabout Somils and while it was evidently a better alternative to most commercial logging, the point was taken that a lot of small sawmills could perpetrate damage with similarities to that of a large contractor. Clearly an environmental impact assessment was necessary which would give pointers to training approaches in sustainable silviculture.


The outcome of this was that we managed to find sufficient funding to appoint the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) to carry cut the work. Julian Evans was just leaving at that time (1988), but with his support and initial direction the study was taken up by his successor, Caroline Sargent, working with Peter Burgess and with input from Duncan Poore.


Their study concluded that half of the Wokabout Scmils were actually being used to mill timber clear-felled for cash crop planting. This was disappointing, yet given that the PNG government is committed to smallholder cash-cropping (coffee, cocoa, etc.) it is better that the timber be productively utilised. Commercially produced mills have long been available in PNG and the chainsaw based ‘Alaska Mill’ retailing at a much lower price, but with none of the training or other support, presented a competitive environment within which the Wokabaut programme had to operate. The consultants considered that forest conversion was not being driven by Somils, though it was evidently assisted. The other half of Somils were being used in ways which were mostly of minimal environmental impact, though there were two known instances of logging on steep slopes leading to soil erosion. Generally, there was minimal knowledge of how to log sustainably, not least because village people have had little previous experience of western technology.


The silvicultural system recommended by IIED is sometimes referred to as a ‘minimum intervention polycyclic system’. This recommends that where sufficient land is available (as is often the case in Melanesia), it be divided into twenty or thirty blocks, typically of one to two hectares and all trees above 55 cms diameter at breast height (DBH) marked for felling. This prevents giving weed species competitive advantage, though not all need be sawn. Care is taken to mark poles of second and third cycle trees, and directional felling skills are emphasised to minimise damage. This is part of an additional week’s training in silviculture now added to the existing fortnight which comes as part of the Somil purchase price. The idea is to mimic the natural process of a large tree dying and to be able to return again after 25 years for the next harvest. The system is based on Thang 1988, De Graf 1986, Wyatt-Smith 1987, et al.. Strip clearfelling systems were considered, but IIED felt these would be less suited to the Melanesian environment and social/land use systems, though there is debate about this. [More varied and complex prescriptions were subsequently developed for differing forest types.]


The consultants showed that the probable financial proceeds per workday from sustainable harvesting outstrips cash crop alternatives and so could not only deter commercial logging, but might also block land conversion. In a paper delivered by Caroline Sargent to the Institute of National Affairs forestry seminar in December 1988 (INA Discussion Paper No. 36, ISBN 9980-77-090-2), a comparison for return on labour per workday for 25 hectares indicates that coffee would generate K3.5O (K1 = £0.66); copra K4.09; cocoa K9.77; clearcut forest felling, K75; and sustainable forestry, rotational harvesting one hectare per annum, K100 (after allowing for capital write-off). The cash crop figures are based on PNG Department of Primary Industry quantifications. The sustainable forestry figures presumed an efficient four person team operating 1 mill. This has been criticised on the grounds that in reality there is overstaffing with anything up to twelve operators being common. Nevertheless, there is still a substantial competitive advantage, and overstaffing is entirely due to labour surplus and the fun of milling operations.


The catch with the above figures is that over 25 years on a 25 hectare plot, sustainable forestry will provide only 1,500 workdays of labour, with a total yield of K150,000, compared with coffee - 137,950 workdays generating K482,275; copra - 39,450 workdays generating K161,425; cocoa - 26,150 workdays generating K255,500; and clearfell logging - 2,500 workdays generating K187,500. In other words, sustainable forestry is a highly profitable longterm activity if you have limited labour availability and plenty of land. But with high population and limited land, coffee will provide the most revenue, albeit poorly remunerated.


Presuming Sargent’s non-volumetric figures to be based on a market value not exceeding K250/m3, K150,000 represents up to 600 m3 of sawn timber, or about 1,000 m3 in uncut rounds per 25 hectares per 25 years. Biomass removal is therefore between 0.96 and 1.6 m3 per hectare per annum, depending on what use is made of sawdust etc., which is sometimes left in situ and sometimes removed to make briquettes or for use as ‘fertiliser’. This volume accords with recent studies in Malaysia suggesting 1 – 2 m3 extraction per hectare per year to be the limit for sustainable operations (Hertmut Bossel, University of Kassel, reported by my colleague Ulrich Loening, Centre for Human Ecology).


Average population density in Melanesia is only about 6 per square kilometre, but there are areas of intense local over-population and with growth rates ranging from 2.4% to 3.6% population doubling time is in the range of 20 to 30 years - just one of our proposed forest regeneration cycles. In short, we probably have to forget about densely populated areas when it comes to sustainable logging programmes and concentrate resources in areas with sparse or stabilising populations.


Implementation of the IIED recommended approach is being attempted through our Pacific Regional Sustainable Forestry Programme, which developed with SPATF to promote social forestry in PNG, the Solomons and Vanuatu. Headed by a Papua New Guinean forester and community worker, Sasa Zibe, it involves training Somil users in conjunction with provincial forestry departments and forest related institutes. The programme is costing about £60,000 a year, with funding to date having come from CAFOD, Christian Aid, Commonwealth Foundation, the Overseas Development Administration, the Quakers, and SCIAF, with a lot of non-financial goodwill input, especially from IIED through Caroline Sargent.


An evaluation currently in progress shows that the programme is vastly under-resourced, that further silvicultural alternatives need study and that certain of the training objectives are not being met. But the important thing is that through the remarkable efforts of the SPATF team and related offshoots a whole new approach to sustainable forestry has been started in Melanesia. Already it is helping to keep logging companies out, and through the Newcastle based Ecological Trading Company we are seeking to open premium export markets for what at this stage might most honestly be called ‘ostensibly’ sustainably produced timber.


In Australia, John Seed and fellow activists are cautiously seeking to build on this approach with AIDAB funding for the Solomon Islands. In Vanuatu, the Department of Forests together with Kathy Fry of our American FSP sister agency and our own efforts to draw European Community funding, are putting together a major sustainable forestry package with a local NGO. This, notwithstanding a Minister for Finance who has said that for the foreseeable future, commercial logging must balance Vanuatu’s budgetary deficit. With PNG, the World Bank is currently sending the principal economist of their Agricultural Operations Division to discuss formal integration of village based sawmilling into the Tropical Forest Action Plan. FAO and the Asian Development Bank are also taking interest in the programme as pressure builds to seek paths to ‘sustainable development’.


All this is very exciting, though I do have the fear that what is in most ways a small and experimental programme could prematurely become seen as a panacea. Other approaches must also be developed, not least the opening up of markets for ‘secondary’ or non-timber forest products: something being considered by UKFSP with David Bellamy Associates in connection with an ODA Solomons based programme. Development education is also essential both in the Pacific and here to conscientise people about the effect of logging and general resource exploitation. We have co-funded a film in Melanesian pidgin, ‘Brukim Bus’ (Broken Bush: Lost Our Way) to this effect, as well as obtaining funding for the impressive work of the Solomon Islands Development Trust which uses such media as theatre and comic strips to reach illiterate people.


Dory [my ex wife] has now taken over directing UKFSP and most aspects of the sustainable forestry programme. As for me, I’ve thought a lot about the Pacific islanders who have asked about tree cover in Scotland, thereby totally undermining my prescriptive advice! So never mind who the land belongs to: I’m out there now and again acting the phantom treeplanter, sticking in lengths of willow above sheep height and finding clearings in the protective gorse where I can plant a birch or rowan [ten years later … that ploy didn’t work … gorse got burnt!]. I’ve put in a couple of hundred around the Pentlands and in my home region of the (old) Hebrides. Most don’t survive, but the ones which do help keep me sane [10 years on, year 2000, about 10% have survived, some now 4 metres high]. Robert Burns would have understood. Of the oak and the human qualities it totemises, he wrote:


Wi’ plenty c’ such trees I trow, 

The world would live in peace, man; 

The sword would help to mak’ a plough 

The din o’ war would cease, man.


(The Tree of Liberty)




Alastair McIntosh is development director at the Centre for Human Ecology, Edinburgh University.



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