Transparency and tropical deforestation

I first visited Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea in 2008. I came back both of the following two years, and then not again until the fall of 2017. On returning, I experienced the sort of shock you can only have from being away from a place that sears itself into your brain one way, and then proceeds to rapidly transform into something else in your absence. Port Moresby (or “Mosbi”) is first and foremost a dynamic, diverse place; the capital city, financial hub, and urban beacon for an island nation with a population of 8.8 million. But to an outsider, the Mosbi of 2008 felt decidedly more unfamiliar than the Mosbi of 2017. There were fewer paved streets and tall buildings, more razor wire, and generally less hustle and bustle. There was less of a sense that the city was a major node in regional politics and commerce; its roots as a sleepy colonial port built around a cluster of Motu-Koitabu villages were more readily apparent.

Few of these changes struck me as much as the construction of the Vision City Mega Mall in Waigani, owned and financed by Rimbunan Hijau, a Malaysian logging company with a checkered reputation. Vision City offers a sort of shopping experience that was hard to imagine a decade and a half ago, with air-conditioned food courts, top-of-the-line Huawei smart phones, and pharmacies that require prescriptions for Malarone. It’s an incredibly convenient place, and has quickly become a major feature of life in Mosbi. But the Vision City Mega Mall also highlights exactly how central foreign timber conglomerates have become to economic development in Papua New Guinea (at least symbolically).

If you are reading this, I probably do not need to convince you that this is an ominous development. Tropical deforestation is simultaneously a massive driver of the climate crisis and of biodiversity loss. Its major players are almost exclusively sinister and exploitative, and the economic benefits it brings are fleeting, often leaving behind rural communities that are substantially poorer than they were before logging began. Elsewhere in the tropics—from Brazil to Borneo—deforestation rates are accelerating after a promising dip in the 2010s. Which is why it was surprising to realize that in at least one respect, things have become less bleak than they were in the early 2000s. That aspect is transparency.

I was reflecting on this point last week when I stumbled upon PNGi’s new forestry data portal. PNGi is Papua New Guinea’s premier investigative journalism outlet (itself a heartening development for the country), and the data portal tracks log exports and concession acreage by province and by logging company. You can sort and download these data and browse an extensive archive of PDF copies of relevant documents, including court cases, white papers, and audits. The upshot is that it’s now far easier to answer the sort of basic questions about forestry practices that are essential for monitoring, reporting, and enforcement.

Resources PNGi have been accompanied by the development of big data approaches for tracking deforestation and its corporate drivers at scale. From mining global financial data to more closely scrutinizing supply chains, these advances help us understand deforestation as something with concrete (if complicated) causes, rather than an abstract emergent property of development and consumption. Perhaps most significantly, dramatic improvements in remote sensing technology over the past 20 years makes it possible to essentially track deforestation in real timeeven with cloud cover.

Transparency isn’t everything. I would argue, though, that for problems as seemingly intractable and multifaceted as illegal logging in New Guinea, it is the basis for any effective intervention: for empowering communities, governments, and nonprofits to assert some degree of control over the timber industry. The simple act of bearing witness can have big effects.