Sussex in South-East Asia: An Interview with Dr. Alan Stewart
It has been ten years of hard work from Dr. Stewart and his Sussex-based team, but finally the Conservation Project in Papua New Guinea is well under way. The model is unique as it not only protects the rainforest from deforestation, but also gives the local people the opportunity to become paid researchers, known as “para-ecologists”. This project allows them to seek an alternative to selling their land for quick profit to loggers in the area.
So why did the team choose Papua New Guinea? According to Dr. Stewart he already had a personal contact in the area who had set up his own research centre. This is unsurprising since Dr. Stewart informs me that Papua New Guinea “is a well known hot-spot for researchers”, and that the country contains “5% of the world’s biodiversity”.
Further to this, he also says that many species of plant and animal are known as “endemic” to Papua New Guinea: they are found nowhere else in the world. This makes it particularly important to protect the Papua New Guinea rainforest and he also suggests that there is huge scope for the team to discover something completely new in this particular area of the world. Dr. Stewart believes that this project will be successful as “most conservation projects fail because they centre on morality”; however, their project combines both the morality of conservation and a realistic way for the locals to survive without logging.
So how has the launch phase proceeded? Dr. Stewart tells me that the biggest challenge the team face so far “is finding a way to make the project viable and successful”. The model that their team is using is completely unique in the way it tries to bridge a sustainable life for the communities within the rainforest, and also progress further ecological research in Papua New Guinea. Villagers interested in the project are trained to become para-ecologists, and this is “far more cost effective for the project”. Furthermore, the Sussex-based team gain all the knowledge the locals have from years of living in the Papua New Guinea rainforest
The para-ecologists collect data in a skilled manner to perform meaningful research. Dr. Stewart assures me that the locals involved “are paid above the going rate” in order to give them a sustainable life, as well as to make this an attractive alternative to selling their lands. During their training they get the opportunity to come over to the UK and get hands-on experience in the labs at the University of Sussex, and the always essential “tree climbing” lessons. “It is a collaboration” Dr. Stewart insists. Not only do the professors at Sussex get to go abroad, but so do the para-ecologists in Papua New Guinea, most of whom haven’t even visited their own capital.
“The land of the unexpected” are the words used by Dr. Stewart when I ask him to sum up Papua New Guinea as succinctly as possible. This certainly seems to be the case for the discoveries the project could make. And also for the unexpected nature of the project itself.
If you have been truly inspired by these efforts then it’s always good to know that there is “every possibility for students to go out there”. And why not be inspired? This project shows a heart-warming combination of care for the environment and care for the often sidelined natives, and it’s happening right here in South-East England/Asia.