Papua

When I heard the news that a virgin jungle had been discovered in Melanesia, I remembered her.

Apparently, an international team of scientists had found a ‘lost world’ in the Foja Mountains in Papua New Guinea. In a remote area of the jungle, never before trodden by man, they had identified hundreds of animal and plant species hitherto unknown or considered extinct.

I imagined how she would have taken the news. The first time I saw her was in a restaurant. Suddenly, a woman in cook’s attire approached one of a group of executives who were sitting at a table and asked if he was who she thought he was... and he must have been, because she then told him that she was furious for having cooked for him. The man kindly asked her to explain herself.

“Haven’t they told you?” she asked. “Nobody can bother the boss with such a trivial matter, can they? We have been trying to speak to you for months and you never have time. But you do have time to destroy the last primeval forests in the world, don’t you? All the time in the world! You should be ashamed of yourself!”

They dragged her away by force while the man, who was quite nervous, asked them to let her go, that everyone should calm down, that everything was OK... and he followed them. He returned after a few minutes and apologised to the other diners, explaining that he was the chairman of a major group of companies. He said that he would not lay charges and publicly asked the owner of the restaurant not to fire her because she was an excellent cook.

This would have remained just an anecdote if the story had not been published in the press a couple of weeks later. Apparently, the shops owned by the businessman’s group were selling furniture manufactured in China with wood from illegally felled trees in New Guinea.

The article claimed that China is the largest buyer of illegal wood in the world. A business that enriches military personnel, civil servants, mafias, multinationals, stockbrokers and traders. The Papua jungle, the third largest in the world after the Amazon and Congo, is threatened because the country infringes its own forestry laws. Access is permitted to large Chinese companies that offer substantial bribes so that their ships loaded with contraband will not be intercepted. The wood is unloaded in Chinese ports with false Malaysian documentation to hide its origin, which is none other than the protected tropical jungle known as Paradise Forests, because they hold a flora and fauna not to be found anywhere else —biological treasures on which native tribes depend to maintain their way of life; trees that are being converted into floors and garden furniture for rich countries.

A few days later, in view of a growing scandal, the company group in question announced a commitment to sustainable forest management. From then on, it would only sell wooden furniture made with wood from carefully-managed forests with a guaranteed regeneration of trees.

I was very happy —for the Paradise Forests and for the brave cook.

I saw her a few months later on the street where I work, disguised as an exotic flower, among kangaroos, frogs and birds of paradise, protesting in front of a shop that sells parquet flooring and floorboards. I approached her and told her that I was in the restaurant the day of the incident and congratulated her for what she had achieved. She tied a parrot-shaped hat on my head and gave me a placard that depicted an orang-utan in a tree next to a slogan that said “Don’t destroy my house to build yours.”

“Everything you see in the shop window is made from illegally felled merbau trees,” she told me. “It comes from China, where all factories consume one tree per minute but the merbau defends itself, you know? It is so hard that it quickly wears down the tools used to work the wood. That is why it is used to make flooring, because it is capable of resisting almost anything.”

“You have created quite a circus here,” I commented.

“They don’t seem to understand. Normally, these people barely have information about what they sell. They only see the price. So we first inform them. We even show them videos where they can see kilometres of logs piled up along the coast, the jungle razed... a very sad image. And they answer that that is not their problem! They say their products are made with wood from controlled plantations and they refuse to listen to us when we explain to them that the authorities there manipulate the forestry certificates. So that is why we put on this circus, as you call it —a circus of endangered animals!”

I spent quite some time with them, trying to attract the attention of passers-by. A TV crew arrived and a reporter asked her if she thought the protest would have the desired effect and what she hoped to achieve with it.

“The human species withers everything it touches,” she said. “We are capable of devastating places that do not even appear on maps. All you have to do is look at the publicity: ‘Take the exoticism of Indonesia to your home for less than you expect.’ If they could see that forest, the gigantic flowers, the birds, see how the people live who are being exterminated by their greed. If they could feel their peace... They are friendly and hospitable. They receive you with songs and garlands of flowers. They offer you their home to sleep in and they share their food with you. And how do we return this kindness? It is said that there are three types of ignorance: not knowing what you should know; knowing badly what you do know; and knowing what you should not know. I can’t pinpoint which of the three justifies this unscrupulous plunder. I may be an idealist, if that is what you suggest, but they are a gang of thieves and, as long as we inhabit the same planet, I refuse to just stand there doing nothing.”