Reed Magazine February 2005
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science in the village image
  New Guinea villagers gathered around an encyclopedia for the first time.
science in the village

By George Weiblen '92

The tropical island of New Guinea is about as far as you can get from the Minneapolis, Minnesota neighborhood that I call home. New Guinea's forests are one of the last great biological frontiers, and it was this incredible diversity that, as a plant biologist, first attracted me to this faraway place.

The island has at least 20 times more species of plants than are found in my home state, although this number is inexact because much of New Guinea remains unexplored. And time may be running out for discovering some of these species. New Guinea's tropical forest wilderness–an area slightly larger than the state of Texas–continues to shrink under intense pressure from industrial logging and a growing local population.

I first traveled to Papua New Guinea on a Watson Fellowship after graduating from Reed in 1992, in an effort to catalogue the diversity of tropical trees. However, it's the people I've met there who have kept me returning for more than a decade. Over the years, my botanical research has developed into an ongoing exchange with local residents whose future critically depends on the fate of the forest.

Papua New Guinea doesn't have national parks protecting its biological riches. Instead, 98 percent of the country is privately owned according to tribal tradition, which means that environmental protection is the sole responsibility of the landowners. This unique situation is a challenge for biologists confronted by a rising tide of species extinction in tropical forests worldwide.

Local involvement, respect, and education are essential first steps toward protecting this vulnerable habitat. I learned these lessons as a graduate student when I traveled to Madang, Papua New Guinea in search of field sites for my Ph.D. thesis research. At that time, interested community leaders had invited a team of biologists to survey the forest biota around Ohu village, near Madang. It was on a visit to Ohu that I met Brus Isua.

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Reed Magazine February