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The Forest Stewards Initiative

The Forest Stewards initiative is an innovative plan to conserve the traditional knowledge of New Guinea's most remote societies by partnering them with external institutions. The Forest Stewards initiative recognizes that the forests of New Guinea are biocultural phenomenon -- the product of thousands of years of interaction between humans and their environment. These forests and the cultures that shaped them are important global resources threatened by the forces of globalization and worthy of conservation. This initiative offers the possibility of meeting the aspirations of developing societies, while conserving globally significant forests. By fostering intergenerational and cross-cultural communication, the Forest Stewards allows communities to forge a new path -- one that allows them to employ their traditions to more fully participate in resource conservation decisions. Participating communities will be compensated to keep their languages, cultures and forests alive as an essential part of the knowledge conservation project. In remote areas with no other source of income, we believe that this will be sufficient incentive for people who are already proud of their heritage, to secure their way of life and continue to steward their language, tradition and forests into the next generation.

We are building on twenty years of experience in New Guinea and a UNESCO certified "Best Practice,"(http://www.unesco.org/shs/most) to conserve the biocultural diversity of New Guinea's Snow Mountains region -- the largest expanse of forest in the Pacific and a region of global significance containing the headwaters of the Fly, Sepik, Digul and Idenburg Rivers.

Our pilot project with the Hewa people along the Laigaip River began in 2005 and has expanded to include the Sisimen and Yana people living in this same watershed. In 2011, we plan to begin working with the societies that share the hunting areas surrounding Mt. Kaijende, thus including all the cultures and biodiversity of the upper Laigaip catchment under the umbrella of the Forest Stewards. In the field seasons stretching from 2006-08, these societies have worked with representatives from Harvard University; the Smithsonian; South Australia Museum; and Conservation International to document the region's biodiversity.

The Forest Stewards initiative is building environmental and cultural stewardship in traditional forest societies, by creating in each community a locally-managed knowledge conservation program that is supported by working partnerships with international cultural and natural history institutions. The initiative benefits a participating community by conserving its biocultural heritage and providing long-term employment through the exchange of this knowledge for compensation. Through local empowerment and capacity building, this approach offers an isolated forest society a pathway to a sustainable future.

These societies are the gatekeepers to the millennia of nature observations now embedded in their language.
We have established a common ground on which indigenous societies and conservation NGO's can build a conservation program for these forests. .

In addition, by relying on traditional knowledge, local informants are afforded a status outside of their community. The finest of these informants will become paid participants in the knowledge conservation phase of the Forest Stewards program. We believe that by establishing this linkage between the local economy, conservation and culture, we will help these communities create a sustainable future.

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