Papua New Guinea’s bottom up revolution

Madang Provincial Governor Jim Kas served as governor in the late 1990s, was defeated after a term, and was re-elected in 2012.    During his time in the political wilderness, he spent a lot of time in the interior of Madang, Papua New Guinea, getting to know the people and villages of the highlands and the coast.   He also tagged along to meetings with Tricia Kas, his wife, who works for TNC.   TNC has been working in Madang since 1996—always focused on the overlap between the ecosystem health and the health of communities like those along the coast that rely on fisheries and coral reefs to sustain them, or in the mountains where people rely on forest products, small scale farming and timber for their livelihoods.    So the Governor, outside the pressure cooker of politics for a while, learned from his constituents about the tight connection between people and their environment.   He also absorbed the idea that the villagers were managing their communal lands (97% of PNG’s land is held in what is called a “customary tenure”, or by the traditional users of the land, albeit without official registration) in a responsible and sustainable way, but were facing increasing pressures from outside the communities due to timber and mining leases that had been issued by the central government with little local input.

So when Governor Kas was elected again in 2012, he came to TNC’s PNG Director Francis Hurahura and said, “OK, lets figure out how to put the power back in the hands of the people who rely on these resources, and lets give them some 21st century land management tools to help them.”     Francis was very excited about this opportunity, and, fortunately, so were some international donors—USAID and AUSAID, the US and Australian foreign aid agencies.   So what has followed over the last 2 years has been a grassroots-driven re-calibration of what Madang province can look like.   A series of workshops and community meetings, huge maps and 3D models of each district of Madang on a table with all the village leaders gathered around with markers and sticky notes describing what was important to them, what their worries were, and what their dreams and aspirations for their children are.    For the first time, these leaders could see where they lived, the valleys, sacred spots, garden plots, timber lots and villages, and how those features  fit into the larger landscape.    They could see their homes, as if from above like a god, and the environment they have depended on for generations.   And they could discuss and decide together how to protect and manage that landscape.


And this would have been a pretty good thing in itself—who doesn’t want to see better how they live and how to protect that life?  But this is where Governor Kas’ political genius comes into play.    With a clear vision from his people, he’s begun to un-do and up-end the land use and leasing decision-making process–Reclaiming it from the central government, devolving it to the local governments, so that the decisions are better aligned with and benefit local people.    He’s prompted a debate in the legislature around how timber and mining leases are let.  He’s catalysed an examination of the country’s constitution and legal framework that he hopes will ultimately lead to more self determination by the villages, more control over their own destinies.   And it’s happening!  At the meeting to unveil the Madang provincial vision, the Prime Minister’s cabinet sent the Chair of the Constitutional Law Reform Commission to speak about the actions to implement that vision that can move ahead now, and those that will need national legislation.   Other national level officials also promised to remove barriers and work towards the vision.   And the Governor has orchestrated all of this.

A couple of US political aphorisms came to my mind as I watched this process.  First, all politics is local.   Tip O’Neill’s articulation that the basis for legitimacy comes from taking care of the needs of local people, that politics is really just the art of figuring out  how to serve them.   Second, if the people lead, the leaders will follow.   And, while sounding sort of funny, this is really an observation of how great politicians can tap into the energy of their constituents to create lasting change.

As I got up to talk to the large group of national, provincial and local leaders, I had a powerful sense of deja vu.   I realised that it was 20 years ago that I followed another visionary Governor around the province of Colorado in my first political job after law school.     Roy Romer also understood how to tap into the power of local people by asking them what they wanted, and working hard to deliver on it.    He and his staff spent 2 years moving from community to community around the state with maps and blank sheets of paper on the walls collecting the aspirations and needs of people in Colorado that relied heavily on the state’s water, timber, soils, grass and other natural resources for to thrive.   And he worked hard throughout his term to align the not just the state’s departments of Transportation, Natural Resources, Environment, Public Health, and others, but also the federal agencies that control much of Colorado’s lands, the BLM, the Forest Service, National Parks Service, around those local visions.   It was a great lesson for me in the best of politics—making our collective dreams into a reality.   The people and landscape and language and culture of PNG could not be more different from Colorado, but the politics is all local.IMG_7907


Review of “The Man Who Quit Money” by Mark Sundeen


Moab (Photo credit: hal9k)

Daniel Suelo comes from the same state that I do, Colorado.  He’s about the same age and background as me.  He, too, loves being in nature and being outside.  He lives near Moab, Utah, where my wife and I met and hope to retire someday (more on that later!).     But he inhabits an entirely different universe with different rules, mores and customs.  His world is so dramatically different that it is virtually unimaginable.

You see, Daniel Suelo has no money.  At all.  Most people consider him to be a bum.  In the nicest, least pejorative, most thoughtful sense of the word.  About 15 years ago, in response to spiritual, intellectual and personal crises, he gave up money.  He refuses to touch it, has no credit cards, works no job, punches no clock.   He lives on public lands around Moab, Utah.   He doesn’t beg, but eats what he can gather from nature and the dumpsters behind restaurants and supermarkets or what he is offered by friends.   He isn’t a hermit or a recluse, but maintains a vigorous social life in Moab.   He blogs about his experiences from the Moab Public Library.   He works occasionally, but mainly for the experience or to help out something he believes in, never for pay.

And I live in Hong Kong, the most capitalistic city on the planet.  This city was founded on trade and business and has thrived on it ever since.  Money is

Hong Kong skyline from the Peak

Hong Kong skyline from the Peak (Photo credit: xopherlance)

the raison d’être of this town.  This city is the shrine to the very notion of money—a medium of exchange or a store of value—as having meaning in and of itself.  The acquisition and maintenance of money, the profit motive, is the religion of Hong Kong.   The notion that capitalism properly organises itself (supply) through signals of the people’s desire (demand) to provide for efficient provision of goods and services is not mere abstraction here, but rather the very foundation of the city itself.   In addition to the undeniable benefits of economic growth, Hong Kong also offers some of the best examples of conspicuous consumption and economic inequality.   I’ve given up counting the number of Louis Vuitton outlets and watch stores with strange Swiss names that sell watches for more than my mortgage.

Appreciating both of these world views has, I must admit, taxed my limited intellectual capacity.   And, certainly, I am in the middle of the two extremes—though a lot closer to Daniel’s situation than to some of my neighbours in Hong Kong—thus have a foot in both camps.  Reconciling these visions of the world, however extreme, is what I do in my day job.  We in the environmental movement make the case daily to wealthy people and to captains of industry (and to governments) that they need to invest in the natural world in order to ensure that it continues to provide the clean air, clean water, safe food, and healthy atmosphere that will sustain their children, that, in fact, even their money cannot protect their children from the rages of a frayed climate, a dead ocean and a global toxic miasma.

And TNC also supports people who are in Daniel’s situation, but not by choice.  I recently visited Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, where a no-cash, barter society exists on coastlines that are already feeling the pressure from sea level rise and coral bleaching.   The ocean has pushed their villages back many meters and the rising sea temperatures have impacted their primary food source, fish, which relies on corals as breeding grounds and nurseries.   They have organised themselves around these challenges and are zoning their ocean and self-regulating their fishing.  They are building dry rock walls to protect their vegetable fields from salt water incursion.  They are staring down the barrel of the gun of climate change, without money, with a little help from TNC, and planning their future despite seemingly insurmountable challenges.

My wife and I respectfully disagree about money.  I think we won’t have enough to retire until I am 120 years old.  She thinks we can retire next week.   Perhaps the real truth is that retirement in Moab or on Manus may be a false promise given the threats that climate change pose.   And money and capitalism probably will play a central role as signals from the environment, like Hurricane Sandy, Typhoon Nargis, drought, wildfires and pollution begin to more directly and clearly impact global markets.

Since the global and national political systems have failed us all on climate (honestly, a global deal on climate is a structural impossibility!), perhaps the market will save us.  Otherwise, we may all find ourselves with useless Piaget watches trying to learn how to start anew from Manus Islanders and Mark Sundeen.  I suspect that this challenge will require the best from all of us, though.  I hope we all rise to the challenge as the Manusians have done.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Haruki Murakami is most well know for innovative and surreal fiction like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and 1Q84; he has described his writing goal as putting “Dostoevsky and Raymond Chandler together in one book.”  No easy task, I think, but his novels are exactly that.   However, this short book, “What I talk about when I talk about running,” really a collection of essays, is a memoir of his life through the lens of something he does every day—running.

“Long-distance running suits my personality, though, and of all the habits I’ve acquired over my lifetime I’d have to say this one has been the most helpful, the most meaningful.”

Starting his adult life as a bartender and jazz club owner, he never intended to be a writer, yet running and writing have intertwined to define his life—the running allowing him to write, to sustain himself and the well of creativity needed for the long distance test of writing.

“When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

The reason I picked up this book on running was that I had just finished his recent book, 1Q84, having been unable to put it down during a 14 hour flight over the Pacific, I felt like I had come late to a writer I should have discovered long ago.  I haven’t felt like reading could be so engaging and transporting, packed with poetry and meaning, since picking up Garcia Marquez’s books in university, or more recently with the Canadian poet Anne Michaels’ books.

I was raving to my wife about 1Q84, and she mentioned that he’d written a book on running.   I was curious to understand what his relationship was to an activity, a meditation, a discipline really, that I’ve also pursued over my lifetime.  I’ve never had a good reason to give people who ask me why I run every day, why I compete in events from the mile to the ultramarathon distance, why I so often find myself in what normal people would consider unpleasant, uncomfortable and intense situation.    So I wondered what Murakami had to say about it:

“Even if, seen from the outside, or from some higher vantage point, this sort of life looks pointless or futile, it doesn’t bother me. Maybe it’s a pointless act, pouring water into an old pan that has a hole in the bottom, but at least the effort you put into it remains. Whether it’s good for anything or not, cool or totally uncool, in the final analysis what’s most important is what you can’t see but can feel in your heart.”

 Which, while not so much an eloquent articulation (though possessing a lovely double entendre!), he does capture something about the question of why we keep pouring water into a pan that has a hole in it.   What else can we do but make an effort?  What is the point of “meaning” and “purpose” except to access some deeper feeling?  Something of the holy in us perhaps?  Or our submerged animal? For me, the why of running has been as unanswerable as the why of breathing, eating and sleeping.  Stopping any of these things is unthinkable, though they all, including running, will come to an end some day.

“Even if he doesn’t break the time he’d hoped for, as long as he has the sense of satisfaction at having done his very best–and, possibly, having made some significant discovery about himself in the process.”

The Holy or the Broken


Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen song)

Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen song) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

” The Holy or the Broken:  Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah'” by Alan Light  Book Review

“It’s an amazing word to say,” says Bono.  “it’s its own kind of mouth music, just singing it.”

In the general theme of religion (see the review of The Man Who Quit Money by Mark Sundeen) I recently heard Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah for the first time.   This is pretty remarkable because I listen to a lot of music, and I like Leonard Cohen; so I should have heard this 20 year old song before now.  But this sort of thing happens to me.  For instance, I never listened to or appreciated Led Zeppelin.  All I knew of their music was Stairway to Heaven from the countless times it was played as the slow dance at Lesher Junior High School parties in Ft. Collins, Colorado in the late 70s.   I’ve since recovered this lost period of my life, now own the entire canon of Led Zeppelin, and count Kashmir as one of my favourite songs of all time.   I also love dancing to my daughter’s music with her—Carly Rae Jepsen is awesome.  I’m pro Taylor Swift too.   So music has always been a big part of enjoying life for me.

So I heard the song and was absolutely taken by it.  It’s a long song, with 5 verses and complex lyrics.  It has a compelling melody that is also easy to sing.  And it’s a religious song, especially for those of us who are agnostic or atheists.  (there aren’t many atheist spiritual songs out there—but there must be a market for them….)   And then I was walking past an airport book store and saw Alan Light’s book about the song.   I had just read the autobiographies of Neil Young and Richards, which made me like them both less and put me off of their music for a couple of months, so I wasn’t really  in the market, but I picked it up and could’t put it down.

The book is a great story about a great song.  Cohen’s decade long struggle to write it.  The lack of reaction to it’s release.  The tragic story of the promising artist Jeff Buckley recording the song (with haunting video ) then walking into the Mississippi River 5 months later and drowning before his version made the song popular.  Leonard Cohen then retreating to a Zen monastery, to reappear 8 years later, bankrupt, having been robbed by his manager, and then beginning a series of world tours, playing stadiums, at the age of 70.

English: Leonard Cohen

English: Leonard Cohen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a religious epic in itself, about a man whose purpose in writing the song was to “push the Hallelujah into the secular world, into the ordinary world.”   The song provides a bridge of faith into the everyday.   As Light says, “There is simply no getting around the power of that chorus: one word, charged with centuries of meaning, delivered ironically or solemnly or both.”

The magic of music and it’s ability to transport the soul and make connections makes me remember something from my childhood in the American south.  I was 6 or 7, and my babysitter had taken me to a Southern Baptist church in Nashville.   My parents weren’t churchgoers so I wasn’t sure what it was all about, but there was a lot of singing.   I remember asking her afterwards about the singing.  She said, “when you sing, you pray twice.”  Hallelujah.


Margaret Mead Slept Here–Pere Village, Manus Island, Papua New Guinea

We are on a sailboat–well, really a canoe with a big plastic tarp for a sail and a complicated 3 stick mast, manned by 5 Manusians who’ve sailed this rig 1000s of miles across the open ocean (more on that later).  As we approach Manus Island, we see a flotilla in the distance.  We approach and furl the sail.  We pole our way into the shallows, escorted in by a hundred men in costume rowing dugout outriggers, a drummer keeping them in time.  On the shore we are greeted by dancers and feasts and drums made of different-sized dug out logs.  Image

After things have settled down we are shown to our room in a stilted house and head back out to wander around–our heads abuzz with the extraordinary welcome.  We walk down tidy, fresh swept paths that run along three rows of houses–one in the water itself.  out on the fringing reef we see children playing.  200 meters out, they are surfing on canoes and logs and boards they have cut themselves.  Image

At dinner that night, the real business begins.  We witness the signing of the Pere’s new resource management plan by the 6 clan leaders and the ward leader.  This plan is a self-policed agreement that zones the ocean around Pere and sets rules like catch limits, off limits areas, and seasonal closures.  (it also includes a 1 billion kina fine for mining pollution!).  This sort of enlightened self government, based on scientific realities and traditional knowledge, in the face of a threat of climate change that may wipe out the Titan culture of the Admiralty islands, is grounds for a very high level of optimism.


Margaret Mead came to live in Pere in the 1920’s (see the great short video on her at ) and to study, and missionaries came after to convert, and now the words “integrated resource management planning” and “climate change adaptation” have crept their way into the pidgin.  This is truly the place where the butterfly wing flaps causing the hurricane half the world away has hit hardest–except here it is the coal plants in Pittsburgh and Chongqing that are submerging and destroying these rich cultures, smart people and beautiful environment.   I have a strong hunch that the Titan people are going to thrive, even as they adapt.

Topographical map of Admiralty Island in Papua...

Topographical map of Admiralty Island in Papua New Guinea. Largest islands have been named. Created with GMT from publicly released SRTM data. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Market at the Center of the Universe

(I met this man in Nohang village on Manus, Papua New Guinea.   I attempted to transcribe the pidgin as he expressed his welcome to us, and his feeling of pride and satisfaction about his home.  He was very rooted in his place, and reminded me how rootless I am at the moment.)

“You makem comin long ways from America, an den Australia,
and den Papa Nugini an Por Moresbee an den comin aroun Manus to Pere Villij,
den you comin to Nohang villij to our market.  
We have a partnership with Pere villij people.  
We givin de bananas and pineapples and sweet potatoes
and dey givin the fish,

like we always have done.  
An now you here.   
the center of the universe.  
it’s good, yes?”Image

Ndillo Village’s last chance

IMG_7751  The salt of the rising ocean has already slowed or killed their sego palm and taro root crops  that are critical staple foods.  Their freshwater lagoon has turned salty too, but Ndillo villages’ 600 residents are working to restore the mangroves and natural barriers to turn it fresh again.   In the meantime they are farming milkfish, mud crabs, clams and sea cucumbers.  The 2km by 1km barrier island off the coast of Manus Island, Papua New Guinea was used by the US military as a base in WWII as they fought to evict the Japanese army from the island of Papua (old corrugated metal from that time is still used to build the characteristic stilt houses on shore or over the water).


Their shorelines have eroded many meters in the last 20 years, but they are building rock sea walls to capture the sands and slow the erosion.  They are planting the mangroves to buffer the storms.  They send their 9th graders to school on Manus, and the parents go to Bougainville or Port Moresby to work mining jobs and send money back, but many of them eventually return and retire themselves.   It is a beautiful, orderly place–what they lack in modern conveniences, they make up for in strong culture and community, beauty and integration with the natural world.   IMG_7945

I am now a clan member in Ndillo, inducted through a formal ceremony, celebrated through dancing and eating and drumming and laughing.     “Urro” is the Titan (pronounced tee-tan) people’s word for welcome and hospitality.   I have never felt as welcome as in this simple place: with no electricity, no currency, no televisions, no plastic, bare houses on stilts with only basic furniture, these smart, self-sufficient people are on the front lines of a change in the climate that they had nothing to do with, the causes of which didn’t benefit them at all.   They are fighting for their lives and culture.   I am always welcome back, but with Urro comes obligation.  I have to figure out how I can help their efforts to adapt to climate change. So do we all.



The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton…. Best science book of the year

I nominate this fascinating story for the best science book of the year in two categories—bio-chemistry and psychology.  Tyler Hamilton, a cycling hero, gold medal winner and legend of the early 2000s, tested positive for performance enhancing drugs.  After years of maintaining his innocence publicly and trying to get back into biking, he agreed to tell all to a federal prosecutor and the world.  What comes out is a remarkable story of the corruption and moral turpitude that run through all the “moneyed” sports, the psychological walls that cyclists, doctors, managers, coaches, and race directors must build within their own minds to make it through the days, and a veritable arms race of chemicals that are being poured into the healthiest bodies on the planet to give them just a little more of an edge over their competitors.   And all brought to you by the big money vehicle for advertising that professional sports have become.

Lance Armstrong is quoted throughout the book, but the real revelation is how he thought about cycling.  He came at it from a completely professional perspective with the assumption that everyone else in every race was also cheating (by doping), and that you are a chump if you don’t get just as good at playing the doping sport, and the avoiding the testers game, as you are on the bicycle.  It is a truly rational view, and one that was shared by virtually everyone in professional cycling.   Hamilton chronicles his own first encounter with this reality, as well as how the moral objections of others evaporated over the space of weeks, or days or even an afternoon.  It is clear that 20 year old is faced with a choice to take drugs (to do what everyone else is doing) or to abandon the dream that the cyclist has held since childhood, that has moulded his life so fundamentally that his identity is inextricable from the bicycle.

What is clear from this book is that Hamilton has come to terms with his choice and his life, as have, this fall, virtually all of professional cycling’s greats from the last 15 years.  What is not clear yet is whether cycling, or any professional sport, can change.   It has always had the most rigorous anti-doping regime amongst the professional sports (have you ever seen footage of 70s era basketball or football players—it’s inconceivable that the 25% increase in muscle mass of modern players is accomplished through better diet and training regimes…..), but the incentive to win, to fame, to fortune is extraordinarily powerful.  And science can help to tilt the playing field your way, or make the hill less steep.   I hope parents become a bit more thoughtful about pushing their kids into competitive sports—or stick to curling, which is probably the only sport unaffected…..

Pandas! one more wildlife story……

Location of Pingwu County (pink) and Mianyang ...

Location of Pingwu County (pink) and Mianyang Prefecture (yellow) within Sichuan province of China Map drawn in october 2007 using various sources, mainly : Sichuan province administrative regions GIS data: 1:1M, County level, 1990 Sichuan Counties map from (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pingwu County, Sichuan, China is completely vertical–it is the northwest edge of the consequence of the Indian sub-continent drifting into Asia and pushing the Tibetan plateau 14000 feet into the air.  Narrow valleys have roads pasted along their sides, towered above by enormous steep cliffs that often slough off the roads during the summer rains.

This is also habitat for the few remaining wild pandas, China’s iconic wildlife species.  Probably only around 2000 pandas still exist in the fragmented habitat of Sichuan, but Pingwu county is a healthy patch in which they live.  They are notoriously shy–some students receive there Ph.D.s without ever encountering one in the wild during their years of field research.

Part of the danger of having guests coming to China is that they want to see it all in the 8 days that they are here.  Imagine if your Spanish cousin came to visit you in Denver and asked if it would be possible to pop down to New Orleans for a night, then go to San Francisco, and be back before the weekend.  Then add in rough, constantly-in-construction roads, no civil aviation, no airports at all where nature actually is, and you can see how difficult it is to get visitors to see all of China’s wildlife in 8 days.

But there we were, 25 of TNC’s best and brightest scientists and professionals from Africa, Latin America, China and other parts of Asia on an 8 day tour in two small buses zooming around the canyons of Pingwu.  For those of you that know me, you know that I am not very good company when cooped up in a car all day.  So at our next stop, a “45 minute” hike into a nature reserve, I decided to get my workout in for the day.

Our host opened the locked gate and we crossed a rudimentary bridge and proceeded up a side canyon that quickly took on the primeval.  The walls were near vertical, plastered with greenery, and the stream very steep.  I hustled on up ahead and broke into a run.  Running out of trail after about 2 miles, I worked my way up a different side canyon in a dry creek bed for another 2 miles.  As my conscience about keeping my colleagues waiting started to overcome my desire to keep exploring a landscape like none I had ever seen before–bamboo, huge trees, massive boulders, waterfalls dripping moss and fern–I slowed down.

And then I heard the oddest sounds.  “Baaaaa.  Baaaaa.”  and some popping noises.  I don’t know the birds of China well enough to identify by sound, so I stopped and looked up for a while.  It continued and I could tell it was coming from one side of the canyon and was being answered from the other.   Then I thought it might be a monkey–I’m a lawyer by training, so I don’t know their sounds either, though some would say lawyers are equally less evolved…..  I kept listening and the sounds continued.  I made my way up the creek and around a corner slowly, stopping and watching every so often.

Giant Pandas eating bamboo in Chengdu, Sichuan

Giant Pandas eating bamboo in Chengdu, Sichuan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Finally the baaing stopped.  I climbed up onto a boulder to get a better view around.  40 meters away I saw 2 pandas running up the steep slope away from me–and some movement in some nearby bushes that indicated a 3rd.  I watched them until they disappeared into the dense brush–only about 5 seconds.  I was stunned.   At the time, I didn’t realize how special it was to see these animals this way, and I also wasn’t really sure what they would do to me if threatened.  I have spent a lot of time around grizzlies in Wyoming and Montana, so was thinking that going forward to investigate might not be a great idea.  But after a few minutes I couldn’t resist and hacked my way through the bamboo to where I had seen them in hopes of finding some evidence.  I found lots of footprints and took a few pictures or them, in the hopes of persuading someone I had actually seen the Giant Panda.

When I got down I described the sound to North Asia’s chief scientist, Matt Durnin, who has a Ph.D in Pandas from Berkeley.  He confirmed that was the sound and the footprints of a panda.  I felt like I should have played the lottery that evening–the chances of seeing a wild panda in the only 45 minutes I would spend in their habitat that week must be astronomically slim.  But sometimes it is better to be lucky than smart.


Bedfordian Knots


The second evening in Glacier National Park after a nice dinner at the Many Glacier Lodge—it stays light til about 11 at that time of year—I decided after dinner to hike in to a back country lake and camp.

I got to the lake around 930 and was laying out my bag when I saw, across

Redrock lake, two grizzlies—a momma and her fairly large year old cub—walking down the trail that I had just come up and on which i was now camping..   The wind was at their back so they couldn’t smell me, and they don’t see accurately very far.   So I started yelling, “Hey Bear” to make sure I didn’t surprise them.   I had left the pepper spray in the car, so I was just hoping that they were on their way through as opposed to looking to stop for dinner.

The problem was that…

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