It isn’t every day that a villager from one of the remotest corners of the world flies to New York City to accept an award. Last month, Paul Pavol, accompanied by his wife Janet, did just that.
The former auto parts salesman from the forested island of New Britain in Papua New Guinea flew 9,000 miles to accept the fifth Alexander Soros Foundation Award for Environmental and Human Rights Activism.
Since 2010, Paul has fought to save his community’s forests and land from Malaysian logging outfit Rimbunan Hijau (RH), the world’s largest tropical logger, which supplies Chinese manufacturers with logs that end up in all corners of the world — even the US — in the form of everyday wood products like floorboards and coffee stirrers. The company never gained the proper consent of Paul’s community before proceeding to chop down their forests.
Home to one of the world’s largest stretches of rainforest, which contains seven percent of the world’s plant and animal species and serves as a buffer against the changing climate, PNG has seen an alarming increase in forest destruction at the hands of the logging and palm oil industries. In recent years, the government doled out huge areas of land — mostly belonging, according to PNG law, to communities like Paul’s — to these companies, which raze forests for logs and to make room for palm oil plantations.
“For many generations, my community has farmed, fished and hunted in the forests of Pomio, all while keeping them healthy and standing,” Pavol said.
“In only a few years, RH has clear cut many of these forests, leaving behind a desert in their place. As a result, we’re starting to lose our customs, our culture and our traditions. We know that this is an uphill battle, but fighting is the chance we have to hold on to our way of life.”
Paul’s attempts to protect his forests have been met with threats. He reports that he and his fellow protestors have been verbally and violently intimidated by police stationed in logging camps. In 2015, backers of an oil palm project obtained a restraining order against Paul, effectively banishing him from moving freely around his own village. He is challenging the expropriation of his land in court, but faces delay tactics and mounting legal fees.
“My community depends on our land and forests for our survival, and I cannot stand by and watch it be permanently destroyed,” Pavol said. “I have no choice but to stand up and raise my voice because if we do not defend our land, no one will.”
The Alexander Soros Foundation Award for Environmental and Human Rights Activism annually recognizes activists working at the nexus of environmentalism and human rights. Pavol is the fifth winner of the award.