By Mahesh Agarwal
Ambroise Brenier is a marine biologist and conservationist. He’s worked with local communities and governments in key ecological regions from Madagascar to Polynesia. He now serves as the country director for the Wildlife Conservation Society in Papua New Guinea. Dr. Brenier is a 2020 Yale World Fellow. The following transcript has been compressed and edited for clarity.
You spent part of your childhood in Polynesia. What was that experience like and how did it influence your view of nature?
I went to French Polynesia when I was 8 years old and my family lived there for four years. All along the coast of the islands, you can find coral reefs full of different species. Every weekend I’d explore the reefs with my family and friends and discover something new. I also learned to scuba dive at a young age, which only piqued my interest more because I could go deeper and spend more time in the water.
As a kid, I wasn’t aware of the many threats that ecosystems face. Later on, when I read about how human activity affects biodiversity, I was concerned. I knew I wanted to play at least a small role and implement solutions wherever I could.
You spent your early career working all over the world, from West Africa to Madagascar to the South Pacific. What did those experiences teach you about conservation?
I first got a PhD in Marine Biology working in Polynesia and Madagascar and then I moved to international NGOs, mainly managing site-based conservation programs in different parts of the world. For someone like me who appreciates the diversity of life, being in an ecological hotspot like Madagascar or West Africa was exciting. The countries with the most biodiversity are usually developing countries and they struggle to invest enough financial resources to preserve their environment. This contrast is especially visible in Papua New Guinea (PNG), which has some of the most biologically diverse forests and seas on Earth but little support for conservation. I felt that, by working in places like this, I could really make a difference.
What did you learn?
I learned that it takes time to build trust so it’s important to have long-term engagements. A lot of my work focuses on helping local people manage their own natural resources. But it’s always a long process to establish strong relationships both with local people and also the government.
How is Papua New Guinea unique?
Something amazing about PNG is that almost all of the land is under customary ownership by the different indigenous groups. The cultural diversity of PNG is also unique: there are over a thousand tribes on the island that speak 800 languages. Anywhere you go in Papua New Guinea, you’ll find clans with their own traditions. All of the land belongs to these communities, both the forest around them and most of the coastal sea.
Why is Papua New Guinea important ecologically?
Although not everyone has heard of it, the rainforest on New Guinea Island—which includes both parts of Indonesia and PNG—is actually the third largest in the world. The biodiversity is unparalleled. There are 13,000 plant species, more than any other island, and most of those can’t be found anywhere else. Even though the region is relatively small, it contains over 8% of the world’s bird species. The seas surrounding PNG are equally important because they form part of the “coral triangle” which is a hotspot for marine life. The forest’s size also makes it important for mitigating climate change.
What are the main threats that PNG faces?
There are three main threats to biodiversity. The first is extractive activities, particularly illegal logging. The second is that the population of PNG is growing which leads to overharvesting of natural resources. And the third main threat is climate change.
Do most of the “extractive activities” come from international interests or local needs?
Most illegal logging in Papua New Guinea is conducted by foreign companies from places like Malaysia. These companies intrude on indigenous land and cut trees without following sustainable forestry practices.
Overharvesting, on the other hand, is the result of citizen use. Eighty percent of the population lives in rural areas where daily life revolves around farming, hunting, and fishing. They also use material from the forest to build houses for example. A growing population is competing for fewer resources.
What is the main goal of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s work in PNG?
We work with local, national, and international partners to sustainably manage and conserve the biodiversity and cultural values of PNG’s wildlife and wild places. We do so through scientific research, sharing information, and building capacity to empower local people to make informed decisions about their resources, and by informing policy development. Our vision is “Empowered people with healthy forests and seas,” and one of our main goals is to empower communities to manage their own natural resources. We provide knowledge, financial resources,and connections that help them better manage their forest and marine resources. For me, success is when communities themselves have ownership of the conservation initiative because that’s the only way it will be sustainable in the long run.
What are the initiatives of WCS to combat the threats faced by PNG?
Our main initiative is helping communities create “community conservation areas” on both land and sea. We first receive informed consent from communities to work with them and build trust over time. We help communities develop natural resource management and land-use plans. We build local management capacity and support livelihood development. We also connect communities with scientific expertise and serve as a liaison between communities and the government and other development partners.
What does your work look like on the ground?
I work from the WCS office in Goroka, in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. I spend a lot of time developing relationships with government and development partners, writing grant proposals, hiring people, and managing projects. Most of the fieldwork is done by the local team who are doing an excellent job despite the challenges. We have field offices across the country with teams working with different communities.
How is the relationship between WCS and indigenous people?
It’s a very challenging place to work and there has been conflict in the past. Unless expectations are clear, the project will backfire. One key point is that we don’t select the location of our sites only for ecological reasons. After all, with so much rainforest left, there is biodiversity all over the country. We usually work with the communities that approach us first and are genuinely interested in conservation. This allows us to focus on the people whose desires align with our mission.
Have there been any missteps?
There have been many failed conservation projects in Papua New Guinea. It’s a challenging area. You need to understand the communities you’re working with. Sometimes there’s a disconnect between what the conservation NGO can provide and what the community wants. Last year we had to pull out from one community because our priorities were too different.
Are you optimistic about the future of biodiversity in PNG?
There are some reasons for hope. Fifty percent of the forest remains intact, which is much higher than most countries. Also, coral reefs in Papua New Guinea, and in surrounding countries within the coral triangle, are surprisingly resistant to thermal stress from climate change. The indigenous land ownership is also a potential strength if they’re given the right support.
What are the main things that will need to change?
The government needs to become more interested in conservation. That would be a game-changer.
Is there any specific experience you’ve had that stands out?
A few months ago, I had the chance to go snorkeling with my two young daughters in some remote coral reefs offshore Papua New Guinea. It was so great to see them put the masks on and be amazed by what they saw underwater. It was just like my adventures when I was young in French Polynesia; could that be what will prompt their interest to work in conservation too?
Mahesh Agarwal is a first year in Branford College. You can contact him at email@example.com.