Preserving a Priceless Record

From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Summer 2017

George Weiblen’s inestimable gift to the world
By Meleah Maynard

Professor of plant biology George Weiblen studied plants in the disappearing rain forests of Papua New Guinea (PNG) for nearly 25 years. Concerned that a rich store of knowledge was also in danger of disappearing, he wrote a 52-page handbook detailing what he had learned from inhabitants about the area’s biodiversity. Three years in the making, the handbook is the first written record of indigenous people’s knowledge about the area’s biodiversity. He presented it to dignitaries, indigenous leaders, and schoolchildren at Ohu Village near Madang on the country’s north coast in late 2016.

In April, Weiblen was named the recipient of the University of Minnesota’s 2017 President’s Community-Engaged Scholar Award for his work in Papua New Guinea. It is the highest award the U bestows for scholarship conducted in partnership with external communities.

What is so special about PNG from a biodiversity perspective?

It is one of the most biologically rich and scientifically least explored places on the planet. A forest patch the size of a football field contains as many different tree species as the entire state of Minnesota. Even more impressive is the cultural diversity of the island, where over 800 languages are still spoken.

What does the handbook cover?

The Wiad handbook grew out of two decades of collaboration between the indigenous people of Ohu village and academic researchers from around the world. Ohu people maintain the Wiad Wildlife Management Area, one of the last intact rainforests of this agricultural community. It is critical habitat for New Guinea’s unique biodiversity, and the handbook brings together a scientific perspective with the traditional knowledge of landowners, people who intimately know their forest.

The indigenous wisdom of the area is at risk because the Amele language is unwritten and kids today aren’t exposed to storytelling and oral history like they used to be. They’ve got smartphones and other devices now. The handbook is actually the first written record of ecological knowledge in Amele, and it’s intended to ensure future awareness of biodiversity and cultural heritage. Tourists and nature enthusiasts will also use it.

Who came up with the idea, and how were people’s stories gathered?

It began with community members who, after years of assisting our grant-sponsored field research, asked my student Annika Moe (Ph.D. ’11) and me if we could assist them with their own sponsored project. The Christensen Fund, which advocates for biocultural preservation, provided support.

Community involvement in biological research is essential because there is no public land in PNG. Land is inherited through a clan system from generation to generation, and it took many years to build the partnership needed for such a project. Young members of the community interviewed their elders in Amele recorded their stories, which were then translated into Melanesian pidgin, a common language that I speak. All three languages are included in the handbook along with artwork by Ohu youth and illustrations by a Minnesota botanical artist.

Hundreds of villagers attended the ceremony where you presented the handbook. Describe what that was like.

The University’s printing service produced the handbooks and 200 copies were presented in a daylong, traditional ceremony. A local song and dance group wearing traditional dress welcomed guests, including the director of the Christensen Fund and local government officials. I was asked to speak in pidgin as master of ceremonies. It was a beautiful event and, frankly, the best day I’ve ever spent in the country. It can be a rough place, but the best of PNG was on display that day. I’ll never forget how it felt to celebrate this unlikely, lasting partnership.

MINNESOTA ALUMNI MAGAZINE, Summer2017

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