SYDNEY — PAPUA New Guinea's bold plan to freeze logging in its forests - one of the world's largest virgin tropical rain forests - is getting mixed reviews. Starting in July, there will be a two-year ban on new logging permits, Forestry Minister Karl Stack announced early this month. The government also endorsed plans for a task force to set up conservation areas and a trust fund.
The ban puts 24 pending timber projects on hold. As a result, this developing South Pacific nation will forgo an estimated $70 million in taxes and royalties. And PNG officials want industrialized nations to pick up the tab - if they don't, the political will to hold the ban may dissolve with the general election in 1992.
``If this resource is considered of such high ecological value to the nation or the world community that it should be fully conserved, then the villagers should be compensated for the opportunities forgone by not harvesting it,'' Prime Minister Rabbie Namaliu says.
Politically, this isn't easy for the Namaliu government. Ninety-eight percent of the land in PNG is owned by local tribes. When a logging company offers seemingly large sums for their trees, villagers see a golden opportunity to get jobs, schools, roads, medical services - not to mention, money for Rambo videotapes and four-wheel drive trucks.
The World Wide Fund for Nature, the world's largest private conservation organization, praises the compensation-for-a-ban idea. ``It's a watershed for conservation,'' says Ray Nias in Sydney. ``It's the most radical step of any government involved in a Tropical Forest Action Plan.''
The PNG government is one of 62 developing nations involved in a process, begun in 1985, aimed at boosting financing and developing guidelines for the conservation and sustainable use of tropical forests. The Tropical Forest Action Plans are backed by several international organizations, including the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Bank.
But environmental organizations in PNG say the accolades are premature.
``If this moratorium is truly a change in national will, and it's reflected at the provincial and local levels, a great deal can be done,'' says Christopher Hershey of the Melanesian Environment Foundation in Port Moresby. ``But the moratorium has holes, and it only plugs one or two holes in a system full of holes.''
Within minutes of announcing the moratorium, Forestry Minister Stack conceded that at least four, possibly six major new permits would be granted before the July ban goes into effect.
Mr. Hershey notes that there are already 6O logging companies (mostly Asian-owned) operating in PNG with permits good for up to 30 years. Japan and South Korea buy 90 percent of PNG's log exports. ``Logging will continue at current levels for at least 15 years,'' he says.
The Namaliu government's record of enforcing bans and environmental laws isn't exemplary.
Due to reports of abuse, Namaliu announced a ban on Local Forest Areas (LFA) - where timber companies negotiate directly with landowners. But the Times of Papua New Guinea says Mr. Stack has issued seven LFA permits since the 1988 ban.
An internal report by the PNG Department of Environment and Conservation says 70 percent of the logging companies have not submitted environmental impact studies as required by law.
``No company has had its permit revoked for violating the law. It makes you wonder what's going to happen with monitoring this moratorium,'' says George Marshall of the Lismore-based Rain Forest Information Centre.
Last year, the Barnett Commission of Inquiry into the forest industry found ``wanton degradation of the forest'' and corruption ``rampant.'' The inquiry implicated several politicians in taking bribes and having stock holdings in logging companies. Allegations of corruption have also been leveled at Stack, which he has denied.
In announcing the ban, Stack acknowledged that enforcement has suffered due to a decline in Forest Department staff. He asked representatives of 15 international aid organizations attending a meeting in Port Moresby for financial support to beef up monitoring and assist in establishing a more powerful forest authority to help depoliticize the permit process.