#Bougainville #Tourism #Environment News : We must protect our paradise islands for future generations

“If there is one memory that still reoccurs and revisits my mind more than any other, it is this. This is a nice place to grow up in. I have never stopped going back and re-living that childhood to this day.”

Simon Pentanu

Pokpok Village. Pokpok Island.
photo credit: Stephen Hurd

Uruna Bay Retreat – Pok Pok Island Bougainville PNG

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Dense forest, with tall trees creating huge canopies as they competed for sunlight, used to come down right to the village backyard. As kids we were cautioned not to wander alone into the hills. There were too many unknowns in the untamed forest.

However, one thing was certain. The trees, vines and shrubs had to give way to gardens. And people always chose the best land areas for garden plots.

The forest was cleared and the produce harvested by mothers and daughters was always plentiful and colourful. Nature never failed to provide sustenance to our community on Pokpok Island.

Slash-and-burn gardening continues today, although there is some reprieve with the coming of consumer goods and processed edibles now readily available in village tucker shops and trade stores. It’s a small island, so human impact on it is quite obvious. The land and surrounding waters bear the burden of an increase in population. Much of the island is rocky and rugged. Arable land is very limited.

Where today there is secondary forest, starting from the beaches and village backyards, there was once primary forest. During storms, especially when it was windy, you could hear the whole forest howling, sounding like a thundering underground train preparing to come to a stop at the platform. After continuous heavy tropical downpours the sound of the flowing creeks in the forest and bushes was more like a jet aircraft pulling up to park at the bay to disembark its passengers – a hissing noise throttling in between.

A little away from the main village, the possums used to come down along the tree tops to the trees by the beach. Birds’ nests were everywhere, some from birds we don’t see anymore. Among the trees and shrubs were wild berries and fruits for the picking, although most were not picked, but left to provide natural decor to the bushes because garden food and fish from the sea was always plentiful. The forest provided more than enough for possums, flying foxes, fruit bats and other nimbling creatures.

The reef you see in this photograph used to be fully laden with colourful coral all the way along its edge. Starfish, schools of different fish, weed and sea grass meadows and varieties of edible sea urchins shared their natural habitat with the children of the village.

What is now largely white sand under water was mostly covered with long sea grass where squid laid their eggs. Parents would tell us to look out for the squid eggs and avoid them. Much of the tall grass is gone and squids don’t spawn around here anymore. In fact, the whole reef area, which makes the whole village seafront beautiful, was larger, richer and prettier than it is today.

Around the reef perimeter was coral of every kind, fully alive and breeding. The sea anemone with its clown fish tenants were plentiful. Other colourful small marine creatures contributed to an underwater aquarium of teeming small colourful fish complementing the living beauty of coral.

As kids we grew up swimming and canoeing around here. Today it is no different. It still is a playground for every child who lives here. It is always hard to get children out of the waters, even after sunset.

The noticeable difference to our generation is the whole reef area has shrunk. The best parts of the live coral all around the village, which naturally extended the reef out under water, are almost gone. Washed away. Bleached. Dead. Disappeared. Even the crown of thorns and a whole array of star fish that were part of the reef aren’t here anymore. Fish are still around, but not in the numbers, colours and varieties we used to see and enjoy.

At its best this area acted much like mum’s garden in the hills. It provided fish, shells, clams, seaweed and varieties of sea urchins. The unique smell of the sea flavoured the village. It was a constant reminder that you lived by the sea.

The ground level photos and the pictures from the air are stunning. There is no doubt about that. They are some of the best sea scenery photos you can get. But much of the real, live natural beauty underwater is gone. We often recognise our own reckless and perilous ways when it is too late to save what we have lost.

The village is still a beautiful and serene habitat. But it was even better, as people of my generation remember.

Some things can be restored and nature is, as we know, capable of replenishing itself. Given space and left alone to regenerate, forests and even reefs can revive. But they will only get the opportunity to do so if we humans acknowledge and change the things we do that are hurting our own Mother – the source of our life – the Earth.

Simon Pentanu

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