Samoan rain forest reprieved from ruin

A BYU professor returned Aug. 14 from Samoa, where he completed an effort by a group of returned missionaries in helping the people of this South Pacific island nation preserve a 30,000-acre tract of lowland rain forest from logging.

The 500 residents of Falealupo village on the Western Samoa island of Savai'i honored seven returned missionaries in February with a traditional kava ceremony and made three of the group Samoan high chiefs.The returned missionaries who served in Western Samoa, led by Paul A. Cox, a BYU associate professor of botany, had visited Falealupo in February to sign an official covenant that makes the lands owned collectively by Falealupo villagers a national rain forest preserve.

In July 1988, when Cox, teachers quorum adviser in the Provo (Utah) Oak Hills 7th Ward, journeyed to Falealupo to do botanical research, he was shocked to see bulldozers and other heavy equipment from a local logging company stripping the native trees from the Falealupo rain forest.

Cox knew from his many previous research visits to Falealupo that the villagers cherished and protected their rain forest and would never allow it to be logged unless something was terribly wrong.

When a sizeable tract of rain forest, what most people call jungle, is stripped of native trees, it cannot regenerate itself to grow back over the clear-cut area. A dense growth of vines will take over the bare land, and that piece of rain forest is lost forever.

When Cox asked the high chiefs of Falealupo why loggers were cutting the rain forest, he found the village had been forced to make a cruel choice.

The national government had condemned the local primary school, and ordered the village to build a new one. But a poor harvest of cocoa, the basic ingredient in chocolate and the village's main cash crop, meant villagers could pay the $55,000 construction debt only by selling rain forest timber.

"When I talked to the chiefs they said they had to choose between their children and the forest," Cox said. "They didn't know what else to do and they felt terrible. I saw high chiefs weeping because their forest was cut."

The chiefs had granted a local company a logging license that could be revoked the moment the village had the money it needed. When Cox heard that, he offered to guarantee payment of the school debt if the village would halt the logging immediately. The overjoyed chiefs ran eight miles to the main road to stop the bulldozers.

Cox began seeking donations to help pay the Falealupo school mortgage. Donors to the effort included BYU alumni, Utah school children and Cox's students. But an informal network of former missionaries to Samoa proved to be an especially great help.

A group of returned missionaries had been involved in the 1988 centennial celebration of the first arrival of the gospel in Samoa. When members of that group learned of Cox's efforts in Falealupo, they volunteered to help save the village rain forest.

Returned missionaries Phil Goodrich of Orem, Utah; Harold Green and Rex Maughn of Phoenix, Ariz.; and Ken Murdock, Dan Wakefield, and Jim Winegar, all of Provo, Utah; assisted Cox with fund raising and helped lobby Western Samoa government officials to support creation of a national rain forest preserve at Falealupo.

Together, Maughn and Murdock donated $45,000 toward paying the school mortgage. In February, the seven returned missionaries journeyed with Cox to Savai'i to sign a covenant creating the Falealupo Rain Forest Preserve. All seven could still speak the Samoan language they had learned as missionaries. But for some of the group, it was their first opportunity in 30 years to re-visit the mission field where they had served.

Cox said on Aug. 15 that the school is completely paid off now, thanks to a donation from King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, and his wife, Queen Syliva. The monarchs made the donation on behalf of their children March 7, when Cox met with them at their invitation and spoke in Stockholm to about 300 members of the Travelers Club, of which the king is a member. Cox was invited to speak to them because of his work with rain forest preservation.

He said he returned from Samoa on Aug. 14, where he worked with the chiefs in installing a number of signs marking trails in the rain forest.

By covenant, the Falealupo villagers continue to own the rain forest land and may use it for all traditional cultural purposes, but they agree not to allow logging on the 30,000 acres for the next 50 years.

Rain forests are a vast reservoir of undiscovered resources, Cox said. Plants are the source of many disease-fighting drugs, and yet hundred of thousands of rain forest plant species have never been studied by scientists. Cox's research involves the collecting of rain forest plants for laboratory testing to determine their potential effectiveness in fighting cancer and other diseases.

For that reason, preserving rain forests is essential, Cox believes. But he knows hundreds of acres of rain forest in many of the earth's tropical areas are destroyed every day.

"As a botanist, it terrifies me to think we continue to lose more rain forest and the knowledge it holds," he said.

The high chiefs of Falealupo have honored Cox with the Samoan title of paramount orator Nafanua, a teacher who in Samoan mythology taught the people how to use forest plants to their benefit. Maughn was given the title of high chief Tilafaina, while Murdock is known by the title of high chief Taema. Both titles are identified with heroes of Samoan mythology who freed the Samoan people from bondage.

"We were in bondage to this school, and we didn't know how to pay our debt," said Falealupo high chief Seumanutafa Siosi. "Now the village is happy and grateful for this assistance."

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