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Two men's bid to protect a part of the rainforest

Primary rainforest. Undisturbed for thousands of years. Where the big trees are, and birds of paradise stage their dazzling displays among the branches.

Setting foot in this awesome, magical – and sometimes dangerous – world was a dream come true for Ric Edelman and Nigel Hughes.

Their quest for the elusive “big trees” took them into the heart of one of the remotest areas of Papua New Guinea’s East Sepik province.

Ric Edelman and Nigel Hughes. Picture by Mark Westley.
Ric Edelman and Nigel Hughes. Picture by Mark Westley.

They fell in love with the forest and its people. But no sooner had they found it, they realised it was under threat of vanishing forever.

Foreign logging companies were intent on persuading villagers who owned the forest to let them cut the valuable hardwood.

Indiscriminate felling would leave behind a wasteland, as it had already done in other parts of the country.

The Sepik River, Papua New Guinea (38269541)
The Sepik River, Papua New Guinea (38269541)

At that point the foray into the steaming heat and epic scenery of the Hunstein Range turned from personal fulfilment to a mission to work with the local tribespeople to save their forest.

The story was told in a book -Trees of Paradise - based on their journals and written when playwright Ric and Nigel, then an actor, director, and workshop leader, returned home to Suffolk.

A percentage of the cover price was given to Friends of the Sepik, a group they helped to found, towards saving the forests.

Thirty years have passed since then. So far, the mighty trees of the Hunstein rainforest are still standing.

Ric Edelman (centre left) and Nigel Hughes (centre right) with Lucas Kou and Hendrik Assom on UK theatre tour in 1992 (38269537)
Ric Edelman (centre left) and Nigel Hughes (centre right) with Lucas Kou and Hendrik Assom on UK theatre tour in 1992 (38269537)

But there is a new threat to their long-term future. Education in the area - so crucial to empower the next generation to be guardians of their heritage - has all but collapsed.

And now Nigel and Ric, who live in Lawshall, are bringing their book to a new audience to raise as much money as they can to help improve the situation.

Trees of Paradise, with an afterword to bring the story up to date, will soon be republished as an e-book.

The rainforest quest began as Ric’s dream. He was an adventurous traveller - heading for the Himalayas, the Sahara, or the Arctic - while Nigel preferred to bake on a beach in Greece.

But in their flat in Notting Hill, both feeling in a professional rut, it soon became a shared passion.

After failing to reach primary forest in Borneo, they set their sights on Papua New Guinea, where after a string of pitfalls and disappointments they finally reached their goal.

“We found the rainforest,” says Nigel, “then came a terrible shock, we found it was under threat. And then we had to find out a way to help.

“It’s still there, against all the outsiders trying to come in. We showed them that, one, it’s precious, and two, it’s under threat.

“We had to find a way to make them understand that they are in charge.”

They feared the naturally generous and open-hearted villagers would be easy prey for unscrupulous loggers.

“Their culture is that if a visitor likes something, they can have it. Carvings we said we liked we were immediately given.”

But their careers in drama gave them the perfect platform to get the message across. With help from friends in the country’s National Theatre they put on plays that illustrated the threat to the forest and the traditional way of life.

One story that really resonated with the villagers was the tale of Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest - now a fraction of its original size - and how sad the British people were that so many of their trees had been lost.

When they returned to England they knew this could not be the end of their connection with the Sepik forests.

They arranged for actors from PNG to tour the UK to raise funds and awareness. And in Lawshall, where they first rented their cottage in 1976 while still also living in London, they founded environmental charity the Green Light Trust.

The charity began with the planting of a “forest for our children” in Lawshall, echoing their work in the rainforest.

Fellow villagers also got involved, and several exchange visits followed.

William Takaku, director of the National Theatre of Papua New Guinea came to Lawshall to plant the project’s first tree.

Not that the Sepik people who visited England in 2010 were over-impressed by the way of life.

“They said it’s smelly, there are no trees and you treat old people badly. You have people living on the streets and put old people in homes. They called it throwing your parents away,” said Nigel.

Green Light Trust went on to inspire the planting of community woodlands across East Anglia.

Nigel and Ric later stepped down from the charity, as they had always planned to do, leaving it in the hands of a younger team. It now focuses on helping people overcome mental health and addiction issues through working in woodlands.

Ric, who years before shocked his university professors by giving up his biological science degree to go to drama school, continued his scriptwriting career.

“After we published the book about the rainforest, one of my professors contacted me and said ‘how wonderful you are back in the fold’,” he recalls.

Nigel went into personal leadership development. In 1985 he set up an organisation to help people affected by HIV and Aids.

But they remained in touch with their PNG friends. “William died 10 years ago, but his daughter and son are still there and we are hearing from them regularly,” said Ric.

They are also in touch with Kaku, the chief of Wagu village, who used to be known by the westernised name of Matthew. When they first met him as a shy 13 year-old he was already aware a big responsibility would fall on his shoulders.

“Matthew, who took back his traditional name Kaku, is the biggest landowner in the whole Hunstein range, and he is our main contact there.”

“We have had this long-term relationship with these people, and this total mutual benefit,” said Nigel. “But the real thing in PNG now is the education of the next generation. It has totally collapsed.

“Somehow there has to be equality between the six villages. Wagu was the only one with a formal school.

“In the last 20 or 30 years there has been some real hope of teachers going up there. But one of the problems is they are a remote, tribal people.

“It’s three days walking to get from one village to another. If a teacher comes from another region, or the capital, they have real problems adjusting.

“There are over 700 different languages in the country. In the Hunstein Range there are three distinct languages. They are not versions of the same one, but completely distinct,” he added.

All the royalties from the E Book will go to create an education fund.

Ric says they try to avoid using the word help. “These people aren’t poor, they have the riches they need. Their forest is like a supermarket with no checkout.

“We have to give them the education, the power to stand up for themselves.

“The people, particularly the Gahoms, really are the guardians of the forest and the source of life.

“The water comes down from the sky, the trees purify everything. It is the source of life and there they are refusing to allow it to be logged.

“It is their ‘forest for our children’. They are natural environmentalists. It is not only for their children but for the children of the world.”

Nigel and Ric have both been back to PNG seven times since their first visits.

“When we have been in touch with the younger generation, they all say ‘we know about your story’ ... we have walked into their legends.

“There are marked places in the forest where this or that happened to us - where we got stuck in the swamp, for instance.”

Nigel says: “I think what came out of the whole adventure for me and the work I now do was to inspire youself then inspire others, engage, empower.

He has just launched a new venture Outstanding.Global teaching personal and professional development through connecting nature and human nature.

“Trees of Paradise is Ric’s book from my point of view, as he is the writer,” he says. “The thing that I added was my naivety and my transition from tourist to explorer and activist.

“What I would love people to get from reading the book is to jump into their own version of the unknown.

“I think leadership is about going into the unknown taking everything you know and don’t know with you.”

Ric adds: “We made the decision not to edit or original book. It is written by much younger men ... all my fears and terrors and phobias are in there. We kind of madly followed our dream.”

The e-book version of Trees of Paradise is due to be published this summer by Peach Publishing Ltd.