A Cassowary Under the Cacao CanopyAugust 26, 2011
Noah Jackson — Rainforest Alliance auditor and trainer — continues to share stories from his assignment in Papua New Guinea.
As I write, waves wash ashore. I listen to the rhythm of cicadas, the wind against coconut fronds and my fingers tapping against the keyboard. I recently arrived on the small coastal strip of Madang, Papua New Guinea and, from there, took a speedboat to the volcanic island of Karkar.
Tonight I’m staying on a forested strip of land on the coast. It’s a welcome change from the highlands, and my skin is enjoying the salty air. The island is home to people living in upland forests, riverine communities and coastal abodes.
There was a major volcanic eruption in the 1970s, making the soil here especially fertile. It’s one reason that this piece of land is on my itinerary. When approaching the landmass from the sea, I noticed several humps. These forest bulges are (relatively) recently cooled masses of volcanic vents. Trees have taken them over, giving an appearance akin to the patches of rumpled, windswept hair on my head.
At first glance, it’s not unlike any island where there are coconuts, timber trees and crops growing. On closer inspection, however, cocoa trees can be found peeking from beneath the canopy.
Over the coming days, I’ll be exploring a biodiesel plant, looking at cocoa crops on both smallholder and larger plantations, and discussing the challenges of earning certification with farm managers. There will be some tough issues to address on my visit, along with periods of relaxation.
Venturing into a forest patch today, a forest trail unfolded in front of me. The canopy of cocoa and food gardens yielded to a canopy of banana and fruit trees. Walking in the lowland rainforest, so close to the coast, I’m always astounded at how the world becomes darker under the canopy and the shadows become deep. Wild cacao grows in the forest and — in the shade some fallen cocoa pods cracked by forest animals — gives off a faint whiff of fermenting cocoa.
As I studied the forest layers, I caught a hint of blue and teal among the trees. I scanned the forest, catching sight of a large bird waddling parallel to the forest path. It could only be a cassowary, a large endangered Old World flightless bird. Most likely tame from interactions with nearby plantation workers, I watched as this bird waddled through the forest. I kept my distance, but followed as the bird wandered, searching its home range for the large fruits that it forages and disperses. In addition to its seed dispersal abilities, cassowaries are known for their strong guts — it’s a trait I admire.
Cassowaries are known for taking on extra large fruits and dispersing them far and wide without damaging their seeds. In many wet tropical lowland forests, they play an important role.
Eventually, I got close enough to take a few pictures. The lone cassowary waddled off, and I turned and headed back to my group. Once again, I was confronted with the complexity of the agro-ecosystem, a colorful surprise under the cacao canopy and – in the cassowary — yet another gardener at work.