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Drivers of illegal livelihoods in remote transboundary regions: the case of the Trans-Fly region of Papua New Guinea

Sara Busilacchi, CSIRO Land and Water
James R. A. Butler, CSIRO Land and Water
Wayne A. Rochester, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere
Joseph Posu, PNG National Fisheries Authority


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Remote transboundary regions in developing countries often contain abundant natural resources. Many of these resources are being overexploited to supply an ever-increasing demand from Asia, often via illegal cross-border trade. Understanding the systemic issues that drive households to engage in illegal activities in transboundary regions is a prerequisite for designing effective interventions and diverting livelihoods toward sustainable trajectories, but is rarely applied. This study analyzed the drivers of illegal trade in marine products, e.g. sea cucumber, shark fin, and fish bladders, among coastal villages in Papua New Guinea that border Indonesia and Australia in the Trans-Fly region. Mixed-methods (household questionnaire surveys, focus group discussions, and key informant interviews) were applied to triangulate results and minimize denial bias, which is a challenge when studying illegality. Results indicated that distance from markets and economic centers was the main driver for engagement in illegal activity, and distance from a center was also the main driver of poverty. Contrary to studies elsewhere, we found that poverty did not generally drive households’ engagement in illegal trade. Only in Daru, the primary economic hub, where immigrants from the areas impacted by the Ok Tedi mine operations have resettled, were the poorest households likely to be involved in illegal trade, because they had no alternative sources of livelihood. Weak governance exacerbates the situation, which includes corruption, a lack of enforcement, and poor coordination among government levels, and a breakdown of traditional resource management systems. Respondents highlighted that current bilateral border agreements are outdated and cannot account for modernization, a globalizing economy, and communities’ rapid transition to a cash economy. Our findings emphasize the need to find innovative governance solutions to manage this stressed social-ecological system, without which severe social, economic, and environmental repercussions could soon eventuate.

Key words

coastal livelihoods; illegal wildlife trade; mixed-method research; poverty; transboundary; Trans-Fly region

Copyright © 2018 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087