Papua New Guinea (PNG) is one of the few places on earth where indigenous people still control their land, with just three percent of the country controlled by the government or private enterprise. Customary ownership is partly responsible for the fact that PNG is home to one of the world’s largest areas of intact tropical forests. PNG’s indigenous people have close spiritual connections to their land and must be given free, prior and informed consent before any commercial activities can be carried out.

The recent assignment of almost 20 per cent of PNG’s remaining forests to agriculture leases is therefore profoundly disturbing to all Papua New Guineans.

Over the weekend, I received reports that villagers and landowners in East New Britain, an island to the east of the PNG mainland were violently abused by police officers. They were reportedly being targeted for trying to stop their land from being stolen and their forests from being logged. I was also told that the plane the police arrived in was chartered by the Malaysian logging company Rimbunan Hijau – it is a Rimbunan Hijau subsidiary that is doing the logging.

This is just one example of the massive land grab that is happening right now in my country.

The Papua New Guinea government’s interest in Special-purpose Agriculture and Business Leases (SABLs) has become a very controversial issue in the recent months. SABLs allow the government to lease customary land and then lease it back to incorporated landowners to encourage small scale commercial agriculture. It all started when a few concerned landowners and local environment groups realised that SABLs were just a way for logging and agriculture companies to continue destroying the last remaining forests of PNG mostly for oil palm

The call from civil society groups in both rural and urban PNG for a Commission of Inquiry was answered – an inquiry is currently taking place. But the government needs to make sure the recommendations from the Inquiry become law and that land grabs like this never happen again in PNG.

We are calling for the new government to throw out all the SABLS that are now under investigation. The Forest Authority should also suspend all the Forest Clearance Authorities for all the leases. The rights of the PNG people must come before the interests of a few multinational logging and agriculture companies.

In remote and beautiful villages, like those in East New Britain where the violence is taking place, many people have no idea what has been going on behind their backs.
Their land has been leased to a logging company – using fraudulent documents – for 99 years. In that part of the country, women are the true owners of the land, but they too were neither consulted nor given enough time or information to make a proper decision about their land. These SABL leases and Forest Clearing Authorities give logging companies the OK to destroy PNG’s last remaining forest for palm oil and other industrial agriculture.
I was recently invited to visit the area of East New Britain where the local landowners are fighting for their land and forests. The people shared a lot of concerns about the process that allowed the logging company, Rimbunan Hijau subsidiary, Gilford Holdings to start logging.

The major concerns were that women were not consulted, workers ended up with practically zero wages after deductions for food were made, and of course the devastating environmental impacts that are already evident. Pristine forests have been cleared for oil palm plantings, rivers have been damaged with sediment and refuse and sea grass and fisheries have been destroyed by the building of log wharfs. The older people are particularly concerned about the livelihoods of the future generations. “A foreign company cannot just enter without due process and claim the land we have owned for generations,” said one elderly landowner.

These leases and the logging it allows are all about short term company profits, not a fair future for the people of PNG.

I sincerely hope my new Prime Minister sees how this land grab is destroying livelihoods and stealing customary land and he takes the action necessary to stop it.

-Sam Moko

Forest Campaigner in Papua New Guinea

Image: Pomio Village, East New Britain, Papua New Guinea. A hillside logged with housing below near Pomio Village, PNG. Pomio village and its people are under threat from logging. Credit: Paul Winn