A major scandal involving the destruction of forests and the abuse of human rights is rapidly unfolding in my country. Right now, I am on the Greenpeace ship Esperanza, at the heart of it.

This morning, activists painted "stop the land grab" on the side of a ship loading timber from land that has been taken from the local communities, and bound for China. The activity was met with hostility from the logging company but welcomed by local communities who want to see an end to a new lease system called 'Special-purpose Agriculture and Business leases' or SABLs.

Before sunbreak yesterday, the Esperanza arrived in a remote and beautiful part of PNG called Pomio district. I’m grateful to finally be here but see many challenges in store over the next few days. Behind this scenic paradise is a community in despair. The local landowners of Pomio have had their land taken away by a logging company frequently accused of corruption, and their government is letting it happen.

When we arrived, were greeted by taskforce police who requested to board the ship. We said no thanks and sent our chopper out to meet the landowners we had come here to support.

When we landed on shore we were met by over 200 landowners and their families who had converged from ten local villages to hold a peaceful protest on the logging road. They held up banners reading ‘save our customary land’ and ‘stop the land grab’. Some had walked miles through the forest to share their concerns.

The Pomio story is not unique today in PNG.

We also met some local kids – they were three and four years old. Their names had allegedly been falsely used by the logging company to gain a logging lease. The lease signs over their community’s land for 99 years and their forests forever.

A new lease system – known as special-purpose agriculture and business leases or SABLs – will destroy over 5 million hectares of PNG’s remaining forests and, along with it, the homes and livelihoods of hundreds of traditional communities. Already over 60% of PNG’s diverse rainforests have been destroyed by industrial logging and agriculture. With the SABL system, the situation has become even more critical.

Stolen forests protest in PNG

Round logs ready for loading on a cargo ship bound for China. East New Britain province, Papua New Guinea, 23rd October 2011. Local Pomio landowners are protesting against the biggest land grab in PNG history. Under a lease system called SABLs (special agricultural and business leases) forests are being destroyed and customary land is being stolen. Photo: Paul Hilton / Greenpeacezoom

The Esperanza and local landowners take action against forest crime in Papua New Guinea (PNG).


How do SABLs work?

Most of the land in Papua New Guinea is held under customary ownership by communities. The government leases the land from these communities and then lends it to corporate entities, often foreign-owned logging and agriculture corporations. Most SABLs run for 99 years and alienate customary owners who can only remain on their land at the discretion of the leaseholder.

“Our land has been stolen and our forests are being destroyed and no one asked our permission. These SABL leases must be stopped or my people will lose our livelihoods for 99 years and our forests forever,” said Paul Palosualrea, a landowner leading today’s protests in Pomio.

A web of scandal

Two weeks ago, the notorious Malaysia logging company, Rimbunan Hijau, is reported to have paid police to fly into Pomio villages and silence the protesters. They are alleged to have abused people with fan belts and sticks and locked young men in shipping containers.

Like many leases, there are allegations that the Pomio SABL was obtained through fraud and many of the names said to have approved the lease were of local children - one was as young as three.

Greenpeace is working with a coalition of landowners, NGOs, civil society groups and a local timber union in PNG. Together we’re calling for an end to all destructive and fraudulent SABLs and the protection of PNG’s forests and landowners’ rights. The action today will place further pressure on the new PNG Prime Minister, Peter O’Neil, to end this devastating land grab.

The logging companies promise much needed roads and health services but all they deliver are dirty rivers and destroyed forests. The new PNG government must choose the rights of its people over company profits. This massive land grab has to stop.

Sign ACT NOW’s petition calling for an end to the land grab in PNG

(ACT NOW is a Greenpeace NGO partner in PNG)

Sam Moko, Greenpeace PNG forests campaigner, PNG