ASIA-PACIFIC: Foreigners Usurp One-Third of Papua New Guinea

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Credit: Wikimedia CommonsBy J C Suresh

TORONTO - “O arise all you sons of this land, Let us sing of our joy to be free, Praising God and rejoicing to be Papua New Guinea.” This is the first verse of the song that was promoted to national anthem, when the country in Oceania became independent of Australia in September 1975. Much of the spirit it embodies, seems to have vanished little by little.

Papua New Guinea (PNG) has fallen prey to one of the rapidest and largest land grabs in recent history, coordinated by dozens of foreign corporations, from Malaysia, China, Australia, and USA, among other countries. They have appropriated nearly a third of the country, devastating the world's third-largest rainforest and taking away land and heritage from its inhabitants, according to an investigative report and a film, ‘On Our Land’, released by the Oakland Institute and the Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG) .

According to the report, the crushing land grab is happening “with the de facto approval of PNG's government as well as the failure of the country's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill to act on a government-sponsored inquiry that revealed a shocking trend of corruption and mismanagement in recent land deals”.

Oakland Institute’s Policy Director Frederic Mousseau, who authored the report, said: "After years of looking at large-scale land acquisitions in Africa, we thought we had heard about almost every scenario of deception and collusion. Papua New Guinea was an eye-opener." He added: "Despite its own findings, the government has taken no action to reverse any of the 70 land deals and return land titles to citizens. From faked signatures and coercion to sheer bullying of communities, unlawful deals that fail to meet minimal guidelines are moving forward."

The distressing significance of the report is underlined by the fact that the constitution adopted after the country’s independence provides strong protections for customary land rights. Under the constitution, the vast majority of PNG’s territory belongs to its people. Until recently, local clans and tribes controlled 97 percent of the land in PNG. In fact, PNG has been recognized as having one of the most equitable distributions of land in the world.

Besides, PNG’s forests are the world’s third largest, and sustain both rich ecosystems and diverse populations. However, today PNG has become the focal point of one of the swiftest and largest land grabs on the planet, the Oakland Institute says.

The report points out that in recent years, 5.5 million hectares, or 12 percent of the country’s 46 million hectares, have been leased out to foreign corporations. Dozens of foreign companies have signed land deals under a government scheme called Special Agriculture and Business Leases (SABLs), the report adds.

SABLs were intended to enable economic opportunities for landowners, giving them the legal ability to lease customary land for agricultural projects. However, the system has been widely misused in recent years, notes the report. “Although SABLs were established as vehicles for agricultural investments, foreign firms appear to be mostly occupied with harvesting timber on the leased parcels then exporting it to overseas markets. The scheme has provided foreign companies with a new and relatively easy way to open new logging areas in PNG.”

Failure by State Agencies

In 2011, the government-nominated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into the SABLs established the dire facts about the recent land concessions. The commission’s findings included widespread lack of free, prior, and informed consent of the local people; failure by state agencies such as the Lands Department, the Department of Agriculture and Livestock, and the Forest Authority in performing their duties; fraud, misconduct, and incompetence; as well as overall lack of adherence to proper procedures. In many deals, landowners were blatantly misled about the size and the nature of agribusiness projects.

On September 18, 2013, Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill tabled the commission’s report in Parliament and stated that it revealed a shocking trend of corruption and mismanagement.

The report says: “Several previous government-commissioned reviews of the logging industry in PNG show that the majority of forestry operations occur in violation of national laws, including the constitution itself. High rates of corruption and low governance capacity allow the illegally harvested timber to be exported, and, after laundering operations, to enter the legal market.”

Due to the high prevalence of illegal logging in PNG as well as the pervasiveness of illegal timber on the Chinese market, it is highly questionable whether any timber from China or with PNG origins should be accepted under the Lacey Act or the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR), argues the report.

The report points out that primary destination for PNG logs is China, which accounted for 97 percent of timber exports in 2010. Just one year later, the amount of logs exported to China increased by 26 percent. Subsequently, China has become the number one dealer of illegal timber in the world, and the country exports its furniture principally to the U.S. and the 28-nation European Union (EU), which have become the main importers of illegal wood. In a 2012 report, INTERPOL identified PNG as one of the key countries of origin in a global laundering scheme of illegal wood.

Funded by a Kickstarter campaign and narrated by Paul Hawken, the film On Our Land and the accompanying report expose the policies that have allowed for land acquisitions that reverse land rights Papua New Guineans achieved after national independence in 1975.

They also show the human and environmental cost of land and resource loss. Together, they give a revealing view of the intricately twisted world of land grabbing and unravel how and why the government of a country like PNG, with the most egalitarian and protected customary land rights, would betray its own citizens and the constitution.

The government's strategy of "freeing up land for development" has turned over 5.5 million hectares of land over to foreign interests for palm oil plantations in addition to 8.5 million hectares for logging operations.

"Land for the people in the Pacific is much more than a commodity; it is a source of welfare, livelihood, identity, and a social safety net," said Serah Aupong of PANG. "As we continue to struggle for essential services for the majority of the people, access to customary land fulfills our basic needs. The complicity of the government of Papua New Guinea in allowing this theft of land to continue is a gross injustice that demands immediate attention and correction," she continued. [IDN-InDepthNews – November 20, 2013]

Credit PNG Map: Wikimedia Commons

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