in Papua New Guinea

UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination letter to PNG about Special Agricultural and Business Leases

SABLsIn the past 13 months, the government of Papua New Guinea has issued Special Agricultural and Business Leases (SABLs) covering an area of 2.6 million hectares of land. The area of land so far handed over as SABLs totals 5.6 million hectares. Earlier this month the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination wrote to PNG’s UN Ambassador, Robert Aisi, expressing its concern about the SABLs.

The letter is available here (pdf file 60.7 KB) and below. It comes as a result of a submission to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination by a group of NGOs: The Centre for Environmental Law (CELCOR) / Friends of the Earth PNG, the Bismark Ramu Group, Greenpeace Australia Pacific and the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP). The NGOs submission can be downloaded here: “Request for Consideration under the Urgent Action/Early Warning Procedure to Prevent Irreparable Harm to Indigenous Peoples’ Rights in Papua New Guinea” (pdf file 5 MB). The submission includes in four Annexes, PNG’s Land Act (1996), the Environment (Amendment) Bill 2010, the Record of published notices of SABLs issued in Papua New Guinea and a Statement by the Office of the Attorney General, Papua New Guinea.

Papua New Guinea has two types of land ownership: customary land, or land that is “owned by the Indigenous People of Papua New Guinea whose ownership rights and interest is regulated by their customs,” and “alienated land”, which is no longer under customary ownership. Only 3% of the land area of PNG is alienated land 97% is under customary ownership. But the SABLs could change that. Already they cover an area of more than 10% of the country.

The NGO submission to UNCERD states that,

The situation described herein threatens gross and irreparable harm to indigenous peoples in PNG and satisfies the criteria for consideration under the CERD’s early warning and urgent action procedures. Specifically, it concerns serious “Encroachment on the traditional lands of indigenous peoples …, [including] for the purpose of exploitation of natural resources,” and the adoption of discriminatory legislation that denies indigenous peoples access to judicial remedies that are indispensable to the protection of their rights. It thus represents a grave situation “requiring immediate attention to prevent or limit the scale or number of serious violations of the Convention” and to reduce the risk of further racial discrimination.

In June 2010, PNG amended its Environment Act, so that landowners cannot take destructive developers to court or claim compensation for environmental damages if the project is ruled to be of “national interest.” This is also included in the NGO’s submission to UNCERD and is taken up in the subsequent letter from UNCERD to PNG’s Ambassador to the United Nations.

In March 2011, academics and NGOs met at James Cook University in Cairns. The resulting “Cairns Declaration” (posted below) notes that,

SABLs greatly diminish the rights of traditional owners for long periods of time while promoting industrial-scale logging, deforestation for oil palm plantations, or other extractive uses. Most of these industrial uses are dominated by foreign or multinational corporations.

How the SABLs fit into PNG’s plans for REDD is anybody’s guess. But there is little doubt that the awarding of Special Agricultural and Business Leases on 5.6 million hectares will undermine indigenous peoples’ rights and can only lead to a rapid increase the rate of deforestation in PNG.

The Cairns Declaration

The Alarming Social and Environmental Impacts of Special Agricultural and Business Leases (SABLs) in Papua New Guinea

In March 2011, a large group of environmental and social scientists, natural-resource managers and nongovernmental-organization staff from Papua New Guinea and other nations met at James Cook University in Cairns, Queensland, Australia to discuss the future management and conservation of Papua New Guinea’s native forests. We reached a strong consensus on the need to halt the granting of Special Agricultural and Business Leases (SABLs).
Papua New Guinea (PNG) is among the most biologically and culturally diverse nations on Earth. PNG’s remarkable diversity of cultural groups rely intimately on their traditional lands and forests in order to meet their needs for farming plots, forest goods, wild game, traditional and religious sites, and many other goods and services. Nearly all of PNG’s land area is presently occupied or claimed by one or more of its traditional indigenous communities.
Papua New Guinea traditionally has had strong indigenous land ownership, which is enshrined in its national constitution. Over the past two decades, the country has experienced a dramatic increase in industrial logging, mining, natural-gas projects and other large-scale developments, and the formal permission of a majority of traditional local land-owners is required for such projects to proceed.
Unfortunately, abuses of trust with local communities have occurred far too often, especially with respect to the SABLs. SABLs greatly diminish the rights of traditional owners for long periods of time while promoting industrial-scale logging, deforestation for oil palm plantations, or other extractive uses. Most of these industrial uses are dominated by foreign or multinational corporations.
In 2010 alone, 2.6 million hectares of SABLs were granted, all for protracted 99-year terms, bringing the area of land alienated from customary owners in PNG to over 5 million hectares. These Leases frequently appear to have been made without the prior knowledge and informed consent of the majority of customary owners, alienating for several generations the lands on which they depend and have long relied.
It is our understanding that government authorizations to clear native forests, known as Forest Clearing Authorities, have been issued for approximately 2 million hectares of forest in existing SABLs, much of which is of outstanding biological and cultural significance. We believe that these Authorities will promote the exploitation of native forest resources by foreign interests without requiring them to comply with existing forestry regulations in PNG. In this sense, SABLs are a clear effort to circumvent prevailing efforts to reform the forestry industry in PNG, which has long been plagued by allegations of mismanagement and corruption. They also are clearly designed to promote industrial developments on an unprecedented scale within PNG while diminishing the rights of traditional land-owners.
For these reasons, we urge the Government of Papua New Guinea to (1) declare and enforce an immediate moratorium on the creation of new SABLS, (2) halt the issuing of new Forest Clearing Authorities, and (3) declare a temporary moratorium on the implementation of existing Forest Clearing Authorities. These steps should commence immediately while a thorough, transparent and independent review of the legality and constitutionality of these Leases and Authorities is undertaken.
Raising the living standards of the people of Papua New Guinea is an urgent goal that will require the sustainable exploitation of the country’s natural resources and the development of viable domestic industries. However, development needs to be undertaken in sympathy with the customary landownership embodied in the PNG Constitution. It must also operate in concert with ongoing efforts to limit rampant and often predatory industrial exploitation of the country’s forests, lands and other natural resources, which far too often fail to yield fair or equitable benefits for the majority of PNG citizens. This is the interest not only of the majority of PNG nationals, but also of those businesspeople who are presently operating responsibly in PNG.
We agree with the need for sustainable economic development, and to achieve this a comprehensive land-use plan, based on participatory land-use agreements, is clearly needed. Only then can the sustainable economic, social and environmental benefits of Papua New Guinea’s enormous natural wealth be secured for its people.
Respectfully endorsed by:
Damien Ase
Executive Director, Centre for Environmental Law and Community Rights (CELCOR), Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
William F. Laurance, Ph.D.
Distinguished Research Professor & Australian Laureate
Prince Bernhard Chair in International Nature Conservation
James Cook University, Cairns, Australia
Yati A. Bun
Executive Director, Foundation for People and Community Development in Papua New
Guinea, Boroko, Papua New Guinea
Kenn Mondiai
Executive Director, Partners with Melanesians, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
Vojtech Novotny, Ph.D.
Director, New Guinea Binatang Research Centre, Madang, Papua New Guinea
Colin Filer, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia
Rod Keenan, Ph.D.
Professor of Forestry, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia
Michael Bird, Ph.D., FRSE
Distinguished Professor and Federation Fellow, James Cook University, Cairns, Australia
Thomas Paka
Executive Director, PNG Ecoforestry Forum, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
Nigel Stork, Ph.D.
Professor and Head of School, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia
David Mitchell
Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea
Zachary Wells
Tree Kangaroo Conservation Programme, Lae, Papua New Guinea
Colin Hunt, Ph.D.
School of Economics, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia
Francis Hurahura
The Nature Conservancy: PNG, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
Michael Wood, Ph.D.
Senior Lecturer, James Cook University, Cairns, Australia
Paul Winn
Greenpeace Australia Pacific, Sydney, Australia
Peter Hitchcock, Ph.D.
Founding Director (Emeritus), Wet Tropics Management Authority, Cairns, Australia
Andrew Krockenberger, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, James Cook University, Cairns, Australia
Quentin Reilly, M.D., DPH, MBBS
Specialist Health Consultant, Former District Health Officer, Manus Province, Papua New Guinea
Susan Laurance, Ph.D.
Tropical Leader and Senior Lecturer, James Cook University, Cairns, Australia
Damien Settle
Faculty of Science and Engineering, James Cook University, Cairns, Australia
Mark Baumgarten
Conservation International: Asia-Pacific, Cairns, Australia
Mark Ziembicki, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Researcher, James Cook University, Cairns, Australia
Ross Sinclair, Ph.D.
Director, Wildlife Conservation Society PNG Programme, Goroka, Papua New Guinea
Lance Hill, Ph.D.
Professor, James Cook University, Cairns, Australia
Michelle Venter, M.Sc.
Doctoral Candidate, James Cook University, Cairns, Australia


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  1. Dear REDD Monitor,

    Thank you for bring this out to us and the International Community, it has been a concern to many Papua New Guineans overseas, we read and hear about the manner in which the PNG Govt has been doing things without concern for its citizens and following due process and law. The PNG Constitution is very clear about land ownership, it belongs to the people and customary land under the Lands Act is clear, is not for sale, but the State through the Lands Department has a process to safeguard the ownership right by leasing it for the period land is not required by the people. This leasing arrangement is now misused by people in the Lands Dept in collusion with the Loggers under the guise of Agroforestry and where 5.6 million hectares has gone to foreign owned companies especially Asians with a few greedy PNG interest.

    Thank you to the PNG NGOs, especially people like Kenn Mondia, Damien Ase, Thomas Paka and Yati Bun and Hurahura Francis and the Australian Academics and other NGOs working in PNG, thank you thank you so much for your continuous stand to protect our people society and environment.

    For the UN Committee’s letter to the PNG Govt, again that is an excellent work by Damien Ase and CELCOR and partners for working hard, keep up the good work.

    PNG’s proposal to UNREDD for funding of REDD activities was conditional on some decisions and so it is important for UNREDD to look into the Early Warning Letter by UN CERD to the PNG Govt and to see if the letter on the 2 key issues; SABL and Environmental Act (Ammendment) are in breach of those decision/conditions or not and if not then, look at the UN mechanisms/protocols of a UN Agency to another and how a early warning will trigger other actions by another UN Agency, Iam pretty sure there will be protocols to follow.

    Thank you.

    Bush Kanaka Mangi
    Perth, WA
    Land Down Under

  2. I solely view that the current government is tangled in a massive conspiracy with loggers undermining customary land owners through abusive and fraudelent processes, outside the powers of Land Groups Incorporation Act, Land Registration Act and the Land Act (1996).

    This government does not care about empowering the very citizens it represent and opt for Asian/Aussie loggers interests under a separate rule of law! In recent moves, so-called land reforms removed powers and clauses that empowered indegeneous land owners with maximum economic potentials, and placed that on Asian/Aussie logging and agro-forestry conglomerates – a direct encroachment over customary rights clearly defined by the Constitution!

    There is an urget action required now,not tomorrow; customary landowners can survive without these SABLs, FCAs, that has not followed proper procedures and bypassed legal requirements to steal from rightful traditional landowners. We must continue to drum the voice on moratorium on new and pending concessions for approval, these illegal licenses must be revoked outright, and a full commission of inquiry on processes must be instituted. Lands Department, Agriculture and Livestock Department, and PNG Forest Authority are liable for this massive conpiracy deeply rooted in Waigani – it is a recipe for disaster that will soon dress up landowners in labourers outfit on their own land! We want out rights to our lands, period! If the government is concerned about ‘national interest’ than that must be placed on the roundtable to be deliberated on by all stakeholders. Customary land belong to the people!

    On the common issue, REDD+, how does PNG government see SABLs and FCAs becoming synonymous REDD+? They simply cannot go in parallel. PNG government must stand true to it mouth on REDD+ and do away with promoting industrial logging and agro-forestry. There are already enough land problems in mining, gas, marine parks, logging, and infrastructure to digest to mock yourself SABLs in this manner!

    Justin Ondopa
    Port Moresby

  3. It is good to see some public comment and more coverage on the subject of “land grabbing” in PNG.
    This issue needs our very urgent attention if we are to make some headway into halting and also reversing some of the apparently illegal leases which have been granted over customary land.
    In just one recent example, 3 leases were issued on 23rd September 2010, covering and area of 1.25 million hectares of land. (Including customary land of the Nomad peoples.) This covers ALL of their land – not excluding a single portion for reserves, customary gardens or villages, or even exisiting leases on which hospitals or schools are built on. These leases have been granted WITHOUT the consent of the customary owners, and in many cases the customary owners have very little access to communication or information and so are not even aware of the leases being granted. In the case of the Bedamuni (or Biami) people, those of us who live outside the area now have heard about this in the media have been the ones to inform them about the leases.
    The customary owners of PNG land stand the potential of being dispossessed and abused by their own leaders.
    It is time the international community stood up against the granting of SABLs and ensures that Customary owners have the rights over their land.

  4. This issue of PNG Government ‘stealing’ the peoples land,or land-grabbing has gone to far. It MUST STOP NOW! period.

    It seems that the Somare Goovernment is ‘hell-bent’ to please multinational ‘greedy’ organtisations in the pretex of ‘national interest’ and gone to far to steal the PNG peoples ‘birthright’ – their land, right under their feet.

    I am so pleased to see and read about the NGO’s and variouse intelectuals raising concerns on this issue. I (as a landowner) am alarmed, at the ‘speed’ at which this ‘corrupt’ Government is goining about this issue of ‘land-grabbing’.

    I fully agree 100% with the comments so far from ‘Bush Kanaka Mangi’, nogat yu Right mangi, Justin Ondopa, and Sally Llyod. I thank all the NGO’s, Ken Mondia, Yati Bun and all of the very sensible intelectuals that are mounting the fight to bring some ‘sense’ to this reckless greedy and corrupt Government departments like NFA that are on the ‘take from the foreign ‘forest and land grabbing “thieves”.

    The question raised be Justin Ondopa needs to be carefully looked at and answered. “how does PNG government see SABL’s becoming synonymous with REDD+?”

    The PNG governement has itself to blame, for creating a major ‘kickback’ from the very people it is supposed to ‘serve’. PNG Government and its greedy Cronies, have taken advantage of the ingorance of the vast majority of the population PNG far enough. The PNG Government and its Cronies, have taken advantage of the PNG peoples tolerance, to ‘steal’ their land. IT HAS TO STOP. period.

    The concern has been raised with the government by NGO’s and individual landowners, but the Government is so stubborn, and now that this issues are being raised in the international scene, it should be seen by the PNG government that the PNG people (landowners, forest owners, forest users) tolerance level is used up, and anything from now ‘Will’ trigger something that this Somare government has not expected.

    As a landowner, I will NEVER, Never, allow my dependency of my vast forest land be taken from under my feet, as some have done. I will DEFEND my land!!!!!…

  5. The question raised be Justin Ondopa needs to be carefully looked at and answered. “how does PNG government see SABL’s becoming synonymous with REDD+?”

    — REDD+ is a vehicle to acquire ‘ land ‘ please read the McKinsey report and the PNG Government Action Plan.
    As well you could also find Norway’s PAY_PER_RESULT plan for Indonesia and numerous discussions to support what REDD+ is really for.
    The intentions of this strategy is ‘add’ another ‘safeguard’ to the proposed World Carbon Bank.
    The comfort will also give the ‘donor’ the ability to utilise the mass land areas in many ways, one being Palm Oil, logging and reforestation.

    The Agriculture Lease Back in PNG fits perfectly in hand with REDD+ .
    The Agriculture Lease back is a very poor attempt to acquire land , for logging and mining companies.(according to the recent UN letter(here),any agreement since 1984 maybe illegal)
    The terms and conditions for accessing and clearing is full of loopholes for the Logging companies to dodge and Palm Oil planting is the cream on top for the Loggers to acquire “more’ land to log.
    REDD+ fully in all its wisdom supports ‘ Palm Oil ‘ plantations which means REDD+ promotes Logging and Bio diversity desecration .

    Dont forget the World Bank is ‘supposed’ to regulate “legal’ logging. lolo

  6. PNGeans are tied of living the stone-age lives. we need development, and we see this being achieved using our forest resources. unfortunately may thinking PNGeans are stolen of their thinking caps by foreigners. Please leave us along. every PNGeans are interested stakeholders and so what we need is to sit around the table together and find ways to make a development project work.

    regarding the SABL deals in West Pomio, every stories posted by the so-called NGOs have been untrue stories. I don’t need to go through the details.

    Lawrence Anton

  7. @Lawrence Anton (#8) – I remember at a protest against the M3 motorway through Twyford Down, a passing motorist wound down his window and asked, “Where are you lot from?” When we answered, Brighton, Oxford, London, Newcastle and various other English towns, his response was “Well, why don’t you f*ck off back there, then?” Needless to say, none of us did.

    Your response is in the same category, I’m afraid.

    I’d suggest you do actually need to go through the details. But please try to stay within REDD-Monitor’s comments policy – I’ve deleted the last four sentences of your comment because they were abusive.