Earlier this week, Greenpeace activists blockaded a Chinese logging ship, the Fu Tian, that was exporting timber from Papua New Guinea. The ship was docked near the village of West Pomio, where villagers are protesting the operations of Malaysian logging company Rimbunan Hijau and its subsidiary, Gilford Limited.
“The Fu Tian should be departing for China soon and we’re trying to slow that down. We still claim that this is unlawful logging,” Paul Winn of Greenpeace Australia told Eoin Blackwell of Australian Associated Press.
Predictably enough, Rimbunan Hijau denies that it is doing anything illegal. In a statement, Axel Wilhelm, Corporate Policy Manager at Rimbunan Hijau said that,
“The palm oil project is supported by by the majority of landowners in the area, based on a Special Agricultural Business Lease (SABL) in place under which all correct procedures were followed.”
Paul Palosualrea, one of the landowners protesting in Pomio disagrees,
“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.”
Two weeks ago, Rimbunan Hijau paid to fly police to Pomio to stop the protests. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that police chiefs are “investigating allegations of brutality by officers flown into the site”. The villagers took their case to the commission of inquiry. The police then made violent raids on the villages. “What they did is they bashed up the people in the village, young men and elderly men,” Paul Pavol, one of the villagers told ABC News.
Since 2003, the PNG Government has handed over more than five million hectares of land as SABLs. Half that area was given away in the past two years. A Commission of Inquiry is currently carrying out an investigation into SABLs which appear to be little more than a way of clearcutting an area covering more than 10% of the country.
Two years after it started handing out SABLs, PNG launched REDD at the the UN climate negotiations in Montreal. But how can a government that is supposed to be reducing deforestation simultaneously be hell-bent on increasing it?
The answer to that question is revealed in one of the documents produced for UN-REDD. The latest version of the PNG UN-REDD National Programme Document (pdf file, 3.7 MB), dated 28 March 2011, has three paragraphs on agriculture leases:
Agriculture leases aim to convert forest land into agricultural land for cash crops at large scale to foster regional economic development. They are granted to agricultural development companies under a lease-lease back scheme issued by the Department of Lands and Physical Planning (DLPP) as a prerequisite for approval by the Department of Agriculture and Livestock (DAL). Under this scheme, customary land is leased to GoPNG for a period of up to 99 years. In a second step, it is then leased back to registered landowner companies or private companies, and frequently includes primary forest areas that have not yet been logged and will have to be clear-felled before agricultural development can happen.
As of August 2010, applications amounting to a total of 2.7-2.9 million hectares (~9-10 percent) of potential forest area have been submitted under these agricultural leases also known as ‘agro-forestry’ projects approved by DLPP. Of this area, 0.8 million hectares have received a Forest Clearance Authority (FCA) by PNGFA. This area is therefore approved for clear felling for conversion into agricultural land. While the exact share of forest area of the total FCAs is uncertain, agriculture leases will therefore be significant contributor to deforestation of primary forest over the coming years.
The majority of leases (55 percent) have been granted for oil palm development. Following the oil palm projects, the next most common leases are cocoa, rubber and coffee, and large ruminant livestock. Approx. 15 percent are related to combined reforestation and agriculture projects. There is some concern, however, that some of the approved projects do not currently contribute to agriculture development as expected. GoPNG is therefore reviewing the clearance of primary forest for large-scale agricultural development in order to ensure more sustainable agriculture and economic development in those areas.
The report notes a “high risk of leases being abused for timber extraction”. The report also provides a possible explanation for the PNG government’s enthusiasm for issuing agriculture leases in the past two years:
Business as Usual growth path is carbon-intensive. GHG emissions continue to increase, by up to 40 percent by 2030 under the BAU scenario. The majority of this increase would come from increased deforestation from large-scale agriculture leases, subsistence and smallholder agriculture (mostly as a result of population growth).
This demonstration of the way REDD can create perverse incentives to increase deforestation could explain why the PNG government has handed out so many SABLs in the past two years. The higher the rate of deforestation now (and threatened deforestation in the near future), the more REDD money will flow if deforestation is avoided in the future. Meanwhile, the loggers can continue to profit from logging while they wait for a REDD mechanism that will compensate them if they have to stop the destruction.
Can REDD save the forests of Papua New Guinea? Not very likely. A report published by CIFOR this year concludes that,
Despite Papua New Guinea’s prominent role as a lead proponent of REDD+ in international climate change negotiations, domestic progress toward creating an enabling environment for REDD+ has been slow. The country faces a number of governance challenges that have eluded easy solutions in the past. Realising the potential for REDD+ is likely to become mired in these same challenges, despite professed political will and apparent leadership of Papua New Guinea on the international REDD+ stage. Whilst a number of donors are providing support for REDD+ readiness, many of these initiatives have faced significant obstacles and delays. In short, capacity and resource constraints within government agencies, a lack of interagency coordination, corruption and political interference, limited commitment to stakeholder engagement, MRV capacity constraints and the persistent inability to tackle the drivers of deforestation suggest that effective, efficient and equitable REDD+ in Papua New Guinea may be a long way off.
UPDATE – 27 October 2011: Greenpeace’s partner in PNG, ACT NOW, is collecting signatures for a petition calling for an end to the land grab in PNG. Sign on here!
PHOTO Credit: Paul Hilton / Greenpeace.