'National scandal:' foreign companies stripped Papua New Guinea of community-owned forests

Jeremy Hance
July 30, 2012

The beginnings of a palm oil plantation on newly deforested area in Pomio District. Photo by: Paul Hilton/Greenpeace.
The beginnings of a palm oil plantation on newly deforested area in Pomio District. Photo by: Paul Hilton/Greenpeace.

Eleven percent of Papua New Guinea's land area has been handed over to foreign corporations and companies lacking community representation, according to a new report by Greenpeace. The land has been granted under controversial government agreements known as Special Agricultural and Business Leases (SABLs), which scientists have long warned has undercut traditional landholding rights in the country and decimated many of Papua New Guinea's biodiverse rainforests. To date, 72 SABLs have been granted—mostly to logging companies—covering an area totaling 5.1 million hectares or the size of Costa Rica.

"While logging has driven the spread of SABLs, oil palm development has been used as its justification," the Greenpeace Report, Up for Grabs, reads. "However, only nine SABLs (311,000 hectares) are controlled by listed oil palm or biofuel companies. Most companies that hold subleases or development agreements over SABLs have no prior experience with agricultural development."

Currently 75 percent of the land in questions is owned by foreign corporations, mostly in Australia and Malaysia. Companies from these two countries now own over 3 million hectares of Papua New Guinea forest, many of them for up to 99 years. Companies mostly chop down primary rainforest for raw logs to be shipped to China, causing log exports to jump 20 percent in 2011 alone.

The report dubs SABLs as "the greatest alienation of land from its people in the history of Papua New Guinea." The Pacific nation is unique in that 97 percent of land is communally owned.

According to Greenpeace, lax governance, corruption, and predatory companies allowed for the massive land grab. Last year, following rising criticism, the government suspended any new SABLs and issued a Commission of Inquiry, whose report is set to go public later this year.

As many of the forests are logged, Greenpeace fears they will then be converted to oil palm plantations, a process which is already begun in parts of Papua New Guinea.

"A new code of conduct for the oil palm industry in Papua New Guinea is urgently needed to avoid the deplorable deforestation and indigenous rights abuses seen in [Malaysia and Indonesia]," the report warns.

SABLs have not only disconnected communities from their traditional land and imperiled biodiversity, but, according to the report, could also become a massive greenhouse gas source.

"If these SABLs were logged and then deforested, almost 3 billion tonnes of CO2 would be released—this is equivalent to Australia’s total CO2 emissions for the next six years."

The report sees possible hope in a government change-over in Papua New Guinea. A recent agreement has ended a long stalemate over competing Prime Ministers.

"One of the first tasks of the new Papua New Guinea Government must be to suspend logging under SABLs and review and amend legislation so that communities are protected from the rapacious appetite of foreign-owned logging and agriculture companies," Paul Winn, Forests Team Leader with Greenpeace, said in a statement.

Winn, who referred to SABLs as "national scandal" also urged Australia to provide "financial and technical assistance to develop a National Land Use Plan with the key objectives of protecting customary land rights and maintaining forest resources for future generations."

A recent study found that between 1972-2002, nearly a quarter of the Papua New Guinea's forests were already lost or degraded by logging, a situation which has likely only worsened in the last ten years.

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Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (July 30, 2012).

'National scandal:' foreign companies stripped Papua New Guinea of community-owned forests.