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Papua New Guinea pledges to cancel massive land grabs by timber companies

Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill, released a statement last week saying that hugely controversial land leases under the country’s Special Agricultural and Business Leases (SABLs) will be cancelled if they are found to be run for extracting timber. The SABLs program was meant to increase development of local agriculture in the country, but many of the leases—some of which last 99 years—were given to timber companies that had no intent to develop agriculture.

The Prime Minister’s statement, which was read out by the country’s High Commissioner to Australia, Charles Lepani, at the Australian Association for Pacific Studies Conference, confirmed that the government intended to cancel all SABLs abused by the timber industry. In addition, the statement said that future large-scale land leases would go before the government’s Cabinet.

Indigenous man in Indonesian New Guinea. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Indigenous man in Indonesian New Guinea. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Following protests and widespread criticism, the government of Papua New Guinea set a moratorium on issuing any future SABLs in 2010, but by then the country had already handed out 11 percent of its total land mass—5.1 million hectares—or an area the size of Costa Rica. The hand out of massive tracts of land, which in Papua New Guinea is ostensibly owned by local communities, led to conflict and worsening poverty as communities lost access to traditional forests.

“The first that many communities would know about a [SABL] project was when the bulldozers arrived. This failure to obtain consent has led to large numbers of conflicts between developers and local people,” reads a recent report on illegal logging from the UK think tank, the Chatham House.

If the prime minister’s pledge is fully implemented it could mean the end for a majority of the now-notorious SABLs. Last September, a Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry found that over 90 percent of these land leases were illegally obtained and recommended cancellation. But the government has been slow to act.

“The biggest challenge is dealing with collusion between corrupt officials and logging firms,” author of Chatham report, Sam Lawson, told recently. “The logging industry in Papua New Guinea is very powerful, while the government is extremely weak…The largest logging firm owns one of the two national newspapers, for example.”

From 2000 to 2013, Papua New Guinea lost over 633,679 hectares of forest according to the Global Forest Watch, an area about the size of Delaware.

A documentary on the logging industry in Papua New Guinea: BIKPELA BAGARAP (Big Damage) from David Fedele on Vimeo.

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