- John Aini is a prominent indigenous leader in his native Papua New Guinea who has won multiple awards for his grassroots activism in marine conservation.
- In a recent speech Aini outlined a number of threats to the country’s environment and indigenous peoples, including logging, mining, palm oil plantations and, most recently, the world’s first underwater mining operation, which is slated to begin production next year.
- This is the second of Mongabay’s two-part interview with Aini at the recent International Marine Conservation Congress in Malaysia.
KUCHING, Malaysia — For generations, the people of Papua New Guinea’s northeasternmostprovince, New Ireland, have depended on the region’s rich marine resources for their livelihoods. Like the rest of the country, all of New Ireland’s land and water territory is held in customary tenure by indigenous peoples, who make up much of the archipelagic province’s current population of 195,000.
“New Ireland’s marine and terrestrial systems have faced numerous threats over the past 138 years,” said John Aini, an indigenous fisheries scientist and marine advocate from the province who founded the conservation group Ailan Awareness. Aini was delivering a keynote speech at the 5th International Marine Conservation Congress in Kuching, Malaysia, on June 26.
Aini said the threats to the province emerged in the 1880s, when German colonists arrived and began to establish coconut plantations, stole control of the land from the local communities, and forced people to move from the high mountains in the center of New Ireland to the coasts.
He said the destruction of the province’s forests through logging began in the 1980s, large-scale mining and oil palm plantations in the 1990s, and that illegal fishing by fleets from across Asia had been going on for a century. These are just a few of the operations that have harmed the province’s marine ecosystem, Aini said.
The natural environment and indigenous peoples in New Ireland are now also contending with modern threats, including the government’s land-licensing program known as Special Agricultural and Business Leases (SABL). These allow communities to sign over access to indigenous land for 99 years, effectively voiding land ownership by indigenous people and also leading to rampant deforestation. They also are facing the first underwater mining site on the planet, known as Solwara 1, owned by Toronto-based Nautilus Minerals. The mine is set to go into production next year, and will be a global experiment to test this new form of extraction.
“Through all of this dispossession, some of the people on New Ireland have worked tirelessly to maintain their traditional beliefs and practices,” said Aini, who is also the president of the local administration for the Lavongai Rural region, which is responsible for the local water supply, roads, waste disposal, health and environmental protection, economic promotion and tourism.
Mongabay caught up with Aini after his speech to discuss these threats to New Ireland’s environment and the long and winding fight by Papua New Guinea’s indigenous peoples to protect their home.
Click here to read Part 1 of Mongabay’s interview with John Aini.
Mongabay: In your speech you talked about how industrial plantations, like oil palm and logging, and extractive industries, like mining, have affected the marine and coastal areas of Papua New Guinea. Who are the actors behind them?
John Aini: Oil palm, they are people from outside. I really don’t know where they’re coming from, but they are not owned by our own people. We are only laborers. We now have a company that is run by New Britain Palm Oil. We don’t know who owns that company. And they are in our province planting oil palm. [Author’s note: New Britain Palm Oil is a PNG-based subsidiary of Malaysian palm oil giant Sime Darby.]
Logging, for example, we have local companies that are window dressers. There are people in the back. In logging, I think you are well aware who’s spoiling my area: Malaysians.
Mining, it’s all the Europeans. And in other parts of the country, there’s China in the nickel. We have Australia, England. Now with the underwater mining, I think it’s a Canadian company.
Do you think they obtained the permits properly?
My country is in chaos. Extraction of natural resources, we at home are surprised when a local company comes in. All the arrangements are done up at the offices in [the capital] Port Moresby. We’re surprised, there is a boat there loaded with bulldozers. They are coming to log. All of this is [a] done deal.
You say local companies running extractive industries are rare. Do you think they have connections with foreign stakeholders?
Oh yes. Like I said, local companies in most parts of Papua New Guinea are window dressers. There’s somebody driving them from the back. The local companies get them registered, [but] all the fundings come from outsiders. In all these things — in oil palm development, in mining, in logging — who benefits? We, the resources’ owners, will live with the aftermaths. And we will live [with] these for a long time.
How do these industrial plantations and extractive industries affect the coastal communities and oceans of Papua New Guinea?
Our people have lived for centuries, have survived on coral reefs in the oceans, and have survived with what we have in the forest. This is taken away by these people from us. They say we are poor people, they say that we are in poverty, but that is all not true. We are the richest people on Earth because we have our land.
Sedimentation is a very big problem from all the logging. Sedimentation covers all our corals. And you know the cycle continues. Fish don’t have a place to stay, have nothing to eat, the coral dies and the coral reefs are like a desert. [Author’s note: At this point in the interview, Aini began crying and did so periodically throughout the interview.]
The oil palm use a lot of fertilizers because the land is not so fertile to grow oil palm. Now we know, when planting oil palm nothing else grows under the oil palm. The fertility of the soil is gone for a long, long, long time. Now when they put the fertilizer, back at home, we’ve got a complex underwater ecosystem. And all of this ends up in the marine ecosystem. So the fertilizer mixes up in the system and goes out to sea and kills marine life.
Do you think industrial plantations and extractive industries can survive in Papua New Guinea for the long run?
Well, in New Ireland, we have one of the biggest gold mines in the southern hemisphere. We have a second one that is already in production. They are renewing permits and licenses, and continue to dig more ores. As soon as a pit is finished, they’ve extracted all the goods, they move to the next place. So, it’s just chronic, it continues to go on and on and on. The same is for logging.
So you see them expanding further in the country?
Yes, this has been happening. You look at what it translates into [in] terms of development, promoting our livelihoods. But that’s zero, nothing. We have roads that are full of potholes. We are still living [under] sago-leaf roofs. It doesn’t matter to us, because that’s our way of living. [We have] low proper sanitation, water supply, but yet our government gets millions of profit from all this extraction.
Is there a movement among the local communities trying to tell the government about these impacts?
We have shut down mines. Basically using the Chief system. There are plants that we put on the ground and that means full stop, no operations. We go to the negotiating table. But then, you should know how we are like. A couple of thousand kina [the local currency], maybe half a million, we are happy with that and we allow them to start work again.
For the logging … we physically go there and seize them.
You say the permits for these industries keep getting renewed. So the government appears to play a role in letting them continue operations that subsequently damage the environment. Can you comment on that?
It is no other than our government. They give the permits against our wishes. They are sitting in Port Moresby and earning fat, fat salaries from all the corrupt deals that they do while we are suffering here. Our politicians and leaders don’t rely on the terrestrial and aquatic resources that we have back at home, but yet they make the decisions for us.
You also mentioned in your speech that underwater mining is a new threat to the marine ecosystem in Papua New Guinea.
From all the other areas in the world, why have they chosen Papua New Guinea? Why have they chosen a strip of water next to where I come from? After all the other minerals are gone, why are they going into the ocean, which we don’t see with our eyes and we don’t know what’s happening? Why are they doing this? What more money do they want? And for whose benefit and who will profit from this? I really don’t know what these people are after. No consultation with our people.
We are putting mounting pressure and we are getting assistance from some very good people from outside of Papua New Guinea. Yet our government is pushing it slowly.
In every development [plan], my brother, they say it’s going to benefit the local people. None of these extractive industries have really benefited our people.Who benefits from this? We live with barren lands, we live with sedimentation, there are no pigs, no possums. And just the beauty of having a natural environment. I don’t know how you feel when you go to a natural environment. I don’t know how you feel when you go underwater and you are there beside a coral. Oh, it’s an awesome feeling.
You mentioned the Special Agriculture Business Leases that allow communities to sign over access to indigenous land for 99 years, effectively voiding the communities’ ownership. I understand that SABL was revoked a few years ago.
This is what our government continues to tell us. It tells us, yeah, months after months, year after year, that it has been revoked. To this date, nothing has been done. Nothing has been done. I took a delegation to go and see the prime minister to voice our concern about the sales of 75 percent of our land. The prime minister was not there. He announces it publicly, it is written all over the newspapers in Papua New Guinea, it was broadcasted in all radio stations, to no avail.
How did the SABL come to be “revoked”?
I think it was because of the mounting pressure they [the government] were getting, and not only from us, but also from organizations from outside. A commission of inquiry was set up, and identified irregularities from day one … when SABL came about. It identified everything, there was signatures produced, there was witnesses, everything was there. The government never acted on the recommendations from the commission of inquiry up to this minute, second, while we’re sitting and talking.
[But] we are continuing, and we are building strength from strength to get them out.I recently heard from another province that the people took SABLs to court and the local people won the case and were given back their land. I know a lot of us are fighting this fight. Some are moving forward, I am still stagnant back at home, I don’t know. It has been a long, tough fight.
Do you think indigenous land rights is key to fighting the destructive exploitation of natural resources?
Yes, that is very true. But we have another problem coming up again, which is the land boundaries [that] are getting mixed up today because of the population growth. We have user rights and ownership rights to land. The user rights is becoming a problem now, because when I go to use your piece of land because of some customary arrangement, user right, my children watch [me] over time going to toil a land, which is not my land. And without their dad telling them that we are just using it,the young people will now claim ownership to that.
We need a lot of work on our boundaries because we fight with each other now over the boundaries. We’ve got 12 clans on our island, and each clan has got a designated piece of land in the past 10 years. It is no longer the case now [because of] intermarriage, migration from other villages. There’s also a handful of people within our clans or our families that won’t consult with the family group, go around the back, and talk to someone, get the money, and invite them to come in and cut off a few logs.
How do you tackle that issue?
We conduct this awareness about SABL, and we have started recently identifying the boundaries between the villages. And get the clans in each of the villages to try to start identifying their pieces of land. But this is going to take a long time.
Do you think the industries hold any power or influence in the government of Papua New Guinea?
You have said it all. Yes. Money goes under the table. Even though they know, and within their hearts they know this is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong. But yet they allow it to happen.
You also mentioned destructive fisheries as a significant problem in Papua New Guinea. Can you tell me about this?
Destructive fisheries is more local. We’ve got the big tuna vessels that are industrial that come [from overseas]. But destructive fishing methods is just local, villagers in towns. Like for example, dynamite fishing, use of poison, breaking corals, these things, but not to a bigger magnitude.
Are there policies that the government is issuing to address that?
There are policies, there are laws in place. I was voted president in the political field, president of my island. And there are sections under the OrganicLaw [on Provincial Governments and Local-level Governments of 1995]that allowed me as president to legislate for the marine environment, for the sacred places and all of that. And so I legislated with the support of my assembly to come up with the New Hanover marine environment protection law. But then, it got [to] another problem. Enforcement is really lacking.
What kind of intervention do you expect to see from the government right now for destructive fisheries, extractive industries, industrial plantations and others that have affected the coastal communities and marine ecosystem?
We need strong leaders, honest leaders. We can write the best laws in the country to protect natural resources, but they are nothing when you, as a leader, you are corrupt.
Do you feel there’s adequate support from the government for your work or for other marine conservation efforts in Papua New Guinea?
I represented Papua New Guinea. I was the recipient of the 2012 Seacology Prize. [The government of] Papua New Guinea did not know about that. All of the management areas around New Hanover, around New Ireland province, the department tasked with the job of assisting us does not know that we do these things back at home. I’ve come here today to talk about and show the world about the challenges we have at home. [The government of] Papua New Guinea does not know.
They are more [on] that [industrial] side than conservation, sustainability. My brother, just a classic example, the commission of inquiry recommended to the government of today, under the current prime minister, that the processes and procedures in which our land was acquired was all wrong. The government is sitting on it. People on islands don’t want mining. We are surprised … that [it] is the government who tried to come and convince us, sign this paper, sign that paper [to agree to a mine].
But when we are doing awareness, I’m asking for assistance, who comes to my aid? The conservation in New Ireland, for instance, is being supported by generous people like the [San Francisco-based] Christensen Fund.
What do you think is the key to getting support from the government?
We’ve talked about this for ages since I started knowing politics. We’ve talked about changes of leadership, changing the prime minister, changing whoever in government. When you try to change them, they are the same handsthat go back in, that get voted again. They are the same people. When we change them, and someone goes in there, they become corrupt like the rest of them. There needs to be, I don’t know, the country needs to come together, vote in fresh guys, get those bloody useless people out, and we start anew. Money is really mucking up with our people, with our leaders.
Why do you think the effort needs to come from across the country?
Because the land and the sea have been part of us. It is our ownership of, connection with these things that makes us feel responsible. If we don’t look after the land, the sea, where are [we] going to eat from? Where are we going to toil for our food? Where are we going to get beds and pigs for our customary obligations? And so on. I have a responsibility to look after these. If I was going to make more children, I should continue to strengthen whatever is there, and to ensure that there’s fish out in the sea.
FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the editor of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.