Illegal Logging in Papua New Guinea: Land Leasing Schemes Undermine Customary Landowners
Located in the south Pacific Ocean, Papua New Guinea occupies the eastern half of the island of New Guinea, sharing a land border with the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya to the west . PNG also includes around 600 small islands and the country is divided into 22 provinces including the Autonomous Region of Bougainville .
Culturally significant, Papua New Guinea is home to many indigenous tribes. Dense tropical rainforest ecosystems sustain over five percent of the world's biodiversity . Subject to weak government structures, Papua New Guinea, one of the world's largest exporters of tropical wood, suffers from widespread illegal logging .
Aligning with the RIIA's definition of illegal logging, timber production processes violate national law . Predominantly Asian logging companies gain access to forests by way of land-grabbing. Taking advantage of government-issued Special Agricultural and Business Licences, foreign logging companies, supported by investors, harvest timber on recognized customary lands without obtaining the "free, prior and informed consent" of landowners . Citizens of PNG are voiceless in this matter and lack of government oversight allows the problem to continue.
This Case Study explores the impacts of Special Agricultural and Business Licences in Papua New Guinea, focusing on 3 actors: the Government of Papua New Guinea, foreign-logging companies and indigenous communities. Special Agricultural and Business Licenses will be further described in the History section. For the purposes of this Case Study, corporations harvesting timber under Special Agricultural Business Licenses will be referred to as "foreign logging companies" and the Government of Papua New Guinea will be referred to as "the government."
The following acronyms will be used throughout the Case Study:
Promoting development, the government introduced SABLs (YEAR?), making productive and profitable use of customary land . SABLs are a lease-leaseback scheme: customary land owners lease their land to the government, which in turn, leases their land to a third party for the purpose of a development project . Foreign logging companies invest in agricultural projects, converting the leased land into plantations, usually palm oil . In this process, companies clear huge swaths of forest and gain enormous profits, exporting timber to international markets. After depleting their own native forests, Malaysian logging companies are particularly attracted to PNG, establishing operations in a country with one of the world's largest rainforests . Rimbunan Hijau (PNG) Ltd., Bewani Oil Palm Plantations Ltd., and KK Connections are examples of companies operating under SABL deals.
Granted without landowners' free, prior and informed consent, countless modern SABLs are illegal . National law is violated as Section 53 of The Constitution of the Independent State of Papua New Guinea, (1975) asserts indigenous title . Members of PNG's 800 tribes  are distinguished as customary land owners, owning 97 percent of the country's land area . It is noteworthy that communities first learn of SABL projects when barges containing bulldozers and logging equipment arrive . Government corruption, violent acts, bribery and fear exacerbate the problem. Big business and political elites win while citizens of the state sustain major losses.
In the late 1800's, PNG was colonized by Germany and Britain . In 1906, Australia asserted control and years later, PNG gained its independence in 1975 . At this time, Bougainville seceded from PNG resulting in civil and political tensions . Rebellion and violence became increasingly serious; a newly established government could not manage on-going problems. On several occasions, neighbouring Australia intervened, however, conflict ensued .
Colonial views have shaped perceptions of land tenure in PNG. Customary land ownership, viewed as an obstacle preventing development, opposes government insistence on securing foreign investment . SABL deals further demonstrate PNG's historic ties to colonialism, as the state asserts control over customary land owners, negotiating land transfers with forest developers on their behalf, stripping autonomy and self-determination.
Established in 1996, SABLs sought to increase economic activity, benefitting and empowering local communities . SABLs promised customary land owners rental payments, improved welfare services and employment opportunities . Over time, corrupt government officials and corporations took advantage of the SABL process, pursuing crooked business deals . Recent amendments to PNG's forestry law simplified means to obtain forest-clearing permits. . This resulted in the isolation of millions of hectares of customary land containing virgin tracts of tropical hardwood forest for 'special agricultural activities' . Fraud and forgery are tools to allocate SABLs, avoiding consultation and consent from customary landowners .
SABL-induced forest-felling in PNG is justified by economic profit. Little regard is given to the consequences of this practice including ill-functioning ecosystem services, habitat and biodiversity loss. Reports detail of runoff from unpaved logging roads tainting sources of freshwater. The damage of sedimentation in rivers is so extreme that it can be seen from satellite imagery where the muddy waters extend out into the ocean. In this case,it is unfair that polluters profit. Future generations will suffer ultimate consequences of environmental destruction while foreign logging companies move on.
How will depleted sources of freshwater impact corruption in PNG?
Rainforests in PNG house countless endemic and rare species including tree kangaroos and birds of paradise . Continued forest clearing threatens the persistence of these species. Vulnerable species such as the IUCN Red-Listed northern cassowary are at high-risk of extinction following the administration of SABLs.
Does economic gain outweigh plant an animals species' right to life?
Foreign logging companies have a high presence in PNG. For example, a subsidiary of Rimbunan Hijau, Gilfrod Ltd., has business interests in one of the largest shopping malls and owns one of two national newspapers. In this way, Rimbunan Hijau may use the newspaper to communicate with citizens, promoting its business dealings. Not only do foreign logging companies influence politics, they assert control over political happenings. As investors, foreign logging companies profit from outcomes of government corruption and lack of enforcement capacity in PNG. Logging companies employ many faces of the government, mostly police using force to ensure that logging operations continue when landowners object and protest. In June 2013, the government-comissioned Committee of Investigation, exposed countless legal violations in SABL projects. The government made promises to halt such shady business dealings, but failed to follow-through.Reaping great economic gain from illegal logging, foreign logging companies and government elites are complicit; there is great conglomeration between the two parties. A necessary shift away from such a corrupt and powerful business relationship is difficult.
Foreign investment in natural resources has spurred recent and rapid economic growth in PNG with no benefits to citizens . The government collects royalties on log exports however, millions of dollars in revenue are lost every year . Maximizing their own profits, corporations engage in theft, avoiding tax payments to the government, misreporting log volumes and species . International markets have economic impacts as consumers in the United States unknowingly fuel SABL deals . American companies that supply popular products such as taun flooring fail to exercise due diligence, ensuring that the products sold are legal . Today, logs obtained from SABL projects in PNG are exported to China where there are now laws banning the import of illegally-sourced timber . Once in Chinese factories, logs are transformed into various products and shipped internationally.
SABL projects exacerbate poverty and social inequalities throughout PNG where most of the population live in rural areas. SABL-related forest-felling takes away land needed for traditional farming practices. Communities depend on subsistence farming, providing employment opportunities, generating diverse food sources and income. Resources obtained from subsistence farming are far greater than returns that could be gained from royalties collected for customary land loss.There is no room for social development sources of income, nutrition and employment opportunities.
Human rights are violated in the proceedings of a SABL project. Police, employed by foreign logging companies, arrest and beat landowners who defend their territory . Using unnecessary tactics, including guns, which are drawn at negotiations between landowners and logging companies, instil panic and fear amongst citizens. Moreover, crimes against women are prevalent in logging camps.Actions of responsible government include protecting citizens and their best interests. Conversely, in PNG, society lives in fear of the government. Democracy is non-existent.
SABLs strip indigenous title, compromise a traditional way of life and sever spiritual connections to the land. In PNG, mountainous topography has isolated tribes, maintaining immense cultural diversity. SABLs dispossess indigenous peoples from their land. As leaseholders, foreign logging companies hold authority deciding whether or not communities may remain on their land throughout the course of a SABL project. Often, SABL leases are granted for 99 years; essentially, individuals could spend a lifetime without access to their homeland .
Indigenous peoples in PNG depend on forest resources to maintain their livelihoods. Forest clearings diminish the supply of traditional food sources, building materials and medicines . Cultural identity is threatened. Customary practices and traditions including hunting may come to halt as vital resources vanish. For the Turburu community of East Sepik province devastation is clear as sacred sites and ancestral burial grounds have largely been destroyed.
PNG's forest industry has long struggled with issues of corruption and mismanagement . Initially well-intended, SABLs have been abused by corrupt government officials and foreign logging companies . Failing to address the root of all problems, the Committee of Inquiry logically recommends that the SABL setup be terminated . This is not enough: PNG requires political reform, addressing issues of corruption that have fuelled the inequitable outcomes of SABLs. The government needs to prioritize public interest, empowering and supporting citizens rather than pursuing private interests that benefit select elites. A colonial intervention, the SABL scheme bulldozes customary rights to land. New, culturally-appropriate mechanisms, facilitating social development must be investigated.
Progress demands activism and awareness. Recent pressures initiated by local activists have advanced support against SABL-related illegal logging in PNG. The efforts of Paul Pavol, a compelling protestor, have earned him global accolades garnering strong, international media attention . Reaching wide audiences and creating awareness of global issues, NGOs such as Act Now!, Greenpeace and Global Witness also play important roles, giving voice to the plight of the citizens of PNG.
In a ground-breaking court decision, a Malaysian logging company, Concord Pacific was fined for illegal logging in PNG . Recognizing the impacts of environmental destruction to local communities, Concord Pacific was ordered to pay huge fines to four tribes. Although it is likely that compensation will not reach the impacted tribe members, this court case represents a starting point, sending an important message to the logging industry, the government, local and global citizens. With increasing pressure, change is possible. Persistence is key.
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