People's resistance has been met with violence and intimidation. In a number of cases, local villagers resisting these land deals through peaceful protests have been arrested, beaten, or relocated
"It's like the rug has been pulled from under our feet." Ana Sipona is a landowner in West Pomio, in Papua New Guinea, an area that has been devastated by logging and palm oil operations in recent years. Dozens of foreign companies have signed land deals under a government scheme - Special Agriculture and Business Leases (SABLs) - that has allowed them access to a vast expanse of land and forest resources all over the Pacific country.
A wealth of biodiversity sustaining millions
With over 800 indigenous languages spoken, forests and waters teeming with more than 20,000 species of plants, 2,000 species of trees, and 700 species of birds, Papua New Guinea is one of the most diverse countries in the world. Historically, this abundance has been one of the country's greatest assets. Most Papua New Guineans have been able to maintain traditional lifestyles based on a mix of cash crops and subsistence agriculture, hunting, fishing, and gathering. Until recently, 97% of the country's land was maintained under customary ownership, a system in which the land is owned and controlled by the clans and the tribes who live on it. Most people live in small communities of a few hundred villagers who maintain intimate relationships with the land and natural resources. Rural families get their income from the sale of produce from family gardens, forest products, and small-scale cash crops such as cocoa, coconut, vanilla, betel nut, and coffee.
This treasure of biodiversity and the livelihoods of millions is now threatened by this new wave of land grabbing. Some 5.5 million hectares of land have been leased through the SABL scheme. Most were signed without the consent of local communities. Added to pre-existing logging concessions, over 15 million hectares-more than one third of the country-are now in the hands of foreign firms. The country has now surpassed Malaysia as the world's top exporter of tropical wood.
People's resistance to the theft of their land and forest
Ana Sipona is one of the many citizens who have mobilized their communities and are standing up to their own government and the loggers, to protect their land, their forests, and their livelihoods. Taking On the Logging Pirates, a new report from the Oakland Institute, features some of the leading figures in this struggle who all share their experience of resistance.
The testimonies tell the story of the steady destruction of traditions and natural landscape and describe the impact on people's livelihoods. They also recount the various forms of resistance, including public protests, roadblocks, civil disobedience, petitions, and court cases to have their land returned to them.
People's resistance has been met with violence and intimidation. In a number of cases, local villagers resisting these land deals through peaceful protests have been arrested, beaten, or relocated. Paul Pavol, from West Pomio, shares the hardship faced by his community: "We, the landowners, continued to set up road blockades and invited international organizations to help us get support for our cause, but we are still waiting for justice ...
"Police have confronted our families and clan members, intimidating us and suppressing our rights. Some of our community members faced police brutality. They used abusive language, belted us with sticks, made us stand under the hot sun for hours, and arrested us. We were treated like animals and second-class citizens on our own land."
People resisting the theft of their land and destruction of the environment reject the deceitful development rhetoric of the government, conveniently used to take away people's land and forests. The government's official strategy is to "free up land for development", which justifies taking people's land for the so-called development of the country.
The land defenders advocate for a model of development that respects people, their culture and values, and their natural environment. Communities are rising up against the inaction and complicity of their own government and call on their leaders to stand with the people instead of foreign firms that have inflicted corruption, conflict, and devastation.
Palm oil is not bringing development
Research conducted by the Oakland Institute has revealed that these land deals are not benefitting the people or the economy of PNG. In Kimbe, West New Britain Province, Rose Avusi explains: "I don't see any benefit to the community. There is no education facility, no health services. The price of oil palm is still very low, so it doesn't bring any benefit to the people or any change to their lives."
Though palm oil operations have been going on for decades in West New Britain, there is still no sign of improved living conditions or ‘development' for the people. Whereas these so-called investments have a high human and environmental cost, economic benefits appear to be marginal, especially given widespread financial malpractice and tax evasion.
Most important, these land deals are taking place against the will of the people and in violation of the country's laws and of its constitution, which is supposed to protect customary land rights and sets self-reliance, sovereignty, and the sustainable management of natural resources as the overarching principles for the country.
Lack of action on the Commission of Inquiry's findings
In May 2011, the government established a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) to look into the operations behind the SABLs. The CoI report released in 2013 details how the majority of the land deals were granted illegally, without proper informed consent, or granted under threat, intimidation, or bribery. As confirmed during the Institute's field research, land deals involved all sorts of irregularities, including faked signatures and coercion or sheer bullying of communities. When presenting the CoI report to the parliament in 2013, the country's prime minister, Peter O'Neill, said that the report revealed a shocking trend of corruption and mismanagement and that the program had, in his own words, "failed miserably". He later announced that all illegal land deals would be cancelled and the land returned to the people.
Three years later, the government has taken no action to reverse any of the 70 land deals and return land titles to landowners.
This land grab is stoppable
With one third of the land in the hands of foreign corporations and the struggle on the ground so unequal and unfair, the good news is that this land grab is stoppable.
Following the Oakland Institute report that provided clear evidence that timber companies in the country were evading taxes while engaging in illegal practices, in November 2016, the government acted on the findings by substantially increasing in the log export tax. This action is expected to reduce logging and deforestation in PNG, and was a direct result of the public outrage and citizens' mobilization against illegal logging and corruption.
On the legal front, local communities have scored several victories against the logging firms and palm oil conglomerates. Legal action to wrest control of the land back to its rightful owners was successful in 2014, when a National Court ruled in favor of returning 38,000 hectares in Oro Province following a suit by landowners. In September 2016, a court decision in East New Britain Province and a Supreme Court ruling on an SABL in East Sepik Province returned a total of 150,000 hectares. Nevertheless, these figures are still far from the millions of hectares stolen from the people of Papua New Guinea.
Governor Gary Juffa of Oro Province however carries this message of hope forward, stating: "The country is rising up to defeat the pirates. Of course, there is hope. Not all are convinced that greed and profit are the only way of life. Many are realizing that the forests are them. Lose the forests, lose yourself. They are rising up. Their sons and daughters are learning to live in this ruthless and globalized world. The forests will not be lost. The pirates' days are numbered... The forest, as it has always done, will reclaim its territory."
Frédéric Mousseau is the Policy Director at the Oakland Institute where he coordinates the Institute's research and advocacy activities on land investment, food security and agriculture. He has authored several reports around land deals and logging in Papua New Guinea, available at Oakland Institute
The Oakland Institute reports and film on Papua New Guinea:
On Our Land: Modern Land Grabs Reversing Independence in Papua New Guinea Land Grabs
The Great Timber Heist: The Logging Industry in Papua New Guinea Timber Heist
Taking On the Logging Pirates: Land Defenders in Papua New Guinea Speak Out! Speaking Out
On Our Land: Watch the Film