PNG Forestry: weak governance & corruption hurts local people and the environment

Andrew Lang is a farmer and forester, and Vice-President of the World Bioenergy Association.  He's had a great deal of experience in the Asia-Pacific region and weighs in here on his concerns about forest issues in Papua New Guinea:

  Traditional landowners worried about PNG's future  (photo by William Laurance)

Traditional landowners worried about PNG's future (photo by William Laurance)

Around the world tropical forest are being cleared at an appalling rate.  In Papua New Guinea, sections of the 1996 Land Act facilitated much forest clearance (adding to the previously mostly illegal logging) supposedly to help customary landowners convert their forested land into agriculture, in partnership with investors.  But logging companies mainly from Malaysia and Australia saw it as a potential bonanza.

According to a 2012 Greenpeace report, between 2003 and 2011 over 5 million hectares of land, mainly along the Papuan coast and the islands of New Britain and New Ireland, was leased under Special Agricultural and Business Leases (SABLs).

This equates to over 11% of the country’s land area and over 16% of its accessible forests.  Exports of logs grew by 20% in 2011 alone, mostly from within these SABLs and mostly heading to China.  Up to 50% of the cleared land was to be planted to oil palm under the 55- and 99-year leases of the SABLs. 

Because of growing international concern over the improper processes in leasing of customary lands, the PNG government in early 2011 issued a moratorium on issuance of SABLs and ordered a Commission of Inquiry.  This Inquiry made recommendations but left existing SABLs in place.

The improper leasing of customary land -- referred to by many in PNG as 'land grabs' -- is still playing out.  One example is the 200,000 hectares of Musa Pongani land in eastern Papua.  This area was gazetted as Special Agriculture Land in 2010, so opening it to initiation of an SABL.

While the legal SABL process required full and informed consent by all customary landowners, this was not done in this area.  Two customary landowner-incorporated bodies and their Asian development partners are now wrangling for control of the title to the whole area in the courts. 

A third group called the Iris Cooperation has surveyed 100,000 hectares of land within the overall area and is reported to have mortgaged it on the Malaysian Stock Exchange for ~US$300 million.

The majority of the customary owners in PNG are illiterate or nearly so and have no understanding of the future impacts of an impending multimillion dollar 'development'.  Many can be pressured into signing papers in light of glib promises of good roads, education, health services, and cash in hand.  

In short, the prognosis for these lands and their customary owners is bleak.  The world needs to pay close attention to the dodgy dealings going on in PNG.