7 Jun 2010

PNG govt accused of selling out landowners' rights with law amendment

5:02 pm on 7 June 2010

Papua New Guinea's government is being accused of selling out the rights of landowners with controversial changes to the Environment and Conservation Act.

The amendment to the Act which rules on major resource projects would prevent law suits being filed by third party entities against environmental damages caused by resource projects.

The government says the controversial law has been misinterpreted.

Johnny Blades reports:

The government rushed the amendment through late last month without giving much notice or room for debate on the impact of the legislation.

It is legislation that PNG's Trade Unionists say removes the rights of people to pursue fair compensation for the destruction of their environment in the interest of multinationals.

And Matilda Koma of the Centre for Environmental Research & Development says people are not being given enough time to absorb the various changes the government is making to laws around land and access to resources.

"Our government decided that they will take all our rights away from us so suddenly. Actually, it's putting the people in a really bad situation because atthe moment a lot of resources are being extracted and people are left with concerns. Our property is our land and we need to be compensated if it's going to be taken away for public interest. They're trying to take away our right to actually fight for that right."

The 10 members of the opposition were the only ones to vote against the Government's 73 votes for the amendment.

The opposition's Bart Philemon says the amendment stems from problems government is facing with Basamuk Bay landowners who strongly oppose the creation of a marine disposal system for tailings from the Ramu nickel mine.

Mining development is important for Papua New Guinea. The last thing that some of us want is to see the Chinese not develop the Ramu nickel (project) in Madang. So we would appeal to the government to hold it back, let us all have a bipartisan approach to it, and come up with something that is acceptable to all parties concerned.

He says the law virtually cuts out the continuing interests of landowners after the government has given approval on a project.

However government MP and governor of Madang province, Sir Arnold Amet, denies that the law takes away rights of people directly affected by projects on their land.

Rather than to ensure that third party, non-direct people, who don't have that direct, immediate interest, do not unneccessarily as it were interfere with government-initiated projects. I think fundamentally as a lawyer and former judge, I can says safely that the fundamental rights of people will be protected.

Still, Bart Philemon warns that the government could be courting Bougainville-type conflict.

97 percent of the land is still owned by the people and they have very much a coveted interest and this is an area in which you have the modern law versus the tenure of customary land ownership in PNG. So whatever we do, we have to be taking due care - in terms of managing the landowners - if we want to get the big projects off the ground without any obstruction from the landowners.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare has defended the law change.

He says project developers must still comply with PNG's strict environment regulations before permits can be issued by the government.

Sir Michael says this process of compliance safeguards in the interest of landowners, their land and the environment.

But he says it would be irresponsible of government not to also protect the interest of project developers who comply with environment regulations.