Loggers still operating on PNG lease despite court ruling

9:28 am on 23 February 2018

Papua New Guinea's government has been accused of allowing loggers to operate illegally without landowner approval.

This comes as PNG prepares to host an APEC meeting this weekend to discuss tackling illegal logging and the trade in illegal timber.

Logging piles on the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea.

Logging piles on the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea. Photo: Global Witness

PNG's Supreme Court ruled in August 2016 that a Special Agriculture Business Lease in Turubu of East Sepik Province was invalid, finding that any logging in the area was illegal.

But a policy advisor with environmenal NGO Global Witness, Lela Stanley, said despite that ruling, the Malaysian logging company had continued clearing forest.

"Instead of shutting down that operation, PNG's National Forest Board actually granted a new permit to the same loggers that has allowed them to keep cutting down those trees.

"By November 2017, timber worth over a 180-million PNG kina had been exported from the area, without the consent of the people who actually own it," Ms Stanley said.

Harvested logs in PNG

Harvested logs in PNG Photo: RNZI/Johnny Blades

PNG's Forestry Minister Douglas Tomuriesa said that the current operations of the company, Wewak Agriculture Development Limited, were legitimate.

According to him, the SABL at Turubu was properly cancelled, but a new concession was issued for the company in an oil palm project led by a group of local landowners.

"The landowners already had their own ILG (Incorporated Land Group), their own company, and they decided that since the SABL is cancelled, let's do a forest management area," Mr Tomuriesa explained.

"So they in their wisdom, applied, the clan leaders decided to apply. So they applied for that concession, and it was approved."

Under this permit, the company is ostensibly conducting oil palm operations in the area.

Yet while the oil palm is grown on local grasslands, according to Global Witness, satellite imagery shows that tree cover loss has increased significantly since the court decision.

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Photo: Supplied

"The fact that it (the new permit) was given out only months after the Supreme Court decision finding that the SABL in question had been issued illegally does raise serious questions about that process of its issuance," Ms Stanley said.

"We think it's very unlikely that the companies operating there were able to gain the free, prior and informed consent of all of the landowners in the area, particularly as they were opposed to the original lease and original clearance permit in that area."

According to local landowner, Augustine Mondu, who leads the community-based organisation Turubu Eco Forestry Development Programme, only a small number of landowners gave the developer approval.

"It is the same people who consented other people's right over their land, and compromised with Wewak Agriculture Development Limited to go and harvest logs, but the dispute is still there," Mr Mondu said.

"They didn't know exactly the root of the problem. They are harvesting logs on other people's clans' land. That is still the dispute."

Anti-logging sentiment is strong in East Sepik villages.

Anti-logging sentiment is strong in East Sepik villages. Photo: Global Witness

He said consultation around the development was not done properly, and that the majority of landowners remained opposed to it.

Wewak Agriculture Development Limited has been served with a contempt of court notice this week by a lawyer representing Mr Mondu and other local landowners.

SABL drags on

Under the SABL system, about 12 percent of the country's land was leased in what critics say amounts to a massive land grab.

It was the subject of a Commission of Inquiry around five years ago. This found that the majority of the leases had been fraudulently obtained, were mere fronts for logging, and that they should be revoked. However in many cases, logging operations have continued under SABLs.

PNG's government claims that it is cancelling the SABLs as relevant departments work their way through the legalities of the process that established each SABL lease.

"The original concept of the SABL was not bad," said Mr Tomuriesa who argued that the long term employment and economic benefits of the few SABLs which established agriculture projects were worthy.

"It is the hijacking of the SABL by greedy people who came in under the false pretence that they would do agriculture projects," he explained.

Papua New Guinea Forestry Minister Douglas Tomuriesa

Papua New Guinea Forestry Minister Douglas Tomuriesa Photo: RNZI / Johnny Blades

The Forestry Minister said that of the 174 SABLs in existence, only around 34 of them came under the Forestry jurisdiction.

Mr Tomuriesa said from the Forestry Ministry's position, it had to wait for the Lands Department to first cancel SABLs at their end.

"You have to reverse the process and the process is Lands Department has to cancel it. After Lands Department cancels the SABL, it gives us the power to cancel the logging agreement."

But government promises to cancel the leases mean little, according to the PNG-based anti-corruption NGO Act Now.

"The government's response to the illegal SABL land grab is the greatest scandal this country has ever seen" says Act Now's Eddie Tanago.

"Even the brave landowners who have struggled through the courts to have leases declared illegal, without any help or support from the government, or have stood up and defied the logging companies despite attacks from the police, still have foreign companies occupying their soil".

As the logging continues, rural communities in PNG become increasingly marginalised.

Forest clearance devastates the way of life for a significant proportion of PNG's population whch relies on forest for food, livelihoods and other traditional uses.

Logs cut from a Special Agricultural Business Lease in Turubu, Papua New Guinea, destined for export.

Logs cut from a Special Agricultural Business Lease in Turubu, Papua New Guinea, destined for export. Photo: Global Witness

"In PNG, especially in my area, the forest is our traditional shopping mall," Mr Mondu explained.

"It exists from our ancestors, through our forefathers and our fathers, and we are still using forests as our livelihood. We gain things to enjoy our livelihood, and it is part of our life. We get food from the forest, we have traditional medicines. We do not rely on hospitals or aid posts or health centres."

Two weeks ago, the Lands Department reported that of 75 SABL leases examined in the Commission of Inquiry, only 10 had been cancelled, and five of those were at the direction of the courts and four voluntarily surrendered.

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