Conversion of SABL leases will compound the illegal land grab

The Minister for Lands has re-stated his plan to convert unlawful SABL leases to another form of land tenure using Incorporated Land Groups. The Minister was speaking in response to a 10,000 signature petition calling for the cancelation of the unlawful SABL leases.

The Minister’s plan is an attempt by the governments to appease the foreign owned logging industry and oil palm companies and ensure their illegal occupation of customary land continues. 

Any such moves by the Minister would not only endorse the existing illegality surrounding the SABL land grab, it would compound the injustice for customary landholders; leaving them even worse off, with their land still alienated and under foreign control.

The government plan, mirrors arguments from the National Research Institute which has been using the SABL land grab to advance its own land alienation agenda; advocated for converting the unlawful SABL leases to ‘customary leases’ using Voluntary Customary Land Registration (VCLR). 

Over the past 10 years fraudulent Special Agriculture Business Leases have been used to steal rights to more than 5 million hectares of customary land from local communities. The Prime Minister has promised the government will implement the recommendations of a Commission of Inquiry and cancel the leases; but now the Lands Minister is saying that rather than cancelling the leases he will convert them to another form of land tenure. 

ACT NOW! has identified seven reasons why the SABL leases should not be converted to any other form of land tenure; these reasons include the denial of constitutional rights; loss of land; continuation of illegal occupation and illegal logging; and ongoing corruption and mismanagement in the Department of Lands.

One: Conversion will again deny landholders their legal and constitutional rights

Converting the SABL leases into registered land will deny customary landholders their constitutional right to decide what happens on their land.

Under the Constitution and land laws it is only the landholders themselves who can decide if they want to register their land and that decision can only be made after a lengthy and intensive process of consultation and empowerment [see endnote]

If the SABL leases are compulsorily replaced by land registration, landholders rights will again be denied.

Two: Communities will still lose control of their land

Land registration will mean the landholders will still lose control of their land with the rights to make decisions given to a small group of people. Once registration takes place the ILG leaders can make decisions without involving most of the customary landowners.

Three: Land will still remain in foreign occupation

Converting the SABL leases will mean the foreign occupation of land continues unless the current leaseholders and logging companies are evicted by the government. There is no indication the government has any intention of doing this.,

Four: The land area involved is enormous and represents a loss of national sovereignty

The SABL lease areas are huge, over 50,000 square kilometres in total. That is 12% of the whole of PNG. On average each individual leases covers an area of some 65,000 hectares. This is far larger than is necessary for any agriculture project. The three genuine leases found by the CoI, which were for coffee plantations, covered less than 425 hectares in total!

Most of the SABL lease areas have in fact been acquired for logging or land speculation, not genuine agriculture activities. Where there are genuine agriculture activities within SABL areas they require far far less land than that actually acquired.

There could be no justification for registering 5 million hectares of customary land as is proposed.

Five: Conversion will allow the illegal logging to continue

The unlawful SABL leases have been used as a cover for illegal logging operations. The Forest Authority has allowed SABL lease holders to carry out large logging operations, ostensibly to clear land for agriculture planting. More than 5 million cubic metres of logs valued at over $500 million have been exported from SABL areas.

A process to convert the SABL leases to registered land will allow the government to continue to ignore the illegal logging rather than stopping it.

Six: Conversion will undermine the Constitution

Land registration defeats third National Goal in the Constitution. Customary landownership is central to the concepts of National Sovereignty and Self Reliance. Converting the SABL leases will further disenfranchises local people to the benefit of big-business and foreigners.

Seven: Lands Department dysfunctional and corrupt

The Department of Lands and Physical Planning is too centralized, dysfunctional and corrupt to be trusted or allowed to administer customary land at the current time. The Minister brought in a new Secretary last year to reform the Department but now he too is suspended for alleged corruption. Rural landowners have no way of approaching or consulting Lands Officers in the capital Port Moresby or challenging their decisions. The SABL leases are just one example of the unlawful and often corrupt activities of the Department. What is required is a total overhaul of the Department, removal and prosecution of those involved in unlawful activity and a completely new system of land administration, not just some token staff changes, before any further land acquisition or alienation is attempted or any new titles issued.


Converting the SABL leases to registered land would not only repeat the injustice and human rights abuses inherent in the original SABL leases it will compound the problem by giving control over vast tracts of land to a small number of people overseen by a corrupt and dysfunctional Department of Lands.

Land registration would actually be worse than the SABL leases as it is not limited by time and once commodified, land can be sold, leased or mortgaged again and again. It is the first step to making people slaves and excluding them permanently from their land.

The only right and proper course of action is for the government to cancel the SABL leases and return the land to the customary landowners. It will then be for the people to decide on the future for their land.


Justice Gavara-Nanu in Maniwa v Malijiwi [2014]:

"For the landowners to be sufficiently informed of the new Government policies such as introduction of SABLs which would adversely affect their traditional lifestyle; more in-depth awareness meetings should have been conducted. This could have been achieved by Government officers travelling to the SABL areas and talking to the landowners in their villages. This exercise should have been done over a period of time, say six or twelve months or even more so that the people were made aware of and understood what SABL is about, its benefits, advantages and disadvantages and so on. To me, this is the true Papua New Guinea way of consulting with people in the villages, especially where new projects are introduced in their areas and especially where SABLs would attract other projects, such as the introduction of oil palm plantations in the SABL areas. In introducing projects such as this which would have permanent and long term effect on their land, genuine and meaningful consultation with the landowners must be carried out among the landowners. This is emphasized by the Constitution in the Directive Principles under the fifth goal, which provides for promoting and protecting Papua New Guinean ways."

"Papua New Guinean way of meeting and consultation with landowners as I discussed above and as provided by the Constitution was required because the SABL and the related activities or projects were going to interfere with and affect their traditional lifestyle, their customary rights to land, rivers, the sea and forests. The SABL was granted to the fifth defendant for 99 years, that is how long the landowners would be denied from the use and enjoyment of their land. So the generations of landowners would be affected. This is why the defendants needed to go to the villages in SABL areas and talk to the landowners, in their families clans and tribes, in the languages they could understand. If they did understand English, Pidgin or Motu, then use interpreters to interpret things in their own languages. This to me is the Papua New Guinean way of consultation and making awareness to the landowners as envisaged by s. 5 of the Constitution. By doing things this way, people and their cultures will be recognized, acknowledged and respected."