Post Courier editorial
Is the present Government involved in a conspiracy to take over all customary land in Papua New Guinea?
We ask this question because we are alarmed at the manner and rate at which the Special Agricultural and Business Leases (SABLs) are granted to date. According to our records, 5,114,911.85 hectares of customary land have been leased, much of the leases granted in the last two years.
The laws governing the use of customary land are specific in their protection of the rights and freedoms of landowners, who own 97 per cent of the land. What is of concern to us is the manner in which the Government was handling the development of the customary land, because it raises serious questions about its commitment and understanding of the law and issues at play at present.
People in the rural areas have one big and most valuable asset. This is their land, which is protected by the National Constitution, which is the supreme law over all other laws. The 85 per cent of the 6 million peole in the rural areas can attain true development when they are empowered to participate more meaningfully by utilising their own land in their own name in the modern economy under one rule of law.
This country has been independent for over 30 years already. Over this period, copper, gold, oil and gas have been extracted from the land and billions of kina have been generated, much of this going to the government. The question is, how much of this revenue has gone to the people, the vast majority who live in villages scattered all over the country? It is true that all of them are still living in the subsistence way of life, just like their ancestors. And when they try to do something to participate in the economy, it seems that public servants and institutions that are supposed to support and encourage them, instead remind them that they are not important to the economy. The land reform of 1996, in spirit and intent was good. The lease leaseback scheme was aimed at empowering the customary landowners obtain titles to their land and secure credit finance as well as other help to enter the modern economy. The process should involve the proper identification of landowners, who should then form Incorporated Land Groups and these groups should register their land. The process would tie them to a specific land and thus enable them to take charge of their own destiny in as far as using their land is concerned.
While the law is clear, Papua New Guineans have heard leaders, in particular Members of Parliament and public servants going around to the villagers, urging them to free up land for investments. There are sections of the PNG community and especially the greenies and leading non-government organisations who hold the view that the granting of leases covering 10 per cent of customary land in PNG under the SABLs for 99 years, carried out under the lease leaseback scheme, smells of a conspiracy to deprive the people of their rights to their land and sea. Is that an attempt to bring back the aborted World Bank sponsored customary land mobilisation scheme or is it an attempt to subvert customary land tenure? Someone in the Department of Lands and Physical Planning need to explain.
The Lands Department, the Department of Environment and Conservation, the Department of Agriculture and Livestock and every other relevant government departments are aware that con artists are going around promising ordinary Papua New Guineans millions of kina and exploiting their virgin, pristine forests, leaving them high and dry at the end of the road. Outgoing Lands Secretary Pepi Kimas wants us to believe that there are some success stories in the Lease Leaseback scheme but he fails miserably to supply a list of the projects that have succeeded. Papua New Guineans live on their land. Who in his or her right mind will want to give away huge tracks of land to a landowner company and even a foreign company for 99 years? It just does not make sense. Combine with this, the land reform initiative was designed to involve ordinary Papua New Guineans in the economy of this country. That is not happening. We therefore conclude that the land reform program is nothing but a sham.