Under the law, indigenous people own the land they have traditionally lived on and used. But across Papua New Guinea, communities like those of John Aini and Paul Pavol have seen their land taken without their consent through the abuse of Special Business and Agriculture Leases, or SABLs.
The government has used SABLs to hand more than 5.2 million hectares of customarily-owned land – approximately 12% of PNG’s total land area – to foreign-controlled logging and agricultural companies. The leases run for 99 years, meaning that the people who depended on this land have essentially lost it for good. In the face of opposition from communities like Mr Pavol’s and Mr Aini's, companies are hiring members of the PNG police force to protect their operations. These police are carrying out intimidation and violence against their own citizens while on company payrolls.
The scale of the threat SABLs pose to the legal rights and traditional livelihoods and cultures of PNG’s indigenous communities led to an international outcry in 2011. In response, the PNG government established a Commission of Inquiry into SABLs, which determined nearly all the leases reviewed were illegal. The Courts have also ruled six of the SABLs illegal and many communities continue to voice their opposition to SABLs despite the oppression they face at the hands of PNG police.
Yet despite promising, in 2014 and again, in November 2016, to cancel illegal SABLs and ensure the land is returned to its rightful owners, the government has done nothing to stop logging, cancel SABLs, or return land stolen from the people.
Logging under SABLs now accounts for a third of all log exports from PNG. Vast tracts of ancient rainforest are being wiped out forever, while citizens are forced to stand by and watch while foreign logging companies, protected by PNG police, make windfall profits off land that belongs to local people. In 2015 alone, timber worth over US$70,000,000 was exported from SABL areas.