In 1989, after chairing a two-year Commission of Inquiry, Justice Barnett described forest management in PNG as being in a state of chaos. He declared that foreign-owned logging companies were being allowed to operate as they pleased as a result of bribery and the corruption of State officials and politicians.
Barnett said logging companies were free to maximize the volume of logs they harvested and exported ‘with little or no regard to the damage being caused to the forests and the environment in the process’.
He also concluded companies were defrauding landowners and the State through transfer pricing and the government had allowed the local timber processing industry ‘to be all but destroyed’.
The judge urged ‘for the sake of future generations the mad rush to export logs must be curbed and integrated onshore processing, plantation forestry and proper care and enrichment of natural forests must become our primary focus’.
Two years later, in 1991, a new Forestry Act was meant to usher in a new period of sustainable forest management. The Act replaced the Timber Rights Purchase (TRP) agreements and Local Forest Areas (LFA) that Barnet had uncovered were being abused by the logging industry, and replaced them with a new blueprint for sustainable forest management, the Forest Management Agreement.
Yet, thirty years on, little has changed to the situation as described by Justice Barnet, except that the old Department of Forests has been replaced by the PNG Forest Authority.
Most damningly, the forest industry is still focused on the export of unprocessed round logs and the same Colonial era TRP and LFA agreements that were signed by landowners in the 1960s and 1970s are still being used today.
In 2020, PNG exported more round logs than it did in 1995, twenty-five years previously, and today PNG is the largest exporter of tropical logs anywhere in the world. In the last twenty-five years PNG has exported a staggering 70 million cubic metres of round logs.
To make matters even worse, in the last three years, 2019-21, 55% of all log exports from PNG came from TRP and LFA areas and just 16% from forests managed under an FMA. Most of the remaining logs came from areas supposedly being cleared for large-scale agriculture planting.
In total, at least 76%, over three-quarters, of all logs exports came from areas that have not been identified for logging in the National Forest Plan and which are not being managed under sustainable yield principles; two key tenants of the 1991 Forestry Act.
The 55% of exports under TRPs and LFAs come from areas where the original logging agreements were signed by local people who have long since passed and there is no free, prior, and informed consent to the logging from current-day communities. Many of the projects are not listed as operational in the National Forest Plan but are still somehow allowed to continue. The Plan itself has not been updated since 2007.
It is the TRP which is the single largest contributor to PNGs log exports. Between 2019-21, 42%, of all log exports from PNG came from TRP areas - just under 4 million cubic meters in total.
Those 4 million logs were harvested from forty-four individual TRP areas spread across twelve different Provinces.
FIGURE 1. EXPORTS UNDER TIMBER RIGHTS PURCHASE BY PROVINCE FROM 2019 -2021. (Source: PNGi Forest Portal. The data sets are from variety sources including PNGFA, SGS PNG and ANU)
The largest volumes of TRP logs were harvested in East and West New Britain and New Ireland. Together these three Provinces were responsible for 46% of all TRP log exports.
Gulf, Madang and Western Provinces were responsible for a further 31% of TRP log exports.
FIGURE 2. EXPORTS UNDER TIMBER RIGHTS PURCHASE BY COMPANY FROM 2019-2021.
Twenty-two foreign owned logging companies were responsible for all the export logging in the forty-four TRP areas between 2019-21.
The single largest exporter from TRP areas was WTK Realty Limited, responsible for 18% of all TRP exports, followed by Vanimo Jaya Limited, with 15% and Rimbunan Hijau with 11%. These three Malaysian companies are among the longest established in the PNG forestry sector.