PNG in no rush to crack down on Asian logging giants

PHOTO: Local landowners in Bewani, north-west PNG, inspect the damage from logging to one of their creeks. (ABC: Eric Tlozek)

By Eric Tlozek, ABC News

Papua New Guinea's government has indicated it will allow intensive logging under the pretext of agricultural development to continue.

We have no way to go and hunt, fish and collect all our needs and wants in the forest like in the past our ancestors and our parents normally do.

Bewani landholder Joel Esei

Logging to clear land for agricultural use has allowed Asian companies to seize vast reserves of customary land under 99-year Special Agricultural Business Leases, or SABLs.

Landholders and civil society groups have strongly criticised the leases, and the government has been promising to act on them for more than two years.

But Rick Jacobsen from environmental monitoring group Global Witness said export data showed that this type of logging has expanded.

"PNG's log exports have greatly increased over the last few years because of logging under SABLs," Mr Jacobsen said.

"PNG is the largest log exporter in the world, that trade is estimated to be worth $400 million a year and the country has, to date, demonstrated little capacity to oversee its forestry sector."

The SABLs sidestep the lengthy process to obtain a Forestry Management Agreement, which is normally needed to log an area, and instead allow land to be cleared for agricultural development.

The companies are then able to sell the timber, which is usually far more lucrative than the proceeds of an agricultural venture.

"The loggers, they come in the guise of saying they are genuine agricultural companies," said activist Eddie Tanago, from the charity group Act Now PNG.

"They come in the excuse of agriculture, they come in to do logging. So we see that SABL has been abused in that process."

The PNG government commission of inquiry into SABLs recommended at least 29 be shut down and 11 suspended.

But one of the commissioners did not issue his final report, and the status of more than 30 other SABLs is unclear.

PHOTO: This area in Bewani, north-west PNG, was logged under a "Special Agricultural Business Lease". (ABC: Eric Tlozek)

Cancelling SABLs 'would be a waste'

PNG forestry minister Douglas Tomuriesa said the government did not wish to penalise those operators who had invested heavily in SABLs.

"Some of the SABLs have already advanced their programs, and so to cancel all the SABLs would be like saying all the money that was spent to develop some of the SABL areas would be a waste," Mr Tomuriesa said.

The government, he said, was waiting on a final report from a special taskforce investigating the leases.

He said it would then work with the companies to ensure they were operating legally and with the consent of landowners.

"You have to deal with each one of them based on their status, and when I say status you're talking about how much development has been done there and if it's illegal, it will be cancelled," Mr Tomuriesa said.

But Rick Jacobsen of Global Witness said he believed international intervention was needed to ensure the PNG government acted against the leases.

"Now we're in late 2015 and yet not a single one of those logging operations has stopped," Mr Jacobsen said.

"So we're talking two-and-half years later and the government hasn't done anything to stop what's happening on the ground, which is really resulting in which is really resulting in irreversible harm to PNG's landowners and their forests."

'You are killing us'

Landholders opposed to the leases are tired of waiting for the government to act, especially because logging appears to be intensifying.

"You are killing all of us. What we had before, or what God has created for us, it will be all gone," said Peter Wuni, whose land is in the Bewani SABL in Sandaun Province.

"We want development, but the development is not being fully delivered to the people.

"Only a small minority of people are benefitting from this project."

Other landholders lamented the loss of native rainforest and the pollution of streams and rivers, key sources of food for the people who live on SABLs.