Giving Away PNG - Special Economic Zones: Economic Development or Resource Grab?

PNG Environmental Alliance

The PNG Environmental Alliance, a representative of Civil Society Organisations in Papua New Guinea is deeply concerned about the national government's push to implement the Special Economic Zone concept throughout Papua New Guinea. In particular, we are concerned about the impact of the Special Economic Zone Authority Act 2019 (SEZAA 2019) on environmentally important areas and the well-being of the communities within and adjacent to planned SEZs. PNGEA foresees an increased demand for land and seascape, which will subsequently be alienated from its customary owners.

We consider the SEZ Authority Act does not require adequate consultation with communities before SEZs are established. The Act does not necessitate Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) before a project is approved. Doing awareness and consultation, and going through a full FPIC process in a culturally appropriate manner should be mandatory. Given the scale of the projects involved and the changes to the livelihoods of the communities affected, the lack of a necessitation of FPIC is very worrying.

We also note with concern Section 42(m), which states that the degree of compliance with environmental laws will be considered in the authorising of an SEZ. In our opinion, this wording is not strong enough and is at risk of undermining the integrity of the government's environmental protection policies. We further note Section 64 discusses environmental responsibility which is why full compliance with environmental laws should be expected. These important safeguards are necessary to ensure that SEZs are developed in a responsible and sustainable manner. However, the Act is also silent on a clear pathway to enhance environmental impact assessments and meaningful the protection of existing biological diversity and conservation efforts.

The language of the SEZAA 2019 provides for the Authority to take lead in the implementation of respective environmental, labour and other relevant national laws and regulations. As a direct consequence, it undermines the existing legal regime in discharging its mandate. We would also question the abilities of the Authority, which is designed to progress the nation's economic concerns, to competently assume environmental stewardship

The land acquisition process set out by Section 52 of the Act may constitute an unjust process for the Authority to acquire land and alienate customary land for commercial purposes; the language of the SEZAA 2019 speaks to compensation packages but is not clear as to what form it will take and if it involves large tracts of land, there will be challenges of loss of resources, displacement, relocation and loss of livelihood for customary landowners which will be significant and inevitable. Coupled with this is the difficulty in seeking legal-redress for impacted communities over ownership of land - a possible breach of the fundamental right where everyone has a right to the full protection of the law enshrined in the PNG Constitution.

We consider the Special Economic Zones will only benefit larger companies. Schedule 2 of the Act provides for a minimum investment requirement for investors seeking to operate in the SEZ which is set at AUD 10 million. The minimum investment required is a considerable amount, which will make it prohibitive for many local small businesses to access the SEZ. This is of particular concern in relation to agriculture. If smaller, and often more sustainable, agricultural businesses are forced out by the tax benefits accrued by richer competition, this exposes Papua New Guinea's biodiversity-rich environment to the dangers of large-scale agriculture. Such a development would also be contradicting the government's policies and programs to promote local SME's.   

The PNGEA believes that economic development is important for Papua New Guinea's future; however, this must be achieved in a sustainable and responsible way that respects the rights and interests of local communities and protects our natural environment. The customary land system of Papua New Guinea is unique and brings an identity and pride to the nation. However, the SEZAA 2019 risks wounding this essential part of our Melanesian conscience. The focus is on using SEZs to again attract foreign companies. We urge the Papua New Guinea Government to not just take action to halt the establishment of SEZs in environmentally sensitive areas, but to require robust consultation with affected communities before any SEZs are approved.

More so, the upcoming two (2) days' SEZ Summit organized by the Government of Papua New Guinea, through the Ministry of International Trade and Investment, is seen by PNGEA members as a platform to propel the concept of SEZ at the national level, without conducting proper awareness of this borrowed agenda to the vast population of this country, through regional consultation processes. The current registration fee of PGK1500/participant limits the attendance of community stakeholders who will be the most affected.

It is the view of the PNGEA that the SEZAA 2019 is not consistent with the Government's environmental commitments made at international climate forums, and that by promoting the establishment of SEZs under this Act, the PNG Government has derailed off course to Take Back PNG, as implementation of the SEZAA 2019 will mean the Marape-Rosso Government will be GIVING AWAY PNG!

Therefore, the PNG Environmental Alliance, as a representative of Civil Society Organisations in Papua New Guinea, strongly urge the PNG Government to reconsider its decision on implementation of SEZs as outlined below:

- The PNG Government must be consistent, fair and equitable by adhering and complying with its existing laws and policies on environmental and social protection in order to sustain the natural and social resources of this country for future generations.

  • All business investors must be treated equitably and fairly with no investor having special considerations.
  • Close attention must be paid to the environmental and social impact of SEZs. This should include, but not be limited to, mandatory environmental and socio-economic impact assessments and the assurance that CEPA's authority and that of other relevant government bodies is not superseded.
  • The PNG Government must continue its focus on promoting local SME's and empowering our people, and avoid the risk of them becoming mere spectators and losing their autonomy by foreign owned companies operating on their land and using their resources.

Let us work together to create a sustainable future for our nation, one that values the protection of our natural resources and respects the rights and well-being of its entire people.