One of the world's leading tropical biologists says clear felling of forests on Papua New Guinea's controversial Special Agricultural and Business leases is likely to have profound impact on PNG's environment.
Logging on SABLs has pushed PNG's log exports into record territory. In 2011, 650,000 cubic metres of logs were exported from SABLs.
A prominent scientist in tropical biology says the environmental impact of this sort of logging is very significant.
Presenter: Jemima Garrett, Pacific Economic and Business reporter
Speaker: William Laurance, a former Australian Laureate and Senior Scientist with the Smithsonian Institution, currently Distinguished Research Professor in Tropical Biology at James Cook University
LAURANCE: There is a huge area of Papua New Guinea which has now been set aside for these SABLs. It's about 5.5 million hectares, about 11% of the countries land area and one of the common concerns is that these SABLs which were supposed to be designed for larger scale agricultural development, in fact, in many cases are being exploited by timber companies as a back-door or insidious way of getting around existing forestry regulations trying to limit the impact of industrial logging in PNG. So there is a lot of concern about that. These SABLs could have a huge impact in Papua New Guinea on the environment, on forest cover, on carbon storage and of course greenhouse gases and it could also have very profound social impacts because these are very long term leases that are being controlled by the government. In effect, you are taking the traditional landowners and in many cases they are ceding control of their traditional lands for often times 99 years, which, of course, is several generations.
GARRETT: SGS estimates that logging from SABLs in 2011 will have resulted in the clearing of approx 320 square kilometres of forest. How significant is that in environmental terms?
LAURANCE: Well, very significant! That would add substantially to the amount of outright forest destruction, not just selective logging, that would be happening in PNG so it's a major concern when you are getting forest destruction at that scale you are pretty much 'nuking' any kind of biodiversity that would be occurring in that are. There is the resulting greenhouse gas emissions, oftentimes there is impacts on the hydrology, you get a lot of sedimentation of streams. This can have huge impacts on the aquatic wildlife and also oftentimes has downstream impacts on fringing reefs and New Guinea has some of the most important coral reefs in the world. So these kind of clearing operations have really big and profound environmental impacts.
GARRETT: There are 5.5 million hectares of Papua New Guinea under these Special Agricultural and Business leases. What would it mean if all those leases were in fact cleared?
LAURANCE: Well, it would pretty dramatically change the landscape in PNG in terms of the forest cover, in terms of, obviously the social dynamics, the impacts on traditional communities, in terms of biodiversity. What you tend to see in places like PNG is that there are certain types of forest, particularly the flatter lowland forests and many of the island forests that are particularly susceptible to industrial logging and to being cleared for these SABLs. And these contain some elements of SABLs contain some elements of biobiversity that do not occur anywhere else, and so you definitely would be having very important impacts on the biodiversity in certain parts of the country, as well as on carbon emissions and hydrology and fringing reefs. And this, in a very profound way, could undercut PNG's role in trying to capture international carbon trading funds, which of course are being used to try and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from tropical forest destruction. Papua New Guinea is actually been one of the global leaders in terms of promoting this, and I think, in many ways this would undercut their role in trying to promote carbon trading to reduce deforestation.
GARRETT: We've seen a rapid increase in log exports from Special Agricultural and Business leases. The PNG government has been concerned enough to set up an Inquiry into the leases. What would you like to see come out of that Inquiry?
LAURANCE: Well, it is very clear that there has to be very careful scrutiny of these SABLs. There has really been an avalanche of SABLs that have been granted and, in some cases, it is quite clear that there has not been so-called free and prior informed consent of the majority of the traditional landowners, which is required. This is referred to in PNG as land grabs, and that is how, in many cases they are being perceived. Also, one wants to look carefully at the potential environmental impacts ..what you don't want to see is what oftentimes seems to be happening, when you have predatory, often foreign logging operations coming in and effectively doing a cut and run operation, where they are exploiting timber resources, where the country of PNG is receiving a minimal, very modest economic benefits, and then, in many effects, copping the environmental and social impacts and not getting a lot of social development as a consequence.
GARRETT: The Inquiry into the SABL still has some time to run. Is more urgent action needed by the Papua New Guinea government?
LAURANCE: Well, i think one of the things that is of biggest concern to me is that when the Commission of Inquiry was announced by ..well, it was then the acting Prime Minister, Sam Abal, there was a statement made that there was going to be a moratorium on the clearing and exploitation of the SABLs and, in fact, as you've indicated Jemima, that is not happening. We are seeing ongoing logging and forest clearing happening and, evidently, what is happening is that that was interpreted even though it was announced as moratorium on the clearing permits that had been issued, in fact it was interpreted by the forestry department in PNG as simply being a moratorium on the granting of new permits but that is not what announced. And so, i think there is a great deal of concern about what is happening in PNG right now. That, if fact, while the Commission of Inquiry is going on the foresters that are at work, that are clearing and impacting the forests, are proceeding very much with business as usual.