Land Issue for parliament

Source: PNG Loop

Parliament sits at 10:00 am today starting off the second week of sessions for the three weeks assigned in the May Sitting, and one important thing  is the Land Grabbing Issue that hit the PNG and International news headlines in recent weeks.

Stories of four of Australia’s largest banks implicated in this issue were published widely by PNG Edge (now PNG Loop) and other local papers like The Sunday Chronicle, The Post-Courier, The National, and the broadcast media such as EMTV and radio stations across the country as per the Oxfam Report revelations.

These included popular banks that also operate on PNG shores – ANZ and Westpac – who were alleged to have been funding foreign investors/clients in the illegal purchase of customary land via SABL’s.

According to reports by Peiley Lau, an intern scholar at the Oakland Institute, the Oakland Institute’s Investigation of Land Grabs in Papua New Guinea states 5.5 million hectares, 12 percent of the country’s land leased to foreign investors, were for projects that used SABL to access valuable land.

A report on Lau’s detailed dissertation can be read on PNG Loop’s Special Reports Column where the writer points out that land was acquired through coercion, violence and corruption and without landowners’ approval.

“In the past 12 years, the amount of customary land in PNG decreased from 97 percent to 86 percent. This is because although customary land cannot be sold under PNG Law, legal mechanisms such as the Special Agriculture Business Lease (SABL) scheme were developed for foreign investors to access the land…”

“Under this designation, customary land regulations do not apply, and the alienated land can be leased out to investors. Leases made under the SABL Scheme are supposed to be for agricultural development projects,” writes Lau.

As per this report, Lau also states that despite the publication of the SABL investigation report in June 2013, it took Prime Minister Peter O’Neill until September that year to table it in Parliament.

To date Lau says no steps have been taken to reverse the controversial land grabbing issue – the prime minister’s promise to convene a Commission of Inquiry in early May 2014 via the ministerial committee set up to investigate these matters is yet to produce anything.

PNG Loop yesterday sent separate invitations to interview both CEOs of ANZ and Westpac regarding the issue – with the popular view that most Papua New Guineans hold – that either of these banks onshore had a hand in the PNG purchases – only drew emails from both banks’ PR and Communications offices which had attached to them media statements from their Australian headquarters dated 28 April 2014.

An invitation to interview the Prime Minister via email and phone call was unfruitful.

The statement from Westpac Group “welcomed the report released by Oxfam Australia addressing the issue of improper land acquisition”.

It stated that it was a global leader in sustainability and committed to helping foster sustainable futures in the communities that it served and that Oxfam’s commitment to responsible environmental and social practices was very much aligned with Westpac’s own organizational values.

Westpac’s Head of Group Sustainability and Community, Ms Siobhan Toohil, said in the statement that Westpac continually reviews and strengthens its Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) risk assessment policies and processes.

“Westpac closely monitors customer relationships for compliance with our ESG Risk Management Framework.

“In the past, Westpac has been prepared to exit customer relationships if we are not comfortable with the risk profile of a customer or related parties, or have concerns around their environmental, social and governance activities. This includes ‘land grabbing’. In circumstances where we do not believe that customers are adhering to appropriate standards and do not believe they are prepared to address this responsibly, we will continue to exit those relationships.

“We have been in constructive conversations with Oxfam on this issue and welcome the opportunity to engage with other likeminded organisations to enable us to drive change for the better,” she said.

The ANZ press statement echoed similar sentiments about the environment and social responsibilities.

“ANZ cannot comment on the specifics of any customer relationship however we do take social and environmental concerns seriously throughout our business.

“In relation to the Oxfam report, almost half the companies raised with us are not customers, including one exited several years ago for social and environmental reasons.

“Of those that are customers, the claims – some of which are almost a decade old – have in several cases been previously publically examined and resolved by our customers. However, we asked our customers for updates and we are satisfied with their responses.

“Our social and environmental policies explicitly address issues raised by Oxfam regarding land acquisition and community resettlements, including supporting our customers seeking communities’ “free, prior and informed consent” for land use.

“ANZ has exited customer relationships in the past in circumstances where the customer is unwilling to work collaboratively with ANZ towards meeting our standards, taking into account ANZ’s legal position regarding its contractual arrangements with the customer.

“However, ANZ will consider the issues raised by Oxfam in our current ‘sensitive sector’ policy review.

“ANZ has been involved in an extensive dialogue here in Australia and in Cambodia to hear the concerns of NGOs including Inclusive development and Oxfam, as well as supporting our customer meeting with NGOs and members of the community directly.

“ANZ is continuing to actively and closely review the way PPS is addressing its social and environmental obligations,” the statement reads.

PNG Loop was informed that it would take five working days, after questions were emailed, for clearance before an interview could be conducted.