The new land grab in Papua New Guinea

By Colin Filer

This is the introduction to a Paper to be presented by Colin Filer at an international conference in the UK starting on April 6. The full paper can be downloaded below

It is still commonly asserted that 97 percent of the land in Papua New Guinea (PNG) remains under customary ownership, just as it was when PNG gained its independence from Australian colonial rule in 1975 (GPNG 2007b; AusAID 2008).  Indeed, some commentators believe that this abiding reality is a major constraint on the country’s economic development (Jones and McGavin 2001; Lea 2002; Gosarevski et al. 2004).  

But there is now some cause for these commentators to celebrate a new reality.  Between the beginning of July 2003 and the end of January 2011, almost 5 million hectares of customary land (11 percent of PNG’s total land area) has passed into the hands of national and foreign corporate entities through a legal mechanism known as the ‘lease-leaseback scheme’.  This is twice the amount of land which one international study found to have been ‘grabbed’ by corporate interests across five different African countries over a comparable period of time (Cotula et al. 2010)

A study by the World Bank picks out sub-Saharan African countries with ‘very weak land governance’ as favoured targets for what it describes as the recent ‘land rush’ (World Bank 2010: 50).  The Bank paid no particular attention to the recent land grab in PNG, but in this paper I will show that PNG also counts as a country with very weak land governance, despite the protection afforded to customary tenures by its own national constitution.  The Bank also identifies the food price surge of 2008 as a key factor motivating the corporate acquisition of large areas of farmland in developing countries.  This appears to resonate with a statement made by PNG’s former Lands Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in 2010, when he spoke of foreign investors pestering his office with demands for 100,000-hectare blocks of land for future agricultural investment (Post-Courier, 3 May 2010).  

However, my argument in this paper will be that PNG’s land grab began five years before the food price surge, and in order to understand the motivation behind it, we need to understand that what is being grabbed is not primarily ‘farmland’, but what the Bank describes as ‘currently forested unprotected areas with low population density that are potentially suitable for rainfed crop production’ (World Bank 2010: 53).  As we shall see, it is a moot point whether the companies interested in the acquisition of such land in PNG have any genuine interest in its agricultural potential, or whether they are simply looking for new ways to log PNG’s native forests without following the rather onerous procedures imposed by PNG’s forestry legislation. 

In the first section of this paper, I shall summarise the available evidence on the recent operation of the lease-leaseback scheme, with particular attention to its role in the promotion of so-called ‘agroforestry’ projects.  I shall then document the operation of the scheme in more detail with three local case studies drawn from different parts of the country.  In the third section of the paper, I shall use the insights drawn from these case studies to construct an ideal-typical model of the political and bureaucratic process through which the scheme has been applied to the alienation of customary land.  In the fourth section, I question some of the ideological assumptions which have interfered with a pragmatic or realistic assessment of the social, political and economic forces at work in this process of alienation.  And by way of conclusion, I shall briefly consider the chances of halting or reversing this process and the possible consequences of a failure to do so. 

Table 1: Leasebacks to private companies, 2003-2010. 

Year  No. Total area (ha.)
2003 1 11,800
2004 2 365
2005 3 44,094
2006 6 125,901
2007 16 475,618
2008 15 444,140
2009 10 1,154,842
2010 16 1,959,307
Total 69 4,215,848