By Peter Korugl*
On May 5, Acting Prime Minister Sam Abal announced that a Commission of Inquiry (COI) was to be established into the issue of Special Agricultural and Business Leases (SABLs) over customary land in Papua New Guinea.
Abal said the COI would investigate the granting of SABLs to ensure that all legal requirements were followed and that the leases were being used for the purposes intended in the Lands Act.
Abal further ordered an immediate moratorium on the issuing of any more SABLs until the COI was completed and Parliament debated its recommendations. At the same time, he also suspended all Forest Clearance Authorities granted under the existing leases until the COI process was completed. He told us that this was to ensure that forest areas were not cleared where there may be no guarantee that genuine agricultural projects would follow.
The announcement by Abal was welcomed by non-governmental organisations, green groups and landowners who have been lobbying hard to put to stop to the granting of SABLs. Abal promised them that the government was very concerned about the issue and wanted to ensure that the rights and interests of customary landholders were being protected.
Seven weeks after the COI was announced, the Acting Prime Minister is yet to set up the COI and establish its Terms of Reference.
Why is Abal not progressing with the COI? Are external pressures getting to him? These are but two of many questions that are being asked by the critics of the SABLs following the long delay by the Government to act on the COI.
PNG has two types of land ownership; customary land or land that is owned by the indigenous people of this country, whose ownership rights and interests are regulated by customs and alienated land which is no longer under customary ownership. Only three per cent of the land area of PNG is alienated land while 97 per cent is under customary ownership.
The SABLs have changed that, already the area covered is more than 10 per cent of the country. Villagers in Northern, Sandaun, East Sepik, East New Britain, Central, Gulf and Western Province, are angry that the Government had given away millions of hectares of pristine forest under SABLs without their knowledge and consent, as provided for under the Lands Act.
The leases were purportedly for oil palm projects but the landowners, supported by the NGOs say this was a fraudulent way for foreign companies to log the pristine forest and disappear when all the trees are logged and shipped overseas. Concerned with what was happening, they wrote to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in March this year and the Chairman Anwar Kemal called on PNG for an explanantion by next month.
The SABLs covered more that five million hectares to date and the leases were granted when the amendments to the Land Groups Incorporation Act and the Land Registration Act were not implemented. This also raises questions about the government’s commitment to the development of the customary landowners PNG.
Is the present government engaged in a massive conspiracy to undermine customary landownership here? We have asked this question over and over again, because it seems the Government, through the Minister for Lands and the Lands Department are allowing the Lands Act to be continuously abused. We understand that true development in PNG can only come about when the rural people who owned 97 per cent of PNG land, are empowered to take part in the economy by themselves, using their own resources under one rule of law.
Today the majority of our people are living in bush material houses, with no reliable power and water, many have no decent shoes on their feet, blankets to cover their bodies in the cold nights, and hardly drink tea or coffee in the morning. What has happened to the billions of kina earned over the three decades of foreign investment based development? We know that the revenue generated had gone to the government but the vast majority of the people in the rural areas remain at subsistence level, only some have risen slightly above that level. Being poor participants in the economy, they are treated with contempt by public servants, bank officers and potential employers who see them as “stupid kanakas”, and insignificant in the economy.
To address this, the Government instituted the land reform in 2006, aimed at empowering the landowners to start using their land to develop businesses. They were to secure titles to their land, which should enable them to obtain credit finance from the banks to conduct whatever businesses they planned on their land. The Lands Department, entrusted with the task to manage this reform was to help in the identification of landowners, their land and help them form Incorporated Land Groups and register their land. The concept was designed to tie landowners to their specific land, thus freeing up customary land for development, hence addressing one of the major constraint to development in PNG.
The issuance of SABLs for 55 to 99 years lease terms, executed under the lease leaseback mechanism, seems to indicate that the present government is engaged in a conspiracy to undermine customary land tenure in PNG. Rural Papua New Guineans rely of their land for their survival so how could they possible agree to give up their land for such a long period of time?
We all know that the Government, at the prompting of the World Bank and other international donors, had been trying to mobilise customary land in PNG. It has failed simply because landowners did not understand the policy and were not willing to give up their land. The way the SABLs are issued, the critics claim, is nothing but a shortcut to mobilising customary land.
Another thing about the SABLs is that the control of the land is removed from the landowners and put in the hands of landowner companies. This is because the SABLs cover huge tracks of land, owned by not one but many groups of people who have to form their own ILGs. The practical problem for the banks or investors is trying to do business with hundreds of ILGs over the land covered in a lease. To get away from that problem, the ILGs are encouraged to form companies, which then go into business deals with so called “investors” who are more interested to log the forests than start sustainable agriculture businesses.
The COI, we are of the view, was to investigate and come up with recommendations to deal with some of the issues highlighted here and find a way forward for customary landowners. The central issue here is the protection of the rights to their land.
* Post Courier