Will SABL go ?

By Nalau Bingeding

I, just like everyone else who has an interest in Special Purpose Agriculture Business Leases (SABLs), want to see SABLs outlawed in this country.  However, when it comes to the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on SABLs, I do not have any high expectations about the outcome of that inquiry.

This is simply because the SABL concept is well embedded in several legislations and involves some highly technical issues, thus the removal of SABLs may not be that easy as some people would like to think.

These highly technical issues need to be addressed by professionals who are well versed with forestry and agriculture issues. It is not for lawyers, economists or any other learnt persons who claim to know about SABLs to address.

The SABL concept is complex, and even if we try to remove it through the SABL CoI, I am afraid we may not totally uproot the whole SABL plant. We may remove the aboveground SABL plant, but the roots will remain and sprout later on, giving rise to the concept in another form.

I appeared before the CoI on SABLs as part of the National Research Institute (NRI) and National Land Development Program (NLDP) team. There were a few of us that appeared before Commissioner John Numapo, but Esekia Warvi of the NLDP took the box while the rest of us observed from the back.

I do not recall much of what Commissioner Numapo asked Esekia Warvi that day, but the last question was the most significant to me and I remember it vividly. To conclude our session, Commissioner Numapo asked Esekia a simple but significant question. The question was, “If we are to do away with SABLs, what mechanism is available for us to acquire land for agricultural developments in PNG?

I walked away that day pondering about the last question posed by Commissioner Numapo to Esekia Warvi. That question did not sit well in my gut that day.  Back at the office, I dug deep into my notes and other work on SABLs. I tried to find answers to the question posed by Commissioner Numapo, but the more I dug in, I found myself faced with more issues.

Thus I realised that the SABL issue was more complex than I had anticipated.

I have no idea why there is a delay in the tabling of the SABL CoI report in parliament. But assuming the three commissioners are faced with the issues I am faced with, I can understand the dilemma they are in and why they have not tabled the SABL CoI report so soon.

Every Tom, Dick and Harry, Jane, Jill and Mary in this country is pointing fingers at the Department of Lands and Physical Planning (DLPP) for all the SABL issues. The poor guys in DLPP have copped all the blame for SABLs and have been branded as being corrupt, selling off customary lands to international corporations for 99 year leases.

On close examination, one will find that the SABL concept was not originally invented in the DLPP, and SABLs are not usually initiated at the DLPP. SABLs are usually initiated elsewhere and then they eventually land in the DLPP for the issuance of land titles.

The stakeholder responsible for initiating an SABL is not always obvious to public view, thus it cannot be under public scrutiny. But the DLPP is always under public scrutiny because they issue land titles, therefore it is obvious to blame DLPP for all the SABL issues.

Poor DLPP cops all the blame for SABLs while culprits that initiate SABLs slip off quietly into the night without being seen. These culprits are in the public service, in private companies or simply hang around government offices at Waigani to eat scraps that fall from their political master’s table.

If one takes a look at the chain of actions to which SABLs go through, you will find that there is no well defined process within the government system to which an SABL can be granted. The process is arbitrary and SABLs can be initiated anywhere and pushed through any channel along the chain of actions that exist in the system.

If there is any blockage within one channel along the chain of actions in the system, an SABL proposal can be withdrawn and pushed through another channel. This process is usually attempted several times until the proposed SABL finally finds its way through the system. In cases where SABLs had been thrown out by the courts, these SABLs usually find their way back into the system after some years through other channels.

Moreover, the number of stakeholders involved in the SABL process is usually variable, and can involve a few to many stakeholders. In one SABL that I investigated, I found as many as 12 stakeholders involved.

Many of the stakeholders involved were genuine and had jurisdictions to administer processes and enforce laws that are relevant to the SABL concept. In addition to that, I found that some stakeholders who had no jurisdictions to administer any processes or enforce any laws in regard to SABLs were also involved.

The involvement of stakeholders who have no jurisdictions to administer processes or enforce laws in terms of SABLs can be considered illegal, but these guys are merely used to add weight to the processing of an SABL proposal. That is the way the SABL concept has been designed to work in this country, and this demonstrates how complex the issue is.

The DLPP is a legal stakeholder in the SABL process, but since the SABL process is arbitrary, the department can come in and play its role at the begining, in the middle or at the end of the process. In most cases, the DLPP usually comes in at the end of the SABL process instead of coming in at the beginning.

Being at the end of the process usually lands the DLPP in hot soup due to the issuance of land titles. The department cops the blame for an SABL while stakeholders in the middle and at the beginning of the process get away without any blemish.

While the poor guys at DLPP have copped most of the blame for the issuance of SABLs over the years, they are usually under bureaucratic or political pressure in most cases to process an SABL because all the other formalities have been fulfilled by the other stakeholders, and they are simply required to put in the finishing touches to the whole process.

SABLs usually involve what are known as Agroforestry Projects, but who has the jurisdiction to administer Agroforestry Projects is an enigma. Do Agroforestry Projects come under the Papua New Guinea Forest Authority (PNGFA)? Do Agroforestry Projects come under the Department of Agriculture and Livestock (DAL)? Do Agroforestry Projects come under the DLPP?

If you go to PNGFA and inquire on Agroforestry Projects, they will refer you to DAL. If you go to DAL, they will refer you to DLPP, and the blame game keeps shifting in a vicious circle. I have been through the experience and I know about the blame game.

SABLs not only involve issues of policy and legislative significance. Issues of technical importance within the agriculture and forestry sectors are also significant and need to be addressed. These technical issues are not discussed here for want of space, but they need to be addressed through other means rather than the media.

The current land reforms, of which I was once a staunch supporter of while employed at NRI, provide very little protection against SABLs. Under the curent land reform, you simply go through the new system by incorporating your land group and registering your customary land group for economic activities. But when you come out the other side, the SABL concept is waiting for you under the old system. The Land Act 1996, the Forestry Act 1992, the Environment Act 2000 and others are all waiting for you under the old system after you go through the new system, and all these Acts facilitate the granting of an SABL.

The SABL concept has been grossly abused. It has been used to acquire land for urban developments, gravel pits, laying of pipelines, constructing public utilities and many more. However, the concept was originally invented to acquire customary land for medium to large scale agriculture developments.

It did not take some 1 or 2 years for the SABL concept to be incorporated into our bureaucratic and political systems in this country. The concept was incorporated into the system after the Barnett Inquiry into the forestry sector and the establishment of the Forestry Act 1992. Therefore, it has taken many years for the SABL concept to be slowly but thoroughly incorporated into the system.

There is a saying that goes like this. If the policeman is to catch the criminal, he has to be one step ahead of the criminal. In the case of SABLs, the criminal is many years ahead of the policeman.

Therefore, we need to catch up on time as well as the real issues that give effect to the SABL concept and totally uproot the SABL plant and its roots. Otherwise we will be going around in circles.

As for the CoI report on SABLs, we will eventually get a report tabled in parliament. But I am anticipating a softer version of what we all want to see done about SABLs.


**Nalau Bingeding can be contacted on 729 12128 or ebingeding@gmail.com**