Since the Commission of Inquiry reported in 2013, the government has made numerous promises to cancel the SABL leases, but we still have no confirmation of which leases have been cancelled and which remain.
In the intervening period, large areas of forests within the SABL lease areas have been cleared and logs worth hundreds of millions of dollars shipped overseas by Malaysian logging companies.
The government's empty promises
On presenting the Commission reports to Parliament in September 2013, Prime Minister O’Neill said they revealed a shocking trend of mismanagement and corruption at all stages of the SABL process and there needed to be change.
“We will no longer watch on as foreign owned companies come in and con our landowners, chop down our forests and then take the proceeds ofshore."
“For too long landowners have been taken advantage of and had their land stolen from under them.” [Post Courier, 20.09.2013]
The Prime Minister said he was establishing a new task force to identify a new legislative framework for the benefit of landowners, to protect their interests and ensure sustainable land use.
In November 2013 the Prime Minister said the government had appointed a Ministerial committee to review the findings of the Commission of Inquiry. The Prime Minister said the Committee, comprising the Department of Lands and Physical Planning, Forestry, and the Department of Agriculture and Livestock had been given two months to complete the review.
In February 2014, the government announced it would start cancelling SABL leases that were acquired illegally. The Prime Minister said Cabinet had appointed a Committee, headed by Forest Minister Patrick Pruaitch and including the Ministers of Lands (Benny Allen) and Agriculture (Tommy Tomscoll) to take note of the SABL Inquiry report and implement its recommendations.
The PM said “I will make sure that we terminate the leases of those that were acquired illegally, done not in a proper manner and I have already called Chief Secretary to request the agencies that I have stated – Agriculture, Lands and Forestry – to fast track this and that is happening as we speak and I hope that over the next few weeks we will start the process of terminating the leases.”
In April and May 2014 the Prime Minister again made the same public promises - the unlawful leases would be cancelled and the abuse by logging companies would be stopped.
In June 2014 the National Executive Council ordered the cancellation of all the SABL leases found to be illegal in the Commission of Inquiry and recommended to be revoked. When announcing the NEC decision, Mr O’Neill said
“We are taking these steps to reclaim our customary land illegally lost to foreigners with the help of corrupt public servants and leaders”
“As a responsible government we want to ensure that all citizens have access to the lands of their ancestors. We will not allow our land to be lost to unscrupulous people out to con our people” [Post Courier, 18.06.2014]
In December 2014, the Prime Minister blamed the bureaucracy for not responding to political directions to implement the recommendations of the SABL Commission of Inquiry. He said he had tasked the Chief Secretary with ensuring the recommendations were implemented.
In May 2015, the Chief Secretary announced the government was setting up a new Independent Task Force to speed up the implementation of the Commission of Inquiry recommendations and cancellation of the leases. In October 2015 he said:
“It is widely known that vast amounts of pristine forest have been logged to enrich a corrupt few people, while landowners have unknowingly lost their most valuable asset – their land” [The National, 13.10.2015]
In January 2016, the Prime Minister blamed the delays on the Department of Lands dragging its feet and leaseholder litigation.
In November 2016, the Prime Minister again promised the Nation the leases were being cancelled and in March 2017 blamed government agencies for not implementing government decisions!
In August 2017, new Minister for Lands, Justin Tkatchenko announced a new committee to review all the SABL leases and cancel those found to be unlawful. The committee would be meeting weekly, he assured the nation, in its endeavour to resolve the SABL issue.
In February 2018, it was announced one lease had been cancelled. In addition, three leases had been voluntarily surrendered and five more annuled by the courts.
In March 2019, the Lands Minister announced 3 million hectares of land under SABL leases "has been given back to customary landowners". If true, this means almost 60% of the land originally alienated under the SABL scheme has been returned to its rightful owners. However, despite numerous requests, the government has not released any details of which leases it claims have been cancelled and which remain.
In addition to the inaction from the Department of Lands, there has been complete silence from the PNG Forest Authority on the status of the Forest Clearnce Authorities and the logging operations in SABL areas.