A Commission of Inquiry was established in July 2011 to look into the legality of the large number of Special Purpose Agriculture Business Leases (SABLs) issued since 2003.
The Commissioners submitted two final reports in June 2013.
Special Agriculture Business Leases had been used to take control of more than 5 million hectares of land away from customary landowners. The land was given to foreign companies for up to 99-years under leases issued by the Department of Lands.
Many landowners complained their land was taken without their knowledge and agreement and the size of the land-grab - covering more than 10% of PNG’s total land mass - caused a lot of alarm.
As a result of landowner complaints and questions by civil society organisations, academics and scientists, in 2011 the government agreed to set up a Commission of Inquiry to look at the legality of the leases.
Establishment and Conduct of the Inquiry
Following a National Executive Council decision on 29 June 2011, the initial Commission of Inquiry was established by then Prime Minister Sam Abal for a term of three-months from 21 July.
Three Commissioners were appointed to conduct the inquiry: John Numapo (Chief Commissioner), Alois Jerewai and Nicholas Mirou.
The Commission of Inquiry was instructed to inquire into seventy-five specific SABLs and determine if they complied with legal and policy frameworks. During the Inquiry a further two SABLs were notified to the Commission, bringing the total under investigation to seventy seven.
The initial three month period given to the Commission proved insufficient for it to investigate all seventy-seven SABLs as they were spread all across PNG and some were in very remote locations. The term of the Commission was therefore extended for a further five months by the Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill, on 18 October 2011.
The Commission held public hearings in Port Moresby and in New Ireland, East and West New Britain, East and West Sepik, Oro, Central and the National Capital District. These Provinces are where most of the SABLs are located.
The Commission presented an interim report to the government on 12 March 2013.
On 11 June 2013 the Prime Minister attempted by letter to further extend the term of the Commission of Inquiry by one month from 24 May 2013 to 24 June 2013 to allow the preparation of final reports.
Two final reports from Commissioners Numapo and Mirou were presented to the Prime Minister on 24 June 2013. No final report was ever submitted by Commissioner Jerewai.
The two reports submitted covered only 42 of the 77 leases investigated. The other 35 leases were to have been included in the report from Commissier Jerewai which has never been sighted.
On 17 September 2013, the Prime Minister presented the Commission reports to Parliament.
Out of the 42 leases reported on, only in four cases was there genuine landowner consent and a commercially viable agricultural project being undertaken. In the other 38 leases there was no genuine landowner consent and widespread abuse, fraud and a lack of coordination between government agencies.
The Commissioner found there was a general failure and incompetence of government officials to ensure compliance, accountability and transparency within the SABL process.
According to the Commissioners throughout the course of their inquiry serious allegations were levelled against officials and senior government bureaucrats involved in the management of SABL. With bribes and inducements being offered by project developers and representatives of landowner companies to procure SABL titles.
The inquiry also received evidence of undue political pressures being put on government officials by senior Ministers and politicians to fast-track SABL applications and issue titles. Incidences of political interference were numerous and were reported in respective individual SABL reports.
The Commissioners found there was corruption and mismanagement, and lack of coordination by key agencies including departments of Lands and Physical Planning, Environment and Conservation, Agriculture and Livestock, Provincial Affairs and Local Level Government, Investment Promotion Authority, and the PNG Forest Authority.
The Commission found most of the SABL leases were unlawful and should be revoked. In a few cases the Commission suggested that if there was genuine landowner approval then the leases should be revised or re-negotiated rather than being completely revoked.