Government plan to convert SABL leases just another illegal land grab

Community advocacy group ACT NOW! is condemning plans by the government to convert unlawful SABL leases to another form of land tenure using Incorporated Land Groups. The Lands Minister revealed the government’s intention when speaking to the media last Friday. [1]

ACT NOW! says converting the SABL leases  would not only repeat the injustice and human rights abuses inherent in the original SABL leases it will compound the problem by giving control over vast tracts of land to a small number of people overseen by a corrupt and dysfunctional Department of Lands.

ACT NOW! says the plan is an attempt by the government to appease the foreign owned logging industry and oil palm companies and ensure their illegal occupation of customary land continues. 

“Any moves by the government to covert the SABL leases would not only endorse the existing illegality surrounding the SABL land grab, it would compound the injustice for customary landholders; leaving them even worse off, with their land still alienated and under foreign control”.

“If the land ends up being registered then that land could be sold, leased or mortgaged again and again. It is the next step in making people slaves in their own communities and excluding them permanently from their land”.

ACT NOW! says the only right and proper course of action is for the government to cancel the SABL leases and return the land to the customary landowners. It will then be for the people to decide on the future for their land.

Over the past 10 years fraudulent Special Agriculture Business Leases have been used to steal rights to more than 5 million hectares of customary land from local communities. The Prime Minister has promised the government will implement the recommendations of a Commission of Inquiry and cancel the leases; but now the Lands Minister is saying that rather than cancelling the leases he will convert them to another form of land tenure. 

ACT NOW! has identified seven reasons why the SABL leases should not be converted; these include the denial of constitutional rights; loss of land; continuation of illegal occupation and illegal logging; and ongoing corruption and mismanagement in the Department of Lands.

One: Conversion will again deny landholders their legal and constitutional rights

Converting the SABL leases into another form of land tenure will deny customary landholders their constitutional right to decide what happens on their land. Under the Constitution and land laws it is only the landholders themselves who can decide if they want to register their land and that decision can only be made after a lengthy and intensive process of consultation and empowerment. If the SABL leases are compulsorily replaced, landholders rights will again be denied.

Two: Communities will still lose control of their land

Converting the leases will mean the landholders will still lose control of their land with the rights to make decisions given to a small group of people. Once conversion takes place, ILG leaders can make decisions without involving most of the customary landholders.

Three: Land will still remain in foreign occupation

Converting the SABL leases will mean the foreign occupation of land continues unless the current leaseholders and logging companies are evicted by the government. There is no indication the government has any intention of doing this.,

Four: The land area involved is enormous and represents a loss of national sovereignty

The SABL lease areas are huge, over 50,000 square kilometres in total. That is 12% of the whole of PNG. On average each individual leases covers an area of some 65,000 hectares. This is far larger than is necessary for any agriculture project. The three genuine leases found by the CoI, which were for coffee plantations, covered less than 425 hectares in total! Most of the SABL lease areas have in fact been acquired for logging or land speculation, not genuine agriculture activities. Where there are genuine agriculture activities within SABL areas they require far far less land than that actually acquired. There can be no justification for registering 5 million hectares of customary land as is proposed.

Five: Conversion will allow the illegal logging to continue

The unlawful SABL leases have been used as a cover for illegal logging operations. The Forest Authority has allowed SABL lease holders to carry out large logging operations, ostensibly to clear land for agriculture planting. More than 5 million cubic metres of logs valued at over $500 million have been exported from SABL areas. A process to convert the SABL leases will allow the government to continue to ignore the illegal logging rather than stopping it.

Six: Conversion will undermine the Constitution

Land registration defeats third National Goal in the Constitution. Customary landownership is central to the concepts of National Sovereignty and Self Reliance. Converting the SABL leases will further disenfranchises local people to the benefit of big-business and foreigners.

Seven: Lands Department dysfunctional and corrupt

The Department of Lands and Physical Planning is too centralized, dysfunctional and corrupt to be trusted or allowed to administer customary land at the current time. The Minister brought in a new Secretary last year to reform the Department but now he too is suspended for alleged corruption. Rural landowners have no way of approaching or consulting Lands Officers in the capital Port Moresby or challenging their decisions. The SABL leases are just one example of the unlawful and often corrupt activities of the Department. What is required is a total overhaul of the Department, removal and prosecution of those involved in unlawful activity and a completely new system of land administration, not just some token staff changes, before any further land acquisition or alienation is attempted or any new titles issued.