The court victory for the Baining people of East New Britain in overturning two unlawful SABL leases only highlights the failure of the government to take action to protect landholders rights, says community advocacy group ACT NOW!
“We congratulate the Baining people on their successful court action but what about the people in the other SABL areas who have not been able to access the courts? They are still waiting for the government to take action to defend their land rights”, says Eddie Tanago, ACT NOW! Campaign Coordinator.
Last Thursday, the National Court in Kokopo declared two SABL leases over Portions 908C and 909C null and void for a failure by the Minister and his Department to follow the correct process under the Land Act. Most significantly, the authorities had failed to ensure the landholder agreed to the acquisition of their land and had allowed the process to be “hijacked”.
Similar SABL leases have been used to take control of more than 5.2 million hectares of land from rural communities since 2002. A Commission of Inquiry investigated more than 70 such leases and concluded the vast majority had been unlawfully issued and recommended they be revoked.
Since the Commission of Inquiry reported in 2013, the government has made repeated promises it will cancel the leases and return the land to local people but no action has been taken.
In the meantime, six landholder groups have managed to successfully challenge the SABL leases granted over their land through the courts. In all six cases the court found the leases had not been granted in accordance with the law and proper process and the breaches were so serious that the lease was declared null and void.
“Unfortunately many of the SABL leases are in remote rural areas and local people do not have the resources to challenge the leases through the courts” says Eddie Tanago. “These people are entitled to expect the government to protect their interests, particularly when it was the Department of Lands and the Minister who were responsible for wrongly issuing the leases in the first place”.
ACT NOW! says government excuses that it is worried about the backlash from logging and oil palm companies who will lose out if the leases are declared void do not stand up to scrutiny.
“The logging companies have made huge profits from their illegal logging operations and do not have any rights to compensation when they must have known their leases were fraudulently issued. It is the genuine landholders who the government should be worried about. The compensation they could be owed for the lost of their land and their forests could run into billions of Kina” says Mr Tanago.