Seven reasons why govt plan to convert SABL leases must be rejected

The government is planning to convert unlawful SABL leases into registered land. Community advocacy group ACT NOW! says there are seven strong reasons why the government’s plan is wrong and should be rejected.

“The Department of Lands is drafting amendments to the Lands Act which will allow the government to endorse the unlawful SABL land grab”, says ACT NOW! Program Manager Effrey Dademo. 

“We have identified seven reasons why this is a dangerous move and must be rejected. Most importantly, under the government plan, customary landowners will still lose control of their land which is a vital resource for them and the illegal logging will be allowed to continue”.

One: Changes to the Lands Act will take away customary rights

The government wants to amend the Lands Act so the SABL leases can be converted into registered land and then subleased. This will deny customary landowners their constitutional right to decide what happens on their land.

Currently, only the landowners themselves can decide to register their land and to sub lease. These decisions can only be made after a lengthy and intensive process of consultation and empowerment. The government proposal will remove these rights.

Two: Customary landowners will still lose control of their land

Land registration and sub-leases mean landowners will still lose control and use of their land. It is just another form of land alienation, which will deprive rural people of their most vital asset, which they rely on for their daily subsistence and cultural heritage. To make things even worse the land registration will be in perpetuity, meaning it is forever. Customary landowners will never get their land back.

Three: Land area far too large

The SABL leases cover a huge area, over 5 million hectares in total. That is 12% of the whole of PNG. On average, each leases covers some 65,000 hectares. This is far more land than is necessary for any agriculture project. 

The three genuine leases identified by the Commission of Inquiry, covered less than 425 hectares in total! Most of the SABL leases have been acquired for logging or land speculation, not genuine agriculture activities. 

There can be no justification for registering 5 million hectares of customary land as the government is proposing.

Four: Conversion will allow the illegal logging to continue

Many of the unlawful SABL leases are being used as a cover for illegal logging. More than 5 million cubic metres of logs valued at over $500 million have been exported from SABL areas. Converting the SABL leases to registered land will allow the illegal logging to continue.

Five: Leaseholders not fit and proper persons

The current SABL leaseholders did not follow proper processes and procedures to obtain their leases. In many cases the Commission of Inquiry found evidence of fraud and in some cases recommended criminal investigation. These companies are not fit and proper persons and should not be allowed to retain control of the land or be issued with any new leases.

Six: Conversion would undermine the Constitution

Land registration and sub-leasing to corporations 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 is too centralized, dysfunctional and corrupt to be trusted to administer customary land at the current time. Rural landowners have no way of approaching or consulting Lands Officers in 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 is attempted or any new titles issued.

ACT NOW! says rather than trying to endorse the unlawful SABL land grab the government should revoke the leases and give the land back to its customary owners, as recommended by the SABL Commission of Inquiry.