Cancellation of flawed Papua New Guinea land leases halted

The cancellation of controversial flawed land leases in Papua New Guinea has been halted, leaving traditional landowners unsure of when they will get their land back.

Source: ABC Australia

In June last year, prime minister Peter O'Neill and his cabinet ordered the cancellation almost 30 leases identified by a commission of inquiry.

The leases cover millions of hectares of land, most of which has been leased without landowner consent.

Court action by leaseholders reluctant to relinquish their titles has left some landowers powerless as logging companies continue their activities.

Presenter: Jemima Garrett

Speaker: Peter O'Neill, PNG prime minister; Eddie Tanago, campaign co-ordinator of Act Now; Ben Samson, land titles registrar

GARRETT: When prime minister Peter O'Neill presented the findings of the Commission of Inquiry to parliament in 2013 he said they revealed a shocking trend of corruption and mismanagement. The inquiry found land owned by hundreds of thousands of traditional landowners had been leased out mainly for the benefit of logging companies. Unlike other forms of land tenure, these Special Agricultural and Business Leases, or SABLs, allow timber companies to clear-fell forest, rather than use the more sustainable practice of selective logging. Much of the blame for mismanagement of SABLs was laid at the door of the Lands Department, but politicians were also named in the report. Prime Minister O'Neill and his cabinet took nine months before they ordered the cancellation of leases recommended by the Commission of Inquiry for revocation. That was in June last year. Since then, the Land Titles Registrar has cancelled just 3 leases.

Last month Prime Minister O'Neill was again promising action.

O'NEILL: I know there is a lot of public out there enquiring why isn't the recommendations being implemented fully. Again, I want to reassure the public that NEC and cabinet has made a very firm recommendation that all SABL licences be cancelled.

GARRETT: On some land, logging is continuing against the wish of landowners.

 Eddie Tanago (pictured on right) from activist group Act Now says the government is failing in its duty to protect the rights of the people.

TANAGO: Landowners continue to lose their land and given the rights that we have we have been forfeited of that right, as customary landowners, and it is a human rights issue. And to add to that the police have been used against the landowners to suppress them. These are not illegal settlers, these are landowners who are fighting for their rights to their land because they have been fooled into signing these agreements which they do not understand and yet then they go and they bring the loggers who are bringing the policemen who suppress them. So they can't even talk on something which is rightfully theirs.

GARRETT: In East Sepik province, landowners from Turubu were so dismayed about continued logging on their land that they took their case to court. The court ruled in their favour, but that sparked a counter claim from the logging companies calling for a judicial review of the cabinet order.

Land titles registrar Ben Samson says the impact of the court action goes well beyond Turubu.

SAMSON: This court proceeding, they filed to review the decision, which actually means that we shouldn't do anything until the court has finally made its decision.

GARRETT: So are you saying the court action has halted all moves to cancel any Special Agricultural and Business Leases?

SAMSON: Yes, yes, that is what I am saying

GARRETT: Last year, Mr Samson told the ABC a bundle of 15 leases would be cancelled within weeks. In September he said they were sitting on his desk waiting for his signature that day. Now he says all leases will be considered by a ministerial task force. With a growing number of leaseholders pushing for compensation, the Lands Department is aiming to convert as many as possible to a new legally valid lease.

SAMSON: The general consensus reached is that those that have projects that are up and running, there we will look at where did we go wrong.

GARRETT: So are you saying that the aim of that process is to continue development on that land wherever possible?

SAMSON: Oh yeah, we have to be realistic. If someone has spent a lot of money and already development has been done, see if we do anything, obviously the state is going to be liable for loss of business, damages, how much money has been done, so we are also mindful of that.

GARRETT: Landowners and non-government organisations are calling on the government to investigate the Commission of Inquiry's corruption allegations and to implement its recommendations in full.

Eddie Tanago says Prime Minister O'Neill's renewed assurances in January are being met with increasing cynicism.

TANAGO: It is just one of the publicity stunts that he has made, propaganda that he has made. This is, I don't know, the fifth or the fourth time he has come out to say that. How many times do you have to come out and say the same old thing, people are just tired of listening to the same old thing. Why can't you just act?