In the past 13 months, the government of Papua New Guinea has issued Special Agricultural and Business Leases (SABLs) covering an area of 2.6 million hectares of land. The area of land so far handed over as SABLs totals 5.6 million hectares. Earlier this month the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination wrote to PNG’s UN Ambassador, Robert Aisi, expressing its concern about the SABLs.
The letter is available here (pdf file 60.7 KB) and below. It comes as a result of a submission to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination by a group of NGOs: The Centre for Environmental Law (CELCOR) / Friends of the Earth PNG, the Bismark Ramu Group, Greenpeace Australia Pacific and the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP). The NGOs submission can be downloaded here: “Request for Consideration under the Urgent Action/Early Warning Procedure to Prevent Irreparable Harm to Indigenous Peoples’ Rights in Papua New Guinea” (pdf file 5 MB). The submission includes in four Annexes, PNG’s Land Act (1996), the Environment (Amendment) Bill 2010, the Record of published notices of SABLs issued in Papua New Guinea and a Statement by the Office of the Attorney General, Papua New Guinea.
Papua New Guinea has two types of land ownership: customary land, or land that is “owned by the Indigenous People of Papua New Guinea whose ownership rights and interest is regulated by their customs,” and “alienated land”, which is no longer under customary ownership. Only 3% of the land area of PNG is alienated land 97% is under customary ownership. But the SABLs could change that. Already they cover an area of more than 10% of the country.
The NGO submission to UNCERD states that,
The situation described herein threatens gross and irreparable harm to indigenous peoples in PNG and satisfies the criteria for consideration under the CERD’s early warning and urgent action procedures. Specifically, it concerns serious “Encroachment on the traditional lands of indigenous peoples …, [including] for the purpose of exploitation of natural resources,” and the adoption of discriminatory legislation that denies indigenous peoples access to judicial remedies that are indispensable to the protection of their rights. It thus represents a grave situation “requiring immediate attention to prevent or limit the scale or number of serious violations of the Convention” and to reduce the risk of further racial discrimination.
In June 2010, PNG amended its Environment Act, so that landowners cannot take destructive developers to court or claim compensation for environmental damages if the project is ruled to be of “national interest.” This is also included in the NGO’s submission to UNCERD and is taken up in the subsequent letter from UNCERD to PNG’s Ambassador to the United Nations.
In March 2011, academics and NGOs met at James Cook University in Cairns. The resulting “Cairns Declaration” (posted below) notes that,
SABLs greatly diminish the rights of traditional owners for long periods of time while promoting industrial-scale logging, deforestation for oil palm plantations, or other extractive uses. Most of these industrial uses are dominated by foreign or multinational corporations.
How the SABLs fit into PNG’s plans for REDD is anybody’s guess. But there is little doubt that the awarding of Special Agricultural and Business Leases on 5.6 million hectares will undermine indigenous peoples’ rights and can only lead to a rapid increase the rate of deforestation in PNG.
The Cairns Declaration
The Alarming Social and Environmental Impacts of Special Agricultural and Business Leases (SABLs) in Papua New Guinea
In March 2011, a large group of environmental and social scientists, natural-resource managers and nongovernmental-organization staff from Papua New Guinea and other nations met at James Cook University in Cairns, Queensland, Australia to discuss the future management and conservation of Papua New Guinea’s native forests. We reached a strong consensus on the need to halt the granting of Special Agricultural and Business Leases (SABLs).
Papua New Guinea (PNG) is among the most biologically and culturally diverse nations on Earth. PNG’s remarkable diversity of cultural groups rely intimately on their traditional lands and forests in order to meet their needs for farming plots, forest goods, wild game, traditional and religious sites, and many other goods and services. Nearly all of PNG’s land area is presently occupied or claimed by one or more of its traditional indigenous communities.
Papua New Guinea traditionally has had strong indigenous land ownership, which is enshrined in its national constitution. Over the past two decades, the country has experienced a dramatic increase in industrial logging, mining, natural-gas projects and other large-scale developments, and the formal permission of a majority of traditional local land-owners is required for such projects to proceed.
Unfortunately, abuses of trust with local communities have occurred far too often, especially with respect to the SABLs. SABLs greatly diminish the rights of traditional owners for long periods of time while promoting industrial-scale logging, deforestation for oil palm plantations, or other extractive uses. Most of these industrial uses are dominated by foreign or multinational corporations.
In 2010 alone, 2.6 million hectares of SABLs were granted, all for protracted 99-year terms, bringing the area of land alienated from customary owners in PNG to over 5 million hectares. These Leases frequently appear to have been made without the prior knowledge and informed consent of the majority of customary owners, alienating for several generations the lands on which they depend and have long relied.
It is our understanding that government authorizations to clear native forests, known as Forest Clearing Authorities, have been issued for approximately 2 million hectares of forest in existing SABLs, much of which is of outstanding biological and cultural significance. We believe that these Authorities will promote the exploitation of native forest resources by foreign interests without requiring them to comply with existing forestry regulations in PNG. In this sense, SABLs are a clear effort to circumvent prevailing efforts to reform the forestry industry in PNG, which has long been plagued by allegations of mismanagement and corruption. They also are clearly designed to promote industrial developments on an unprecedented scale within PNG while diminishing the rights of traditional land-owners.
For these reasons, we urge the Government of Papua New Guinea to (1) declare and enforce an immediate moratorium on the creation of new SABLS, (2) halt the issuing of new Forest Clearing Authorities, and (3) declare a temporary moratorium on the implementation of existing Forest Clearing Authorities. These steps should commence immediately while a thorough, transparent and independent review of the legality and constitutionality of these Leases and Authorities is undertaken.
Raising the living standards of the people of Papua New Guinea is an urgent goal that will require the sustainable exploitation of the country’s natural resources and the development of viable domestic industries. However, development needs to be undertaken in sympathy with the customary landownership embodied in the PNG Constitution. It must also operate in concert with ongoing efforts to limit rampant and often predatory industrial exploitation of the country’s forests, lands and other natural resources, which far too often fail to yield fair or equitable benefits for the majority of PNG citizens. This is the interest not only of the majority of PNG nationals, but also of those businesspeople who are presently operating responsibly in PNG.
We agree with the need for sustainable economic development, and to achieve this a comprehensive land-use plan, based on participatory land-use agreements, is clearly needed. Only then can the sustainable economic, social and environmental benefits of Papua New Guinea’s enormous natural wealth be secured for its people.
Respectfully endorsed by:
Executive Director, Centre for Environmental Law and Community Rights (CELCOR), Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
William F. Laurance, Ph.D.
Distinguished Research Professor & Australian Laureate
Prince Bernhard Chair in International Nature Conservation
James Cook University, Cairns, Australia
Yati A. Bun
Executive Director, Foundation for People and Community Development in Papua New
Guinea, Boroko, Papua New Guinea
Executive Director, Partners with Melanesians, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
Vojtech Novotny, Ph.D.
Director, New Guinea Binatang Research Centre, Madang, Papua New Guinea
Colin Filer, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia
Rod Keenan, Ph.D.
Professor of Forestry, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia
Michael Bird, Ph.D., FRSE
Distinguished Professor and Federation Fellow, James Cook University, Cairns, Australia
Executive Director, PNG Ecoforestry Forum, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
Nigel Stork, Ph.D.
Professor and Head of School, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia
Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea
Tree Kangaroo Conservation Programme, Lae, Papua New Guinea
Colin Hunt, Ph.D.
School of Economics, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia
The Nature Conservancy: PNG, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
Michael Wood, Ph.D.
Senior Lecturer, James Cook University, Cairns, Australia
Greenpeace Australia Pacific, Sydney, Australia
Peter Hitchcock, Ph.D.
Founding Director (Emeritus), Wet Tropics Management Authority, Cairns, Australia
Andrew Krockenberger, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, James Cook University, Cairns, Australia
Quentin Reilly, M.D., DPH, MBBS
Specialist Health Consultant, Former District Health Officer, Manus Province, Papua New Guinea
Susan Laurance, Ph.D.
Tropical Leader and Senior Lecturer, James Cook University, Cairns, Australia
Faculty of Science and Engineering, James Cook University, Cairns, Australia
Conservation International: Asia-Pacific, Cairns, Australia
Mark Ziembicki, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Researcher, James Cook University, Cairns, Australia
Ross Sinclair, Ph.D.
Director, Wildlife Conservation Society PNG Programme, Goroka, Papua New Guinea
Lance Hill, Ph.D.
Professor, James Cook University, Cairns, Australia
Michelle Venter, M.Sc.
Doctoral Candidate, James Cook University, Cairns, Australia