Money Will Not Buy My Heart to Give My Land Away
A Conversation with Paul Palosualrea Pavol
The day we met Paul Palosualrea Pavol, he was evidently tired. It took him four days to travel from his home village in West Pomio, Papua New Guinea (PNG) to our offices in Oakland, California. Weary eyed, he was still eager to share with us his struggle against logging and palm oil companies that have stolen over 5.5 million hectares of land in his country.
Paul has taken it on himself to speak out fearlessly against the theft of land for logging, and its devastating impact on ecosystems and communities alike. Unsurprisingly, he was awarded the Alexander Soros Foundation Award for excellence in environmental and human rights activism in 2016, honoring his “courage and commitment to protecting his community’s land and forests from the illegal and aggressive operations of one of the world’s largest logging companies.”
Paul can you share with us more about yourself—and what got you started on this journey?
I left school and my village when I was 15 and went looking for a job in town—selling trucks and spare parts. In 1994, I was then 22, I returned to the village with my wife. I had realized that while I was putting a lot of effort and money into working for someone else in the city, I was not free. Both of us longed to go back to our village, because we liked working in the garden, the forest, and desired to live life in harmony with nature.
When I first returned to my village, I still worked in the city of Lae, and traveled back and forth from my village. On my way I would pass logging settlements and the palm oil, operations of New Britain Palm Oil. It was then that I saw the big trees being cut down and I saw bulldozers wrecking the forest. I witnessed social injustice, drugs and alcohol and how people worked like slaves. And I decided I didn´t want to stay in the towns anymore.
In 2004, people started talking about logging in my area. So I decided to share the bad things that I had seen. One of my brothers –in PNG we are all extended family- joined me and we started walking around the villages to tell people about the bad things associated with palm oil and logging. At first, some would ask me “So, you don´t want money?” My response was: “Money is only one part of it, but you will see the bad part of it, soon enough”. People say palm oil brings money. But they don’t realize that it’s mostly money for the company and not for the workers.
There are always rumors that we get bribed. This is not the truth. Money won´t buy my heart to give my land away. I go around telling people—I have been to Sidney, Japan, Washington- a lot of people ask me that question: if they give you money…I always say: “no, you are not going to give me 1 million, 2 million, 3 million, to sell my land, that’s not going to happen to me.”
Eventually people started to believe and agree with us. They wanted to join us in protecting the environment. But then strange things started happening.
We were dealing with some of the largest logging conglomerates in the world and that means money. So, initially people are always happy when these companies arrive at their villages. They exclaim “the company is here! The company is here! We’ll have money and have more to eat!” But when you look at what has happened, you realize they do not have the full information.”
What has kept you motivated throughout this process?
I don´t know how to answer this. Keeping someone motivated in a place such as where I come from is something really odd, but I like doing it. One of the reasons is simple: I enjoy life in the village. I was born in the village, left and came back when I had matured; I had a wife and a daughter. And I saw the destruction. The river I used to swim in and catch fish is not like before. The place that brought me happiness in the past is no longer there.
I can´t allow for these things go on anymore. I have seen what has happened in other areas where palm oil is being extracted, such as West New Britain. I don´t want that to happen in my place.
Another reason why I keep going is because I have hope. People are changing their mind. Although there are still people who are lured in with money, there are a lot of folks in my community that have seen the forest being ripped apart, the drugs, the alcohol and social injustice and they are now saying that “Paul was right” and I’m proud of it. Even the police have changed—whereas in the past I was threatened by them—now most of them agree with me. This is also one of the things that keep me motivated.
What do you see for the future?
If we were lucky enough to win this battle and we get the land returned, I think we would be more relaxed. But if we are not successful, I really can´t tell. But what I can see is that we are in a totally destroyed situation. Bringing industrial agri-business into our villages means the end of our future. Our children will face the consequences of our actions. We, as fathers and mothers, are failing our children.
What do you think is the role of the international community or a group like the Oakland Institute in your struggle?
I believe that with supports of groups like the Oakland Institute, we can disseminate information at the international level. I believe that it can change things For example, I just heard the Lands Minister say that “the SABLs have painted a bad name for PNG and they have to come to an end”. That’s great.
What would victory look like?
Just return the land back to the people. Please don´t understand this wrong. I’m not saying that I don´t want development—roads, bridges, schools, etc., but I believe it is the duty and responsibility of the state of PNG to achieve this but I don´t think people’s resources should be compromised for this.
I only want a better future… I want everyone to be free. I only want people to realize that their god given rights—like tradition, culture, and custom—need to be protected.
This interview was conducted by Paola Langer and Josephin Robinette, Intern Scholars with the Oakland Institute. Interview transcription and additional text by Paolo Langer.