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Ecologist Special Report: Taking on the Logging Pirates in Papua New Guinea

March 6, 2017

Communities across Papua New Guinea oppose the theft of their land for logging and palm oil operations made possible by the corrupt practices of local officials and foreign companies. 

"It's like the rug has been pulled from under our feet." Ana Sipona is a landowner in West Pomio, in Papua New Guinea, an area that has been devastated by logging and palm oil operations in recent years. Dozens of foreign companies have signed land deals under a government scheme - Special Agriculture and Business Leases (SABLs) - that has allowed them access to a vast expanse of land and forest resources all over the Pacific country.

A wealth of biodiversity sustaining millions

With over 800 indigenous languages spoken, forests and waters teeming with more than 20,000 species of plants, 2,000 species of trees, and 700 species of birds, Papua New Guinea is one of the most diverse countries in the world. Historically, this abundance has been one of the country's greatest assets. Most Papua New Guineans have been able to maintain traditional lifestyles based on a mix of cash crops and subsistence agriculture, hunting, fishing, and gathering. Until recently, 97% of the country's land was maintained under customary ownership, a system in which the land is owned and controlled by the clans and the tribes who live on it. Most people live in small communities of a few hundred villagers who maintain intimate relationships with the land and natural resources. Rural families get their income from the sale of produce from family gardens, forest products, and small-scale cash crops such as cocoa, coconut, vanilla, betel nut, and coffee.

This treasure of biodiversity and the livelihoods of millions is now threatened by this new wave of land grabbing. Some 5.5 million hectares of land have been leased through the SABL scheme. Most were signed without the consent of local communities. Added to pre-existing logging concessions, over 15 million hectares-more than one third of the country-are now in the hands of foreign firms. The country has now surpassed Malaysia as the world's top exporter of tropical wood.

People's resistance to the theft of their land and forest

Ana Sipona is one of the many citizens who have mobilized their communities and are standing up to their own government and the loggers, to protect their land, their forests, and their livelihoods. Taking On the Logging Pirates, a new report from the Oakland Institute, features some of the leading figures in this struggle who all share their experience of resistance.

The testimonies tell the story of the steady destruction of traditions and natural landscape and describe the impact on people's livelihoods. They also recount the various forms of resistance, including public protests, roadblocks, civil disobedience, petitions, and court cases to have their land returned to them.

People's resistance has been met with violence and intimidation. In a number of cases, local villagers resisting these land deals through peaceful protests have been arrested, beaten, or relocated. Paul Pavol, from West Pomio, shares the hardship faced by his community: "We, the landowners, continued to set up road blockades and invited international organizations to help us get support for our cause, but we are still waiting for justice ...

"Police have confronted our families and clan members, intimidating us and suppressing our rights. Some of our community members faced police brutality. They used abusive language, belted us with sticks, made us stand under the hot sun for hours, and arrested us. We were treated like animals and second-class citizens on our own land."

People resisting the theft of their land and destruction of the environment reject the deceitful development rhetoric of the government, conveniently used to take away people's land and forests. The government's official strategy is to "free up land for development", which justifies taking people's land for the so-called development of the country.

The land defenders advocate for a model of development that respects people, their culture and values, and their natural environment. Communities are rising up against the inaction and complicity of their own government and call on their leaders to stand with the people instead of foreign firms that have inflicted corruption, conflict, and devastation.

Palm oil is not bringing development

Research conducted by the Oakland Institute has revealed that these land deals are not benefitting the people or the economy of PNG. In Kimbe, West New Britain Province, Rose Avusi explains: "I don't see any benefit to the community. There is no education facility, no health services. The price of oil palm is still very low, so it doesn't bring any benefit to the people or any change to their lives."