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Policy Think Tank Condemns PNG PM's Failure to Act on Land Grabs

November 19, 2013
ABC News
Cost of land and resource loss in PNG
PHOTO: The film, On Our Land, and the accompanying report reveal the human and environmental cost of land and resource loss in PNG. (Oakland Institute)

A US think tank has criticised Papua New Guinea's prime minister for failing to act on the findings of his Commission of Inquiry into controversial land leases.

Three commissioners took more than a year to investigate the leasing of more than 5 million hectares of land, often to foreign interests, without the permission of land owners.

The research findings have been revealed in a new report by the Oakland Institute, titled 'On Our Land- Modern Land Grabs Reversing Independence'.

The Oakland Institute has also launched an accompanying film about land acquisitions in PNG and the human and environmental cost of land and resource loss.

Policy director Frederic Mousseau produced eight reports on land grabs in Africa before turning his attention to Papua New Guinea.

Mr Mousseau says land grabbing is taking place in PNG on a "shocking" scale.

"I have coordinated all the studies of land acquisition in Africa and I am afraid I have seen in Papua New Guinea some of the most shocking examples of land grabbing and extraction of resources for foreign interests in a developing country," he said.

More than 11 per cent of the Pacific nation's land mass has been let out under controversial Special Agricultural and Business Leases, or SABLs.

"Processes that were supposed to have been followed obviously weren't followed," Claire Kourous, from the PNG NGO Act Now, said.

"So we had major forestry and logging companies just come in and take advantage of the SABLs instead of going through the normal procedures to get proper forest management authorities."

Villagers in Sausi, Madang Province, PNG
PHOTO: "Many generations have lived here and will continue to until the world ends. Land is the main source of our life," says Aipapu Marai, a councillor in Sausi, Madang Province. (Oakland Institute)


In Turubu in East Sepik province, ancient forests were clear-felled without permission of landowners.

Gabriel Mollock, from the Turubu Eco Forestry forum, says laws must be scrutinised to ensure people are able to give their "free, prior, informed consent."

"It is not development; development is about people, improvement of their standard of living, their quality of life, infrastructure. But looking at what is happening right now, it is like ripping off our resources," he said.

Turubu landowner Martin Shukei says he feels let down by the government.

"The government said this SABL is good for the customary landowners, for that reason we take this step to get our customary land into this SABL lease," he said.

"From there we found out our land has been grabbed and has been taken away by foreigners and other smart ones."

Special Agricultural and business leases were intended to make land available for agriculture not for logging.

But Mr Mouseau says the Oakland Institute's research found the leases are not suitable for agriculture either.

"The key problem we find is a policy which is led by the government, which is about freeing up land for developments, which is ..taking away customary land from landowners and giving it to foreign interests," he said.

PNG land grab
PHOTO: Almost a third of Papua New Guinea has now been appropriated by foreign companies. (Oakland Institute)


In September Prime Minster Peter O'Neill presented the first part of a Commission of Inquiry report into the land scandal to parliament.

Mr Mousseau is critical of his failure to act on its findings.

"It was really interesting to hear the reaction of the prime minister when he tabled the report and we had heard previously his comments on the SABL schemes saying it was full of corruption, it was a scandal, it was a shame for the country," he said.

"Then it was really astonishing for us as well as for local colleagues in PNG to hear his conclusion.

"We are going to review the legislative framework governing land acquisitions but we are going to continue the policy of freeing up land for development."

The Oakland Institute recommends policies that look at how to support local farmers to develop agriculture rather than how to lease out their land.