The O’Neill/Dion Government is cancelling all Special Agriculture and Business Leases (SABLs) obtained illegally, and will abolish provisions of the Land Act which allows for SABLs to be granted.
“We are taking these steps to reclaim our customary land illegally lost to foreigners with the help of corrupt public servants and leaders,” Prime Minister Peter O’Neill said today.
The canceling of SABLs and repealing of the Land Act are part of a number of decisive steps which Cabinet approved this week to be taken to implement the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry into the SABLs.
The Prime Minister said Cabinet decided to:
- cancel all SABLs obtained illegally which the COI recommended to be revoked;
- repeal provisions of the Land Act which allows for SABLs to be issued;
- direct the Department of Lands and Physical Planning not to process any more SABL;
- ensure all SABLs not assessed by the COI to be reviewed by the Ministerial Committee;
- set up a team to fully implement the COI recommendations and the NEC decision.
“As a responsible government we want to ensure that all citizens have access to the lands of their ancestors. We will not allow our land to be lost to unscrupulous people out to con our people,” the Prime Minister said.
The COI into SABLs was established by the then Acting Prime Minister Hon. Sam Abal MP in July 2011 with the appointment of three Commissioners.
Originally the CoI was given three months to investigate a total of 75 SABLs granted by the Department of Lands and Physical Planning since 2003.
Upon assuming office as Prime Minister in August 2011, O’Neill retained the CoI and extended its term by another 5 months to allow the CoI to properly complete its work.
After spending K15 million the CoI has failed to present a coherent final report to me as the Prime Minister. The “Final” Reports of the two Commissioners covered only 42 out of 77 SABLs the three Commissioners were required to investigate.
Even then the two reports by the two Commissioners did not conform to the normal practice of COI reports.
The “Final” Reports of the two Commissioners covered only 42 out of 77 SABLs the three Commissioners were required to investigate.
The 77 SABLs referred to the CoI for investigation involved some 5.2 million hectares of land. With the proliferation in the issuance of SABLs since the 1990s, overnight the total customary owned land in PNG decreased from 97% to 86%.
The SABL was not meant to be a permanent alienation of customary land. Initially SABLs were issued for less than 40 years but without any apparent rationale or proper justification the duration of SABLs was increased to 99 years in many instances.
Summary of the Two Commissioners’ Findings on SABL
The “Final” Report of the two Commissioners that was presented to me indicated the following.
- Systematic abuse of authority by certain officers was common place in the various Departments and Agencies investigated.
- Undue political pressure from the Prime Minister down was exerted on government officials.
- There were widespread and systematic breach of various laws.
- There was no systematic procedure in place in the Department of Lands and Physical Planning to guide the processing of SABL and for granting of SABLs.
- The Government policies pertaining to land was unclear.
- A confused state of affairs existed wherein certain officers involved (including some very senior officers) did not know who had power to exercise certain authority such as the issuing of Certificate of Alienability and whether it was necessary at all.
- There appeared to be a lack of cooperation between the key agencies involved with the issuing and regulating use of SABLs.
- Fraudulent practices were discovered in numerous cases.
After three meetings the Ministerial Committee comprising of eight very senior Government Ministers chaired by the Minister for Forests Hon. Douglas Tomuriesa MP made a number of recommendations which were endorsed by the National Executive Council. The NEC upon advice of the Ministerial Committee on SABL chaired by the Minister for Forests Hon. Douglas Tomuriesa MP approved of the following measures to tackle issues and concerns pertaining to SABL.
4. That the Government has decided to repeal the provisions of the SABL in the Lands Act to prevent any more SABL dealings since there are other land laws administered by the Department of Lands and Physical Planning that allow for voluntary customary land registration to convert customary land to leasehold land if customary landowners desire to do so.
5. That the Department of Lands and Physical Planning will continue to observe previous NEC Decision not to process or issue any more SABL.
6. Where appropriate the Government will take steps to revoke SABLs recommended by the two CoI Reports to be revoked.
7. Subject to formal legal advice from the Department of Justice and Attorney General, the Department of Lands and Physical Planning as well as the Department of Environment and Conservation can review existing SABLs and where legally sound to apply appropriate administrative procedures to holders of SABLs.
8. After proper scrutiny with proper legal advice the Ministerial Committee will continue to screen all SABLs not assessed by the two CoI Reports and to make known its findings and recommendations on a case by case basis.
9. Where appropriate and taking into account the interest of the parties involved and the agreement of the affected landowners, certain SABLs can be made compliant by following the proper guidelines to be established by the Ministerial Committee on SABL upon sound legal advice and taking into consideration the recommendations of the respective CoI Reports.
10. To make the administration of Incorporated Land Groups (ILGs) more effective the Department of Lands and Physical Planning together with the Investment Promotion Authority (IPA) are to take steps including legislative amendments to transfer administration of the ILGs from the Department of Lands and Physical Planning to the IPA which has an established and proven effective system for administration of incorporated associations
11. The NEC has approved the establishment of a Special SABL Taskforce to be staffed by persons not previously involved in the issuance and administration of the SABL to be based within the Forest Ministry which shall report to the Ministerial Committee on SABL with an initial budget of K3 million to:
- address matters raised by the findings of the CoI,
- implement the recommendations of the CoI,
- investigate all the other SABLs not investigated by the CoI, and
- follow up on decisions of the Ministerial Committee and the NEC pertaining to SABLs.
That the Department of Finance shall immediately release K3 million to the PNGFA to finance the operations of the Special SABL Taskforce. The Ministerial Committee on SABL shall determine the membership and composition of the Special SABL Taskforce and its terms of reference and of engagement.
To ensure the best interest of all parties involved in each SABL including traditional land owners the Ministerial Committee on SABL will continue to oversee the SABL and consider each SABL on a case by case basis. The Ministerial Committee is empowered to investigate all other SABLs issued by the Department of Lands and Physical Planning that were not investigated by the SABL Commission of Inquiry.
Commercially, the SABL is a failed concept and will be repealed. Traditional land owners can still register their lands by converting their land into leasehold land if they so desire under the Land Registration (Customary) (Amendment) Act 2009.