SABLs should be removed from PNG Land Act says expert

From ABC Radio Australia

The Commission of Inquiry into Special Agricultural and Business leases criticised many of the companies involved in back-door logging activities in PNG.

But it also laid the finger of blame for the situation on corrupt government officials and local brokers who facilitated the land deals.

Dr Colin Filer, Convenor of the Australian National University's Resource Management in Asia-Pacific program has spent many decades studying land issues in Papua New Guinea.

He has been profiling the brokers and last week presented his findings from Gulf and from Western province to a conference in Sydney.

Presenter: Jemima Garrett

Speaker: Colin Filer, Convenor of the Australian National University's Resource Management in Asia-Pacific program

FILER: They vary from kind of national politicians of various kinds, not just in Western and Gulf, but if you look all around the country, starting with the Prime Minister at the top and working your way down through government ministers, national politicians, would-be politicians, former politicians. landowner company directors who have not so far held any political office, but maybe they hope to one day.

GARRETT: To what extent were foreign companies the driving force behind the suspect land deals and to what extent were the brokers?

FILER: I think that varies quite a lot. In some cases, the foreign investor seems to have initiated the whole project, in other cases, you find the brokers trying to look for a developer and sometimes the developers not being particularly responsive to their appeals.

GARRETT: And to what extent are these brokers benefiting personally from these deals, enriching themselves?

FILER: Well, it's hard to tell, probably they're not enriching themselves unless the project actually gets a green light from the government and goes ahead, and then perhaps they'll stand to benefit from it. Otherwise, I think a lot of false expectations being raised all round.

GARRETT: You comment that people often say that 97 per cent of Papua New Guinea's land is in customary ownership, but that since the land scandal, that is now only 85 per cent. How significant is that for Papua New Guinea?

FILER: Potentially it's very significant if all of that land actually gets diverted to alternative users, which will definitely cut into the subsistent livelihoods of people living in rural areas especially. But that, of course assumes that the project goes ahead and lasts for a long time and in many cases, these things may not last for a long time if they are really only about logging and not about large scale agricultural development.

GARRETT: One element of the situation is that the land has been alienated from its traditional owners. How significant is it if those leases stand?

FILER: Well, it's obviously significant if they stand for 99 years, that's the whole problem really. I mean these leases are being taken out for the maximum allowable period under the law, and yet there's no particular indication of what will be going on in that land in 99 years time.

GARRETT: The Prime Minister says that he will cancel the suspect leases involved with logging, where there have been logging abuses. What's your reaction to that?

FILER: That's probably a good idea, because basically, I think even the PNG Forest Authority would applaud that action, because they're basically losing control over the forests, which they are responsible to ensure our sustainably managed, because what's happening under forest clearing authorities is clearly not sustainable from a forestry point of view.

GARRETT: When it comes to the way forward, there have been a lot of different suggestions for reforms. What do you see as the way forward to stop this sort of thing happening again?

FILER: To stop it happening again, well, clearly there have to be amendments to the Land Act and I was rather surprised that the Commissioners didn't recommend that the sections which allow for the grant of the Special Agricultural and Business Leases are not simply removed from the act, because that would be the simplest way to stop this from happening.

GARRETT: How do you then have development of larger scale agriculture if those sections are removed?

FILER: Yes, well that is an interesting problem and it's a problem because the new legislation that allows customary groups to register title to their own land and then lease it out to third party investors or developers is not likely to produce large scale development. So the question really is, does PNG seriously need the kind of large scale agricultural development which has been proposed under this scheme and since the large scale agricultural development schemes haven't work very well, perhaps it's better to go back to the oil palm model, the existing oil palm industry model, in which they just gradually acquire small areas of land at the margins of their existing operations, which are on government land anyway.