Papua New Guinea faces logging threat
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Papua New Guinea faces logging threat

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By Dr Craig Thorburn

Don’t Californicate Oregon [or Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Washington, Montana, etc]’ was a popular slogan in the western United States during the 1960s and ‘70s, a repudiation of the mindless, haphazard development of land that had by that time already transformed southern California into ‘the world’s biggest strip mall’. A similar groundswell of sentiment now seems to be spreading across the jungles and villages of Papua New Guinea. The developmental demon in this case, however, is not California-style urban sprawl, but Indonesia-style forest exploitation.

At issue is the widescale transfer of title to millions of hectares of densely forested land from customary local ownership to the state through a mechanism known as lease-leaseback, and then into the names of landowner companies, which in turn contract developers to construct roads and develop ‘agro-forestry projects’.

According to articles published in The Age on 14 and 15 October this year, more than 5 million hectares of forest – around 11 percent of the country – has so far been alienated via this mechanism. It has triggered public outrage, expert alarm and the establishment of a commission of inquiry to investigate charges that most of these leases are merely a front for unregulated logging.

As such, Papua New Guinea appears poised to repeat the experience of Indonesia’s logging boom of the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, during which an estimated 64 million hectares of tropical forest – roughly 40 percent of the country’s total forest cover – fell to the chainsaws and bulldozers of rapacious crony conglomerates. Throughout this period, the rights of millions of Indonesians whose livelihoods depended on these forests – and whose ancestors had successfully and profitably managed these forest ecosystems for generations – were sidelined, ignored, suppressed and even criminalised.

Papua New Guinea is widely regarded as a bastion of biodiversity. Over 97 per cent of land in PNG is under customary title, and the vast majority of Papuans depend on the forest for their food, livelihoods and shelter. The legal framework for customary land ownership in PNG was established in the Land Groups Incorporation Act 1974 (LGIA), a product of the self-governing but pre-independence era of PNG, later further strengthened in Schedule 2 of the Constitution of Papua New Guinea.

The act does not allow customary land owners to alienate land to non-customary owners. There has been significant pressure, from various bodies including both the Australian government and the World Bank, to reform land ownership systems, on the premise that customary title is an impediment to development. This, despite research by ANU scholars that shows food and cash crop production by smallholders on customary land has grown steadily over the past 20 years, while the plantation [estate] sector has been in decline.

In 2007, the PNG government passed two new laws enabling the registration of customary land. Grassroots organisations have been struggling to thwart enactment of this legislation, fearing that communities will sign away their rights for tiny sums of money or enticing gifts. However, it now appears that this campaign is moot, as millions of hectares of crucial forest lands have changed hands through the lease-leaseback provision, which has been in existence since the passage of the 1974 Land Act.

In March 2011, a group of environmental and social scientists, natural resource managers and NGO staff from Papua New Guinea and other nations met at James Cook University in Cairns to discuss the future management and conservation of Papua New Guinea’s native forests. The group endorsed the Cairns Declaration on the need to halt the granting of Special Agricultural and Business Leases (SABLs). A Commission of Inquiry in Port Moresby has initiated an investigation of 72 SABL contracts, to determine whether lease developers are loggers trying to bypass forestry laws and that a majority have – in the words of the inquiry’s brief – acquired their rights “without proper knowledge and involvement of the landowners”.

What impact any of this might have on curbing the lease-leaseback juggernaut remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, at a recent meeting on REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) held in Nagoya, Japan, Greenpeace presented PNG government delegates with the Golden Chainsaw Award – a dubious honour usually reserved for illegal and destructive logging companies. Greenpeace and University of PNG reports estimate that at current levels of logging, by 2021, 83 per cent of the nation’s commercially accessible forests will have been cleared or degraded. It appears that the ‘Indonesianisation’ of Papua New Guinea’s forests is well underway.

Dr Craig Thorburn is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Geography and Environmental Science and Coordinator of the Master in International Development and Environmental Analysis at Monash University.