Around 85% of PNG’s population live in rural villages. Under PNG law, they have legal rights to their customary land and the forests that grow on it
The government of Papua New Guinea appears to have turned
the notion of post-truth politics into an art form, making so many inconsistent
claims on the legal status of the plethora of fraudulently issued plantation
licenses in the country that it seems prudent to ask whether it knows where the
truth lies anymore.
Between 2002 and 2011, 50,000 square kilometres of land belonging to indigenous communities were distributed to private companies under permits called Special Agricultural Business Licenses (SABLs).
Since a 2013
inquiry into the leases found they were riddled with fraud and illegalities,
the government has promised repeatedly to cancel the permits, only for
them to reappear like zombies, hungry for virgin forest rather than brains.
The government’s latest announcement, made by Land Minister
Justin Tkatchenko on 30 August, asserted that the SABLs remain in force and
that ‘genuine’ leases would not be cancelled.
“Those that are illegal will be cancelled and those that are
genuine will continue,” he said at a press conference announcing the formation
of a committee to assess the legality of individual SABLs. “We will review
every single one. We don’t want to scare off investors that are doing the right
thing by the landowners.”
Tkatchenko’s announcement directly contradicted previous
statements cancelling the entire SABL scheme, made by both Prime Minister
Peter O’Neill and Tkatchenko’s predecessor as Land Minister, Benny Allan.
In March this year, the Prime Minister announced on live TV:
“we have cancelled all the licenses. All SABL licenses are illegal in this
In April, then-Land Minister Benny Allan called on all SABL title holders to voluntarily surrender them to the Lands Department. “The Government has taken a blanket cancellation of all special agriculture business leases in the country and, as we speak, they are all illegal,” he said.
“I have given directions to the acting secretary to write letters to all
special agriculture business lease holders, informing them that the leases that
they are holding are illegal and no longer in force now. It’s another useless
document of no legal value.”
Activist group ACTNow! interpreted the u-turn as
proof that the the government lied about cancelling the licenses to
ensure victory in the country’s general elections, which were held between 24
June and 8 July 2017.
“It now looks as if this government lied to us all on the
issue of the SABL land grab in order to get re-elected,” the group wrote in
post published on 31 August. “If it is true the leases have not been
cancelled, then the people of PNG, indeed the whole world, have been deceived.”
In total, the PNG government issued more than 75 Special
Agricultural Business Licenses, generating an explosion of land deals that were
used by multinational logging firms to clear rainforest and export the valuable
By 2011, 12% of PNG’s total land area had been
distributed as agricultural concessions under the permits. The devastating
consequences for Papua New Guinea’s indigenous communities were covered in
report from Global Witness, which interviewed dozens of people who
lost their land to loggers.