Papua New Guinea’s government resurrects zombie ag licenses


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 Photo: Fábio Erdos/Global Witness

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 country.”

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to all special agriculture business lease holders, informing them that the leases that they are holding are illegal and no longer in force now.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 a blog 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 timber.

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 a recent report from Global Witness, which interviewed dozens of people who lost their land to loggers.

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