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<p>Vlad Sokhin/The Global Mail</p>

Vlad Sokhin/The Global Mail

Children play in the waters of Turubu Bay, near timber that is being prepared for export.

Stealing The Great Rainforests Of PNG

Only the Amazon and Congo basins rival Papua New Guinea for pristine tropical wilderness. But 5 million hectares of its jungle is under threat from foreign land grabs and back-door logging. The PNG Government is under intense pressure to tear up illegal leases – but the chainsaws haven’t paused.


Gabriel Molok is directing us into his clan’s country, a sweep of steamy jungle wrapped tight around the once lost, languorous shore of Turubu Bay, Papua New Guinea. After dozing for much of the trip down from Wewak he’s now wide awake and toey.

Navigating out of the lush lowlands of the Prince Alexander Range toward the coast we pull up at a boom gate slung across the logging track. In a sprawling wilderness where land is tightly held but never fenced the loggers have audaciously staked their claim, no matter that a Commission of Inquiry last year deemed their lease unlawful. Forest people, Molok’s kin, emerge from the bush to swing aside the barricade and wave the borrowed Oxfam LandCruiser on its way.

The gate may be flimsy posturing, a bluff, but the message is hard to ignore: bothersome landowners like Molok and his collaborator Father Willy Suai, a local lad and Catholic priest, are not welcome.

At intervals on the rough track the close green walls of the rainforest open abruptly, exposing great tracts of churned earth. What’s at stake here is also suddenly, starkly laid bare. Red-raw, severed trunks – some as wide as a man is tall – are strewn across the clearings or bulldozed into rough piles awaiting collection.

In these clearings the sun is brutal, baking into dust the once fecund forest floor. Overhead, avenues have been ripped through the blanketing high canopy where the mightiest trees – the coveted kwila, or merbau – have fallen. These giants in their wild habitat are unrecognisable as the tamed, trimmed suburban first-world favourite for durable decking and patio furniture ($4.38 per linear metre in timber yards in Australia).

<p>Oxfam</p>

Oxfam

Gabriel Molok

There’s no birdsong, but then it’s high noon and the birds know better. Somewhere in the distance chainsaws are working, their screeches echo.

There’s the smell of sawdust, and a whiff of menace. Molok is an outspoken campaigner against the wave of foreign land grabs that swept up more than five million hectares of Papua New Guinea’s forests in the space of a decade, deals exposed by the two-year Commission of Inquiry into Special Agricultural Business Leases (or SABLs) as almost entirely corrupt, illegal and without genuine landowner consent. The commission has urged the PNG Government to tear up most of the leases.

But six months after the findings were tabled in the PNG Parliament the well-oiled machinery of sly logging, dressed up as plantation agriculture, keeps turning. Interfering in it is a perilous business.

The henchmen of the often shadowy foreign-controlled companies profiting from the trees are formidable – unscrupulous officials; politicians with a piece of the action; police on the payroll; tribal “big men”. Sometimes they’re blood, “wantoks” (one-talk, one language) turning on their own.

“With corrupt government officials … riding shotgun for them, opportunistic loggers masquerading as agro-forestry developers are prowling our countryside, scoping opportunities to take advantage of gullible landowners and desperate-for-cash clan leaders,” concluded Chief Commissioner John Numanpo.

As the investigation into the land deals at Turubu Bay and dozens of other sites across the country observed, companies “pay off assertive clan leaders, and then use divide-and-rule tactics” to secure their investment, in the process tearing apart families and destabilising fragile communities. The scars on the landscape are just a part of the story.

In early 2012, tensions infamously boiled over on this track when a delegation from the inquiry came to collect evidence and see for themselves what was going on. Local leaders linked to the logging project spotted activist Molok riding with Commissioner Nicholas Mirou and became so enraged they attacked their vehicle. “They wanted to crush me, with the commissioner,” Molok recalls.

He’s not long done telling this story, shouting over the labouring engine, when a heavily loaded log truck appears up ahead, still some distance away. Molok vaults out of his seat and vanishes down an escarpment.

<p>Vlad Sokhin/The Global Mail</p>

Vlad Sokhin/The Global Mail

A villager looks at a logging ship off the coast of New Ireland Province.

Father Willy tries to claw the Oxfam livery off the LandCruiser, but the stickers are stubborn in the heat. Instead he drapes himself over the door, attempting to obscure the green logo with his wiry frame. In these parts the symbols of land-rights activism are red rags to riled loggers.

As the truck lumbers alongside we slide low in our seats. An escort vehicle follows, slows. It feels like all the oxygen has been sucked out of the cabin. When they drive on without incident we open the doors and windows and breathe. Grinning, Father Willy thanks God, as Molok hauls himself back into his seat and we drive on.

Where roller-coaster topography descends into a ravine some of the broadest trunks have been dropped straight across a river, piled one upon another, soil scraped over the top to fashion a rough bridge. All along the route rivers and creeks have been choked by these thoroughfares. They force the water to shift its course, sending tropical rains cascading through established crops and food gardens.

“You can see a lot of erosion,” says Joseph Dayamba, the priest’s father and a clan chief, when we stop for a brief meeting in his village of Burubur. “We live on the riverbanks. Most of the places where the mothers usually go and get fish, the hiding places where the fish live, are blocked.”

Molok wants to help get our cameras close to the heart of the logging action. Rather than again risk a confrontation he takes us off the road where the trucks ferry their loads to the bay and down an overgrown trail. Where it expires, at a shallow estuary, he wades across to the cluster of huts that are his home village of Mundawin, dogs and children materialising in his wake.

At first glance Turubu Bay is breathtaking – a wish-you-were-here South Pacific idyll framed by coconut trees and sago and the turquoise horizon of the Bismarck Sea. Spindly palm-woven shanties are hoisted above pale sands; babies swing in bilums (bags) in the warm breeze; young girls cuddle wriggling piglets as boys strut and wrestle; outrigger canoes wait above the reach of the tide.

Because there’s no electricity, and no evidence of household appliances or gadgetry (beyond the ubiquitous mobile phones, which get recharged whenever opportunity arises), it’s tempting to imagine that the rhythm of life here hasn’t changed for generations.

But that would be to ignore the flotilla of outboard boats used to ferry garden crops and buai (beetlenut, for chewing) to market in Wewak or Madang, a six-hour trip along the coast. It disregards the anxieties of families who need cash to pay for education and medicines and operations and to travel long distances to find these services aboard crowded buses and trucks. The money economy and expectation have changed everything.

Then there’s the alternative reality looming down the far end of the sweeping beach, where a sprawling logging camp and timber yard have taken a bite out of the landscape. The racket of industry blows in across the water.

Clinging to the shade of the coconut trees we walk five minutes for a closer view and watch bulldozers and loaders arrange rough-sawn tropical timber into towering stacks for shipment.

Logs, soil and sand have been piled above the tide to conjure a makeshift wharf that pushes out into deep water and the pontoon where big ships tie up to load. Such ships are a familiar sight around the more remote coastal areas of PNG.

<p>Vlad Sokhin/The Global Mail</p>

Vlad Sokhin/The Global Mail

A barge that transfers the timber to the logging ship in New Ireland Province.

At Turubu the bush has been gouged to allow for truck traffic, unloading and storage. As the Commission of Inquiry noted on its visit here, there are “ominous signs of environmental damage” around the bay, including torn stands of sago palms – a staple crop that takes years to establish.

Mary Sagi Sori, a leader of the resident Rikumbu clan, says the damage extends under the sea. Coastal women – like the women on the nearby rivers – are catching far fewer fish. She suspects that the fragile fringing reef on which the fish breed and feed was devastated when the pontoon twice escaped its mooring in storms and travelled across the bay, crashing through the coral.

She and her fellow villagers have counted the comings and goings of 47 large ships in their bay from 2010, when logging started, until late 2013, and still they come. Tracked shipments out of Turubu in 2012 alone were valued at almost $US6.5 million, according to SGS, the Swiss company which monitors logging exports for the PNG government.

Gabriel Molok says the loggers have made only two payments to local villagers, worth a total of PNG Kina 80,000 (less than $US30,000), some of which was compensation for damage to their sago.

“There is terrible stress in the villages, clan fighting,” Dayamba says. “I don’t want to touch that story. But it’s awful.”

Sagi Sori says the only material benefit the community has seen from the logging venture is the communal freshwater tap the company installed in the village. Mundawin women line up to take their turn washing their cooking pots, their clothes, their children and themselves.

At the loggers’ end of the beach, generators loudly pump power and cool air into the dongas serving as site offices. The pummelled sand is a factory floor. A busy community of men, labourers and their overseers, mostly Asian with a sprinkling of Papua New Guineans, go about their sweaty, frenzied business.

Their enterprise continues at full steam despite the pledge by PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill to the PNG Parliament last September, when he tabled the Commission of Inquiry into SABLs final report, to “start protecting landowners and the environment … We will no longer watch on as foreign-owned companies come in and con our landowners, chop down our forests and then take the proceeds off-shore”.

But the ships keep coming to Turubu Bay, and the people of Mundawin watch as their forest disappears over the horizon.

Red-raw, severed trunks – some as wide as a man is tall – are strewn across the clearings or bulldozed into rough piles awaiting collection.

PNG GRAND CHIEF SIR MICHAEL SOMARE – in a star turn at the 2007 UN climate talks in Bali – described the vast green canopy billowing across his nation as “our planet’s lungs, thermostat and air-conditioning system”.

Back then it was imagined that international climate-change action would soon make living forests more valuable to global carbon markets than dead ones to logging companies.

Although that moment vanished, loggers wanting to harvest PNG’s fabulous green wealth still faced a couple of formidable hurdles.

First was the question of who owned the trees. In a country where no-one, and everyone, had rights to the land, who might sell it?

When PNG gained independence from Australia’s colonial grip in 1975, it boasted that 97 per cent of its territory was still in customary hands, shared and bequeathed according to the diverse, unwritten traditions of its 800 or so enduring tribal cultures.

Depending on your political or economic perspective, customary ownership was either the single greatest factor dictating the population’s ongoing material deprivation, locking up potential wealth; or it was the godsend safety net of tribal people.

Around 80 per cent of Papua New Guineans live beyond the reach or interest of a largely dysfunctional state, enduring the tumult of whirlwind social change – some of it good, some life-saving, but much of it damaging. Elders who can still vividly recall their first encounter with whites have seen population shifts incite wars; bloody jealousies stoked by the transition from subsistence to a money economy; rapid breakdown of tradition and social rules; and escalating violence and dislocation. But when all else failed if they had land, they would eat.

Customary ownership thus provided great comfort to ordinary PNG citizens. One attempt to translate the hard-wired Melanesian connection to country into plain English, penned by a trio of Bougainvillean students at the dawn of Independence, explains, “land is our physical life [and] our social life; it is marriage; it is status; it is security; it is politics; in fact, it is our only world … We have little or no experience of social survival detached from the land. For us to be completely landless is a nightmare which no dollar in the pocket or dollar in the bank will allay; we are a threatened people.”

The second impediment loggers faced was geographical. Analysis by CSIRO and the University of PNG of 1972 land surveys, before commercial logging got going in earnest across PNG, calculated that almost 60 per cent of the country’s timber was out of reach of even the most determined loggers – locked up in country too rugged to be scaled on foot, let alone aboard machines, and too remote from roads and wharves for viable export.

Hence easier-pickings timber country, such as that around Turubu Bay, became all the more valuable, and vulnerable. In the landmark 2008 report by the UPNG and the Australian National University, State of the Forests of Papua New Guinea , which analysed forest change over the period 1972-2002, analysts predicted that by 2021 some 83 per cent of PNG’s accessible forest will be degraded or gone.

<p>Vlad Sokhin/The Global Mail</p>

Vlad Sokhin/The Global Mail

Mary Sari Sogi, a local leader from Turubu Bay.

They warned in 2008 that the nation’s globally significant forests – only the Amazon and Congo basins rival the island of New Guinea for pristine tropical wilderness – needed urgent, substantial and strengthened management regimes if they were to be safeguarded.

But by then entrepreneurs had figured a way around the ownership problem, and a decade-long land rush was already well underway; it captured 5.2 million hectares of mostly virgin forests before any further deals were banned two years ago.

The mechanism that allowed this to happen was a loophole in the land laws which provided for Special Agricultural Business Leases, or SABLs as they have become in the vernacular. Customary landowners could form a group, lease their land to the national government - an act which created a formal title – and the government in turn leased the land back to them.

They could then use the title as security for a bank loan, or to grant a sub-lease to a third party, explains Dr Colin Filer, an Australian National University anthropologist and Pacific resources expert, and one of the first to sound the alarm on the scale of the deals.

Typically these third parties were foreign companies offering to build a road in exchange for access to trees for logging, or promising to establish oil-palm plantations or similar commercial agriculture. Local middlemen with clout and connections in remote communities, who were able to orchestrate some semblance of landowner engagement to get the ball rolling, benefited handsomely.

Because ventures under these auspices were classified as agriculture rather than forestry, the leases also allowed companies to sidestep many forestry regulations and prescribed requirements for compensating landowners.

But there is, as the Commission of Inquiry would ultimately discover, “a preponderance of evidence [indicating] that logging companies are the biggest beneficiaries of the SABL scheme.

“Our investigations reveal that over 50% of the so-called developers currently holding sub-leases on SABLs are connected in one way or another to [Malaysian giant] Rimbunan Hijau [RH] Limited, which by far is the biggest logging operator in PNG,” concluded Chief Commissioner Numapo. A spokesman for RH told The Global Mail that this funding “has no basis”, and that all RH agricultural projects “were granted with all required environmental, government and community approvals”.

By 2011 increasing reports were emerging of communities discovering that great expanses of their territory had been snared in 99-year leases, potentially denying three or four generations of traditional owners the right to access their land.

Some communities said they had signed up for the deals but were misled about the projects’ terms or ambitions; others claimed they had never consented to outsiders using their country.

Widespread community agitation over the land grabs gained traction in the lead-up to the 2012 national election, persuading then acting Prime Minister Sam Abal to announce the Commission of Inquiry into Special Agricultural Business Leases.

Originally instructed to run for three months, the inquiry hit problems early when it emerged that many of the land files had gone missing.

When PNG gained independence from Australia’s colonial grip in 1975, it boasted that 97 per cent of its territory was still in customary hands, shared and bequeathed according to the diverse, unwritten traditions of its 800 or so enduring tribal cultures.

It finished amid controversy two years later when two of the three commissioners delivered their damning findings and urged the PNG government to revoke 38 of 42 leases which they investigated and found were acquired without first gaining genuine landowner consent. Turubu Bay was among them. Just four of the 42 leases were identified as legitimate.

Village people had been “misled and deceived” by promises that the leases would deliver commercial crops, plantations and desperately needed roads and services. “[Companies] use fancy agriculture development plans and project … agreements as red herrings to obtain permits to log out huge tracts of forest lands”, said the commission’s report.

The bona fides of another 30-odd suspect leases remain unknown after the third investigating commissioner, Alois Jerawai, failed to submit any report on his cases. They included some of the most contentious holdings, scenes of violent clashes between rival clans, or protestors and police, most notoriously in Pomio, East New Britain. These involved a company linked to RH.

RH spokesman Axel Wilhelm said the Pomio site had met all legal requirements. Over 1000 people were employed by the project so far, another 2000 jobs were anticipated, benefits included more than 100 kilometres of road alongside aid posts and school facilities.

The project “enjoys the strong support of local communities”, he said. He blamed disturbances at the site on a Greenpeace campaign opposing palm oil developments.

In the years since Sir Michael Somare espoused leveraging wealth from intact forests, UN efforts to create a vibrant carbon-trading market by paying forest communities to keep their trees have largely stalled. Meanwhile PNG’s timber trade has thrived. Nationally the Swiss monitors SGS valued the logging exports in 2012 at $US306 million.

Almost 30 per cent of those logs came out of SABL sites. It’s understood the volume of timber coming out of these leases collectively in 2013 was significantly higher again, though the figures have not been released. Such profits go some way to explaining why, despite the PNG Government deploring the lease rorts and banning new ones, nothing has occurred to shut down operations on existing suspect leases.

Meanwhile the saga of the SABLs, a narrative of corruption, opportunism and devastation in an often neglected corner of the world, is leaching into international consciousness.

“After years of looking at large-scale land acquisitions in Africa, we thought we had heard about almost every scenario of deception and collusion,” remarked Frederick Mousseau, policy director at US-based activist think tank the Oakland Institute, when he released a documentary on PNG land grabbing last November.

“Papua New Guinea was an eye-opener.”

ON PAGE 488 OF COMMISSIONER NICHOLAS MIROU’S 900-page account of his investigation into so-called agricultural land leases, he records the testimony of Mrs Waeya Bugaebo.

She presented herself to a sitting of the commission in Kiunga, a busy, wild-west port town on the Fly River, near the Indonesian border, and the closest hub for communities scattered through some of the most inaccessible territory in the country. Her home is in Mougulu, Western Province, with her husband, a man from the Biyami tribe.

She told the commission she had been surprised to discover her land had been caught up in a series of four 99-year leases covering over two million hectares of Western Province, which is famous for the wealth of its mines (including the notorious Ok Tedi) and infamous for having some of the worst health indicators in the world. There had been no consultation in the villages near her, she said. She asked that the deals be revoked.

The leases are linked to an ambitious, controversial Australian-led and US-backed project that undertook to build a transnational highway and networks of feeder roads to some of the country’s most isolated communities.

<p>Vlad Sokhin/The Global Mail</p>

Vlad Sokhin/The Global Mail

A child plays at the logging compound in Turubu Bay, East Sepik Province.

The company, Independent Timbers and Stevedoring Ltd, had acquired documents claiming authority to take logs from a 10-kilometre-wide swathe along a 600-kilometre-long route, through some of the Pacific’s most coveted timber. The original forestry paperwork specified only a 40-metre wide corridor. “There is fraud involved in this case … a major deviation from the original requirement,” Mirou concluded. He recommended the company directors be investigated for racketeering. (The company refuted the allegations, and has referred them to its US lawyers.)

When Mrs Bugaebo gave her evidence, counsel assisting asked how far her home was from Kiunga. “I have walked eight days,” she replied.

In his final report Commissioner Mirou, citing Mrs Bugaebo’s testimony, was moved to note “the hardships faced by the people … due to the river tributaries, dense jungle and heavily forested areas, the stark remoteness of villages which epitomises the drive for development and the need for a national road network with proper feeder roads into various rural communities”. Mrs Bugaebo didn’t want the leases, but she still very much wanted a road and all the benefits she imagined would flow along it.

Mirou’s observations go to the heart of the land issue in PNG, to the raw conditions that facilitated the proliferation of what his inquiry exposed as overwhelmingly corrupt lease deals. The loophole provided opportunity; the profits gave motive; but the desperation of local communities underwrote momentum.

Many SABLs would not have got off the ground had influential local leaders, and many if not a majority of ordinary folk, not been accommodating – at least in the early stages of negotiation. People embraced the notion of the lease deals, even if they ultimately rejected the terms, because they hoped they would bring roads and services. Isolation underwrites PNG’s lowly ranking on the UN Human Development Index – it is 156th out of 186 ranked nations. The score has barely changed in the past decade despite a minerals resources boom.

Dr Vojtech Novotny is a Czech biologist who knows the PNG wilderness and its people better than most outsiders, having spent six months of every year there since 1993. This has given him a ringside seat on the fallout as the timber industry’s hunting ground pushed east from continental Asia, hitting “the Philippines, then Malaysia, and now across islands of Malaysia and Indonesia, and it is coming to PNG, the last large area of rainforest,” he says.

Officially, Novotny’s work is in exploring the relationships between butterflies and plants. In 2012 he was co-director of a French Museum of Natural History expedition involving 200 scientists in a three-month mission to collate a snapshot of life across the island’s forests and waters. PNG was the chosen site of the expedition because of its biological and ecological value – it is believed to host a disproportionate 6 per cent of the planet’s biodiversity – but also because species and habitat are so rapidly vanishing.

Unofficially, Novotny has become intrigued by the shifting dynamics of forest communities. “Over the past 20 years I’ve definitely seen logging pressure increase,” Novotny says. At the same time he has witnessed profound social changes, including the proliferation of mobile phones in remote communities – the only technological innovation to reach many far-flung villages.

“With corrupt government officials … riding shotgun for them, opportunistic loggers masquerading as agro-forestry developers are prowling our countryside, scoping opportunities to take advantage of gullible landowners and desperate-for-cash clan leaders.”

Cheap handsets and expanding networks have changed the way isolated people perceive themselves, and informed their grievances on all that they’re are missing out on, he says.

“Since Independence, communities have been in a kind of suspension; they know good things are coming, but they haven’t seen them. They feel they have been left to their own fate while everyone around them is making some kind of progress,” says Novotny.

This is the dynamic that has supported much of the rush into land leases, he says. “Frustration often leads to communities taking decisions that are not in their interests in the long term.” But he is more optimistic than many commentators.

“The unique land ownership in PNG is a very complex issue, and without question it provides huge opportunities [and] it is of course open to abuse, also by local people.

“It is a critical time for PNG. But then PNG always seems to be on the edge of disaster, but also doing better than expected. It really is a very dynamic society, trying to somehow combine tradition and modernity.”

Novotny places a good portion of the blame for dodgy land dealing on what he regards as the failures of the conservation lobby and the international community. He enlarged on this theme in a 2010 journal article. If remote communities were given a choice between developments such as logging, or no development, they would choose logging, he argued.

“People do want to keep their forests as far as possible. They do want to maintain some elements of their traditional lifestyle. But at the same time they do want to see economic improvement.

“Conservation very often offers … a very misleading rhetoric, where they promise economic change as a direct outcome of conservation, but at the same time are not bringing it.”

Strategies that might pay forest communities to preserve their forests through a global carbon market offer a possible solution, albeit one that is technically difficult to oversee, Novotny says.

“[But] the problem here is global – the collapse of the carbon price. It’s beyond the influence of PNG,” he says. In the meantime, communities do what they think they need to do.

It’s a trap for outsiders to romanticise forest people’s engagement with their country, he cautions. Forest dwellers may respect their environment, engage with it deeply, but they have also long exploited it as their only material asset.

One of the key findings of the University of PNG and ANU State of the Forests of Papua New Guinea , was that the conversion of forest to gardens for subsistence agriculture (accounting for 45.6 per cent of forest change) came in as a close second to logging (48.2 per cent) in ranking the main drivers of deforestation and forest degradation. (An updated assessment from the same analysts is expected later this year.) Expert sources indicate that clearance of forest from SABL sites is now likely the major driver of forest loss.

Given population growth of 3.1 per cent and given that the vast majority of PNG’s estimated 7.8 million people still live off their land in rural and remote communities, pressure is increasing on accessible land to provide food, income and building materials.

While loggers were busy circumventing the old rules, PNG strategists have worked for more than a decade to evolve new systems of land tenure that might better serve changing PNG society and its growing population, trying to balance tradition with scope for consensus landowner development.

It’s a fraught journey, sometimes compared to the Enclosure Movement at the time of the Industrial Revolution in England. But in the modern context PNG is faced with managing in decades the kind of social upheaval that was played out over centuries in the European context.

<p>Vlad Sokhin/The Global Mail</p>

Vlad Sokhin/The Global Mail

Mundawin village, Turubu Bay.

Many attempts have been made to reform land laws in PNG, says Dr Thomas Webster, director of the country’s National Research Institute (NRI) and chairman of the National Land Development Taskforce. “All past efforts have failed.” Some ended in riots and bloodshed. Finally, in February 2012, new legislation came into play which allowed land groups and families to gain recognition of title through more stringent processes than in the past.

“The new Incorporated Land Group Act has strict governance aspects so that revenues from land leases are managed for the benefit of all land owners and not just a few,” says Webster. “These new arrangements will hopefully address some deficiencies of the SABLs.”

The new system is inevitably cumbersome in its attempts to safeguard vulnerable and often uneducated, remote communities, but Webster says there has been an enthusiastic response so far. “I suspect people just want to secure their boundaries. The population is growing.

“This mechanism provides for a social group to be formed into a recognised legal entity with ownership of a particular piece of land. There’s a hunger for that – recognition – because there are a whole lot of land disputes around the country emerging, and this provides for resolving those.”

Rosa Koian, a prominent campaigner against SABLs with the home-grown PNG environmental lobby the Bismarck Ramu Group (BRG), says she’s hopeful the new system will bring some transparency and accountability to future land deals and give communities some power to realise their own aspirations, not imported ones.

“We’re not saying ‘no’ to development. People want roads. But look at the roads [from these deals] – they just follow the trees. These are not the roads communities need to take their fresh produce to market, or to access health services.”

In her hometown of Madang, she says, “there is logging, there is mining, there is opportunity for good roads, but people are still carrying 20 kg and 40 kg of cocoa on a full day’s walk to bring [goods] to market”.

IF THE NEW LAND REFORMS ARE TO GAIN ANY TRACTION, the PNG government needs to act decisively to signal that the corrupt deals that proliferated over the past decade won’t be tolerated, Koain says.

Molok is an outspoken campaigner against the wave of foreign land grabs that swept up more than five million hectares of Papua New Guinea’s forests in the space of a decade.

In December her organisation was one of 21 community, activist and legal agencies, most of them made up of PNG locals, who published an open letter to the prime minister in national newspapers, protesting that “foreign companies are still unlawfully in possession of more than 5 million hectares of customary land and the illegal logging is continuing”.

The letter appealed to the PM to act on the recommendations of the commission and revoke unlawful leases, return the land to customary owners, and cancel all related logging licenses. It also asked him to refer the commission findings to the anti-corruption inquiry, Task Force Sweep.

But to date the only response from the government has been the announcement of a new task force to explore land-reform options.

This week Commissioner John Numapo, in an interview with ABC radio, called on his co-commissioner Alois Jerewai to submit the missing volume of the report. Regardless, he said it was obvious that 66 of 75 investigated leases did not have legally valid certifiates of alienability and that the PNG Government must act to revoke them.

Inertia is not uncommon in PNG’s political process. Nor is intrigue. In the resulting vacuum, conspiracy theories thrive.

The dominant theory argues that the individuals and companies profiting from SABLs are too powerful and connected to be messed with. The Malaysian company Rimbunan Hijau, is a formidable power in PNG. Its substantial portfolio of assets includes one of the country’s two daily newspapers, The National, which has been notably muted in its coverage of the SABLs issue.

A variation on the theory is that what might appear to be political dithering is in fact surreptitious strategy: publicly deplore what’s going on, but do nothing to stop it. Meanwhile the money trees continue to be harvested and, ultimately, land alienation becomes a fait accompli.

A number of politicians now aligned with Peter O’Neill’s government have been actively involved in the granting of SABLs, although few of them are named in the reports.

Dr Puka Temu, O’Neill’s Minister for Public Service and a former lands minister, was singled out for his direct involvement in a cassava bio-fuel project in Central Province, which was characterised as “a complete mess”.

Elsewhere in the report the former secretary of the lands department, Mr Pepi Kimas, testified in regard to a lease in Sandaun province at one point linked to then Somare-government Minister for Forests (now Opposition leader) Mr Belden Namah. Kimas told the commission that in 2008 he was under a lot of “political pressure … from the Prime Minister’s level down” to process the lease.

<p>Vlad Sokhin/The Global Mail</p>

Vlad Sokhin/The Global Mail

In a recent article published on the ANU blog devpolicy.org, Colin Filer elaborates on another theory: that there might be powerful legal and financial incentives for leaving the leases in place and working.

He suggests that many of the companies with interests in the leases could be threatening massive compensation claims against the state – whose agents facilitated and signed off the deals – if their investments were rendered worthless. The commission report has helpfully documented “endemic and systemic” rot in PNG’s public service.

“The state’s capacity to defend itself against such claims is known to be rather weak, partly because government officials have sometimes colluded with the claimants in order to reap a share of the reward,” Filer says.

He suspects there is a behind-the-scenes scramble to find ways and means to modify the permits granted via the SABLs to “agro-foresters”, and allow them to continue their activites rather than invalidate their titles.

This would provoke a massive public backlash from activists and landowners who are counting on the commission findings to be the circuit breaker that will help to restore land, stop illegal logging, and compensate communities, or at least to underwrite renegotiations of the deals.

But their wrath may be inconsequential when weighed against the kind of liabilities being whispered about in PNG legal circles.

There is understood to be at least one case being pursued by a developer, and now before the PNG courts, which could soon test those concerns. A lawyer involved in the case told The Global Mail that the compensation figures being sought “run into billions” – and this involves just one lease.

ON THE BEACH AT TURUBU BAY kids shake down green coconuts and deftly whack them open with long bush-knives. They pass them to the elders who are meeting on the sand for an update from Gabriel Molok on their legal case.

Molok and Father Willy Suai have founded a land-rights organisation, Turubu Ecoforestry Forum, in partnership with Oxfam. It’s been effective in galvanising landowners, informing them about issues of free, prior and informed consent; about how to use the new land laws to gain title; about options for safeguarding their land or developing it to grow commercial crops. But they fear the knowledge has come too late.

“In the beginning we were people kept in the darkness. We had no clue about the logging,” says Joseph Dayamba, who is the lead plaintiff in the looming National Court case being brought by 56 local land groups from across the 116,840-hectare Turubu Bay lease site.

These people have contributed “their money and sweat” to support the action, says Dayamba, in a last-ditch effort to shoo off the loggers and compel the payment of some compensation.

“We thought it was going to be a project of oil palm [plantations],” Dayamba says. “That’s why we allowed them to trespass through – allowed the road to trespass through.” They were tricked, the old man says. It was only ever about the logs.

The Commission of Inquiry concluded that the 99-year lease to Sepik Oil Palm Plantations Ltd in 2008 was founded on “sloppy and unreliable” documentation and should be revoked. The company is controlled by two Malaysian nationals, with 80 per cent of the shares, in partnership with a local man. The lease deal was enabled by two local landowner companies, the investigation found, but they acted without majority consent.

Representatives of the companies did not respond to invitations via their Port Moresby lawyers to speak to The Global Mail.

A victory for Dayamba and the other landowners in the National Court, where their case will likely be heard in the next month or two, can’t restore what has been lost, Molok says, but it might halt wider damage. Because the streams that start at the ridge of the Prince Alexander Range feed into the fabled wild Sepik River, lifeblood to communities living along its banks, he fears the repercussions of logging upstream could be widespread.

“Over 1.2 million cubic metres of our forest has been taken out,” says Molok. “They are coming in again, into the heart of Turubu. We will have no more forest in the future.”

We drive out of Turubu Bay along the logging road, that most basic, coveted and transformative bit of bush infrastructure. But this road is not expected to last much beyond the logging operation. The bridges and surfaces were not built for endurance.

Soon after the loggers cut their last load many of the villages of Turubu Bay expect to be isolated once more, marooned as throughout history, only now in a stripped, strange landscape.

Oxfam will release a report on the Turubu SABL in February, including local accounts of the impact on the community and the environment.

3 comments on this story
by Jimmy Kalebe

As a landowner myself in Turubu local level government area, I am thankful to those who helped us in exposing this issue at the international level. I want to thank Oxfam International Australia and it's staff. On this portion 144c, it was seen that a blanket cover was taken covering the entire area without full consent sought from local people. At the moment, logging activities have gone far and wide into other districts as well. However, our fight to get back our customary land title is still going on. We would not stop until we get what is rightfully ours that's passed on to us from our ancestors.

February 5, 2014 @ 4:20pm
by Paul Nelson

Thanks a lot Jo, you've brilliantly described the logging quagmire and highlighted the ripoff of Papua New Guineans that's happening. They need all the support they can get because it won't come from the PNG government..

February 5, 2014 @ 6:28pm
by Barbara Short

Thanks Jo for all you are doing. It breaks my heart as during my four years teaching at Brandi High School near Wewak, 1971-74, (you would have driven through Brandi it on your way to Tutubu) I used to go walking along the coast to the east of Turubu. I thought of it as the most beautiful, wonderful place on earth with heavenly walks, through the rainforest and looking down on the magnificent coast. The tracks were the most beautiful walking tracks, used by the local people, and Sil was my favourite beach. I used to visit those villages around the Turubu area and have some interesting stories to tell - some I have written about on PNG Attitude. Anyway, keep up your good work.

February 6, 2014 @ 10:10am
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