Little common ground as land grab splits a people
Sydney Morning Herald | 15 October 2011
Into the fire ... Rita Foxcy on her land near Kiunga, which is subject to a special agricultural and business lease. (Photo: Jason South)
by Jo Chandler
From 200 metres up, the jungles of Papua New Guinea's Western Province look like close-packed heads of broccoli. The canopy is so dense you can't see the trees for the forest.
Four years ago, then prime minister Sir Michael Somare described these seemingly impenetrable landscapes to the United Nations' climate change meeting in Bali as ''our planet's lungs, thermostat and airconditioning system''. It was a moment of high rhetoric, spearheading a pitch by impoverished, forested nations to wealthy, denuded ones to invest in preserving the green bits of the globe.
But reality intrudes as fiercely as the weather in these parts. Suddenly the cloud closes in and the forest is obscured, much like Somare's grand vision.
Across Papua New Guinea since 2003, title to more than 5 million hectares of mostly densely forested land - 11 per cent of the country - has been transferred from customary local ownership to the state through a mechanism known as lease-leaseback and then into the names of landowner companies, which contract developers to build roads and agro-forestry projects.
The deals have so far eroded customary tenure from 97 per cent to 86 per cent of the country, triggering public outrage, expert alarm and the establishment of a commission of inquiry to investigate concerns that many of the leases are merely a front for unregulated logging in a nation recognised as a treasure trove of biodiversity.
The village of Drimgas, deep in Papua New Guinea's wild west, sits in a small clearing in the endless green. Its 500 people live in homes perched on stilts above the muddy banks of the Fly River.
Locals still hunt down or grow most of their food. Wild pig, sago and cassowary are augmented by bagged rice, tinned fish and two-minute noodles. Homes are built from the raw materials the forest provides: walls of split black palm trunks, roofs of sago leaves.
Drimgas reflects life for most of Papua New Guinea's almost 7 million people, many far beyond the reach of failing government services and for whom land is the only reliable resource and asset.
They have no electricity, no communications, no health worker or supplies at the aid post. The village recorder Albert Suare says 10 local women have died in childbirth in three years, reflecting the ongoing emergency of one of the highest maternal death tolls in the world.
Contentious ... Jackson Ubre paddles from Drimgas, on the Fly River, near Kiunga. (Photo: Jason South)
As the new Prime Minister, Peter O'Neill, observed in a bleak ''state of the nation'' speech last month, ''roads and bridges, airports and wharves are in a shambles; our health and education facilities are in a deplorable state''.
Around Drimgas, many families earn modest income from smallholdings of rubber trees pushed into the forest but this profit piggybacks on the subsidised freight traffic from the nearby Ok Tedi copper mine, which provides jobs and some services as well as environmental devastation from the toxic tailings it has poured into the river system over decades. Now the mine is winding down. Survival, again, turns on the land.
''We have to take care of the forest,'' the lay pastor Sei Ubre says. ''It is our life.''
His people's rights to use the land are dictated by complex clan rules and ancestry and are fiercely protected. They are also safeguarded by Papua New Guinean law, which at independence in 1975 proudly recognised traditional ownership of 97 per cent of the country. These rights are cherished by the rural majority but have frustrated and frightened off potential developers.
Pundits wrangle over the contention by some that customary title endures as the overwhelming impediment to Papua New Guinea's economic advancement - and by others that such thinking fails to grasp the significance of land, in terms of spirituality and identity, as well as material sustenance, and how corrosive its erosion could be.
Where economists agree is that at the core of the many challenges facing the fragile nation is how to reconcile the exploitation of the land's wealth with the rights of customary landowners.
To this end, six years of intensive effort has been invested in evolving a new system for land title. It is the single most sensitive and fundamental reform for improving life for the people of Papua New Guinea, the man leading the push, Dr Thomas Webster - the director of Papua New Guinea's National Research Institute and chairman of the National Land Development Taskforce - says. ''Many attempts have been made to reform land in PNG. All past efforts have failed,'' Webster says. Some ended in riots and bloodshed.
But even as that fraught discussion has lurched on, finally now translating from talk into legislation, stealthily but quite suddenly the ground has entirely shifted.
The controversial lease agreements that shift control of the land from customary local ownership to the state have already swallowed up almost 18 per cent of Papua New Guinea's forests, says Justin Ondopa of Papua New Guinea's Eco-Forestry Forum. Clearing is already underway on many sites and Dr Ondopa calculates that if the trend continues, by 2021 about 83 per cent of forests will be gone or degraded.
The sudden vulnerability of Papua New Guinea's forests is emerging as a serious threat to the nation's ambitions - as articulated by Somare back in 2007 - to take a lead role in UN schemes to invest in preserving forests.
''If these deals are just about quick and dirty logging, it is a problem for PNG's reputation in the international climate change scene,'' the Australian National University academic and Pacific resources veteran Colin Filer says.
Domestically, the preoccupation is with the legitimacy of the 72 special agricultural and business leases now under investigation, many of them allegedly being obtained through corruption or negligence and executed - in the words of the commissioners' brief - ''without proper knowledge and involvement of the landowners'', posing ''great danger'' to the nation.
Pressure for a halt on the deals peaked in March with the intervention of the UN Commission on Human Rights over the ''dramatic acceleration'' in the alienation of indigenous title in Papua New Guinea. This followed an attack by one of the nation's most senior public servants on the beleaguered lands office handling the leases.
The Attorney-General's Department secretary, Lawrence Kalinoe, told a public meeting the department was ''entirely corrupt'' and that ''officers and certain rogue landowners are colluding and conniving with each other to sell off customary land for their own benefit and interest, while the majority of landowners are left out''.
Disputes over the deals have split communities, causing anxiety and divisions between champions of the leases - desperate for the opportunities they promise - and objectors.
Because Drimgas falls within one of nine Western Province leases signed off to landowner companies for 99 years, its people find themselves at a crossroads. Ubre is equivocal as he contemplates the hordes of children playing on the riverbank near where the lease deal would build a bridge over the Fly River - a road pushing into the interior, promising jobs and services.
''If the development comes and wants to harvest my resource, my land, I will have to think first. I will have to consider that. Because for the moment, I might want to do that,'' he says. ''But for the future, what if my children will suffer?
''We don't want development to risk all this in future - we don't want to spoil our animals or plants. We want to know that any resources from our land will be there for our children - not like in some other countries, like in Africa.''
It's only a couple of months since a bulldozer finally found its way to Drimgas, carving a rough road through the forest, which is cause for great celebration.
In the most impoverished landscapes in the world, a road is at once the most prosaic and potently transformative instrument money can buy. ''The promise of a road is a powerful thing,'' says Samson Dialobe, whose Biami people live over the river and many days walk through the forest.
A road means nurses, teachers, technology and supplies can be easily delivered and sick children, pregnant women, surplus crops and fish for sale can be ferried out.
A former local politician, Dina Gabo, has devoted years to trying to find a way to get a road to his home town of Nomad, where about 15,000 people live beyond the reach of the outside world unless they can raise 350 kina ($155) for an airfare, or trek four days through the bush to Kiunga. He founded a landowner company in 1995.
''Our aim was to build a road and we would allow a developer to collect timbers in return. Through that, we thought we might get better health and education,'' he says.
In 2003, he began talks with Neville Harsley, the chief executive of International Timbers and Stevedoring - a Papua New Guinea-registered company with a link to a US-registered parent and bankrolled and run by a Queensland engineering outfit with long local experience. Gabo brought to the table the signed support of 81 incorporated land groups from communities along the proposed road route.
Finally this year their talks culminated in the announcement of a project promising to construct a bridge over the Fly River at Drimgas and from there to build a ''trans-Papua highway'', ultimately pushing some 600 kilometres east, crossing rivers and connecting forest communities, eventually finding its way to Port Moresby.
En route, International Timbers and Stevedoring promised to develop projects including cash crops, furniture-grade timber plantations and a sawmill. In return, it has the rights to log up to five kilometres each side of the road corridor - but it would be ''selective logging'', not clear-felled, Harsley says.
The project was signed off in a ceremony overseen by the Governor-General, Michael Ogio, in May, but Gabo wasn't there to see it, having withdrawn his support and fallen out bitterly with other local powerbrokers and with Harsley.
They accuse him of jumping ship and ''playing politics'' - he says the lease paperwork did not reflect the terms he had taken in good faith to local people.
The leases were issued for 99 years - the deal was for 25, Gabo says. They also cover vast territory, including land owned by tribes he had not consulted.
Dialobe, of the community of Mougulu, has joined Gabo to fight the deal, saying his people's land ''was taken under the title with no consent''. ''We fear our children might be refugees on their own land if they lose their land rights,'' he says.
Other landowners vigorously defend the deal, saying the terms are what are required for the project to succeed and that it has wide support.
Harsley says he has spent eight years and 30 million kina consulting and negotiating with landowners, securing their trust and support. He says that the route as far as Nomad has been agreed and protects all sensitive sites, gardens and villages and that the contract explicitly safeguards the rights of people to continue to fish, hunt and live on the land.
Since May, another 200 land groups from within the lease areas have signed on, he says. ''Our concept is a lot different to [other business leases],'' he says. The 99-year leases stay in the hands of the landowner umbrella company. Surveys on the route would identify land ownership, he said, and could then be used to extinguish the lease in favour of the individual clans.
Extending the lease footprint beyond the corridor of the project was done to protect the rights of landowners, he says. It ''puts a ring fence around [the project], prevents the walk-ins from making false claims on the land''.
But one of the fiercest opponents of the leases, the Kiunga businessman and former Papua New Guinean government minister, Warren Dutton, compares the vast claims to the enclosure movement that fenced off communal land in Britain. ''It's taking away the peasants' land and giving it to the chief of the landowning class,'' he says.
He argues that lands officers have acted negligently and illegally in issuing the leases.
''People are having their land stolen from them, literally, without even being aware it has happened, let alone consenting,'' he says.
''In practical terms nobody is going to take it off them but the state is supposed to protect the interests of people, not steal from them.''
Dutton, who first came to Western Province as a kiap in 1962, says he finds it impossible to believe any Papua New Guinean villager ''would or could be prepared to cede absolutely all of his land to the state for 99 years''. He is particularly concerned for the 2200 small rubber farmers who are shareholders in North Fly Rubber Co-operative, which he chairs.
In the next couple of weeks the agricultural and business leases commission of inquiry will sit in Kiunga and try to determine the legitimacy, implications and local support for the Western Province leases. Harsley will be fighting hard to prove the bona fides of his projects to the commissioners.
''This inquiry unfortunately doesn't distinguish between the good and bad operators,'' he says.
''The big hysteria was that this was a foreign land grab. Well, since when were PNG landowner companies foreign entities?''
The inquiry exposed the shortfalls ''of a lot of the quick leases'', he says, but ''people like ourselves who have tried to do the right thing have all been thrown in the same bucket''.
Filer, who has closely studied the land grab in Papua New Guinea, is not persuaded that many of the lease deals will deliver real agricultural development. The leases are mostly on forested land, he says.
He also points to the murkiness of the drivers of the land grab, which in Papua New Guinea defy simplistic narratives of foreign exploiters preying on innocent, indigenous dupes.
He hypothesises the grab is in part being driven by a confluence of political and corporate opportunism, with politicians and loggers masterminding the new generation of ''agro-forestry'' projects. He says they are aided and abetted by local powerbrokers - often educated ''paper landowners'' who live in the cities - who persuade rural villagers to go along with the projects even if they do not realise the full consequences. Some may have a belief this will speed up rural development and alleviate poverty, he says.
It could blow up violently if ultimately all landowners do not benefit fairly from the projects, he says.
Filer was one of 26 Papua New Guinean and Australian environmental and social scientists, resource managers and legal and forestry activists instrumental in forcing the agricultural and business leases inquiry when they signed a petition deploring the leases.
Raising the living standards of the people of Papua New Guinea was an urgent goal which required sustainable exploitation of natural resources but the lease deals were not the right mechanism, the signatories of the Cairns Declaration said.
The inquiry is due to report at the end of the month. ''I'm just hopeful that those engaged in the inquiry will have the time, power and political independence to fully investigate concerns over the leases,'' says William Laurence, a leading conservation biologist at James Cook University and convener of the Cairns Declaration. ''Those behind these leases are politically connected and determined and there's very powerful financial interests involved.
''PNG is changing at an explosive rate right now. Industrial logging is rampant and it's broadly agreed that PNG's forests are being seriously overharvested, with substantial environmental impacts.''
What no one wants is a repeat of a disastrous deal by another Fly River community who, back in the 1990s, invited a Malaysian logging company to build them a road to Kiunga in exchange for trees.
Over the next decade the loggers cut a swathe down a 240-kilometre route. In June this year Papua New Guinea's national court ordered Concord Pacific to pay record damages of 226 million kina to local tribes to compensate them for the damage - heavy erosion, constant flooding, the destruction of food gardens and the loss of local game.
The judge said the project had completely destroyed the lives of local people. And there was still no road.
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