Interview — Violent corporate land grabbing in Papua New Guinea
An interview with Frédéric Mousseau from the Oakland Institute, which recently released a report On Our Land: Modern Land Grabs Reversing Independence in Papua New Guinea.
This interview details the violent process of corporate land grabbing now taking place in Papua New Guinea, driven by international logging corporations operating with little oversight in some of the world’s largest rainforests, all with the direct complicity of many politicians. On Our Land report describes “a massive land rush” taking place on territories largely shaped by indigenous conceptions of land use and rights, where virtually no private ownership exists.
There is extensive and rapid land grabbing that is currently taking place in Papua New Guinea, certainly one of the largest and swiftest we have seen in the world. Over five years over 500 million hectares have been acquired by foreign corporations and this represents around 12% of the country. If you compare the scale to U.S. geography, it would equal both California and Texas taken by land grabbing.
So what is happening, and this information is from our findings but also from the Papua New Guinea government commission inquiry that took place over the past two years, is that there is widespread fraud and corruption within government agencies dealing with land, which means that the land rights of the people are being taken away without their consent and without respecting existing regulations in place to protect peoples rights and the environment. So there has been a massive scandal in Papua New Guinea that is actually on a huge scale in terms of land area.
Now in terms of the popular reaction in Papua New Guinea, I understand that generally speaking as a society there is a very strong collective connection to the land, in terms of indigenous cultures that have a relationship to the land not necessarily defined in terms of private ownership but more shaped by an understanding of land as part of a collective heritage and culture. Could you speak to the clash of visions around land rights that is currently facing Papua New Guinea and also how the people on the ground have been reacting to this massive wave of land grabbing that has hit Papua New Guinea?
This is a very important point, a very strong point. There is a saying that says in Papua New Guinea that people belong to land as much as land belongs to people and as you mention there is very little private ownership of land historically, only more recently around these mass land acquisitions. Common estimate that around 97% of the land in the country is under customary land rights, it means that land belongs to communities collectively. And this is what the land grabbing is about, its about taking this land which has always been under the collective ownership of the people and giving it to foreign investors.
The shock felt by thousands of Papua New Guineans who have this strong attachment to their land, to suddenly realize that their lands, their crops, their forests, have been suddenly handed over to foreign corporations, often for leases at around 99 years, so over several generations.
So in reaction there has been a lot of resistance, a lot of opposition in local communities. But unfortunately the private companies operating on these lands have the police and the justice system on their side, often the companies pay, hire police forces to repress local populations in remote areas fighting these land grabs. So local people in Papua New Guinea are facing all sorts of intimidation, beatings, arrests, people being forced but physical intimidation to sign documents, or to let builders into the lands.
It is a very violent grabbing that is happening and people are not happy, and they are resisting but they are faced with violence, the police forces, the power of the government and they are really crying out right now. Everywhere we went the people were telling us to spread the word, they are facing serious repression, the police, the corporations and the government is against them, while their resources are being taken.
In terms of the guilty players involved, can you talk about some of the companies and economic interests that are involved in this process?
So on the recent land grabs, we looked at around 70 land deals in Papua New Guinea, and among those deals the companies were Malaysian, Australian, American and also South Korea, China and Japan, so there is big mix, but a lot of the companies are actually Malaysian companies [like Brilliant Investment Logging] who specialize in logging, and its the same for the big Australian company which is really there for logging.
In terms of commercial interests, all the logs go to China, but its not just China, some people will just stop at that point, that all the logging is directed to China. We have looked at what happens to these logs and China processes those logs and exports them as wood products and furniture to its main export markets which are North America and Europe. So people in North America and Europe are purchasing products that come from Papua New Guinea but that isn’t clear because the wood has been transformed in China before hand.
In fact this is a global laundering scheme involving illegal wood, that starts in the forest of Papua New Guinea, goes to China and then arrives in stores mainly in Europe and North America. So many, many players are active in this chain, including the retailer who sells the furniture, the companies involved in the illegal logging, the importers who bring the products to market and finally the consumer in North America, or in Europe.
Over the past decade there has been serious mobilizations in Papua New Guinea against mining corporations, the role of Australian, Canadian corporations, but also companies from many other countries, operating mining projects in Papua New Guinea without the consent of local communities, indigenous populations. Do you see any links between these mobilizations that have happened around the mining sector and this latest struggles that are taking place around corporate land grabbing?
Its true, when you talk to local community activists in Papua New Guinea, people don’t differentiate between mining or logging. In fact what they see is a very violence taking over of their is linked to all these different foreign corporations, there is mining, there is logging, there is the development of agricultural lands for palm oil. Also there are fisheries and there are also projects for liquified gas, so you really feel this attraction to the country by many international corporate interests.
And all across the country the situation is similar, the problems we mentioned earlier, land rights, corruption, many state agents working simply for the corporate interests. Actually there is a complicity of the government agencies across all sectors, and people are losing their land rights everywhere in Papua New Guinea, across sectors.
There is resistance but unfortunately given that the country has kept certain traditions and a culture over centuries, today many of the communities involved are divided, they are struggling communities and if they are fighting they are often fighting on their own, there are not many national coalitions or groups representing these community interests.
There are educated elites in the cities who are supporting this process but then in the remote communities people are fighting in different ways, often isolated. There are different languages in different regions, these areas are often difficult to reach by transport, and corporations are taking advantage of this division and remoteness of the people in different communities.
Thanks for the interview.
Thanks for the discussion and this important questions, if you are interested please visit the website of the Oakland Institution at www.oaklandinstitute.org