PNG landowners get negligible rent for SABL land leases: expert

Radio Australia | 1 March 2012

PNG landowners get negligible rent for SABL land leases: expert

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Papua New Guinea landowners are getting very little in the way of rent for vast tracts of land that have been leased out under controversial leases.

That is the conclusion of one of the most experienced researchers who has worked on land use issues, in PNG, for more than 30 years.

In the past decade, around 5 million hectares has been leased out under Special Agricultural and Business leases, often without the full knowledge and consent of landowners.

Public outrage at the scale of the leases prompted the former Somare government to set up a Commission of Inquiry. Its report is due in the next few weeks.

The Australian National University's Associate Professor Colin Filer, Convenor of the Resource Management in Asia and the Pacific project, says landowners are not getting the rent one might expect.

Speaker: Associate Professor Colin Filer, Convenor of the Resource Management in Asia and the Pacific project at the Australian National University

FILER: There is no real evidence they are collecting any real rent at all, unless that were built into the lease agreements, and not having seen the lease agreements in many cases, we really don't know. What they are getting is the promise of benefits from agricultural development, possibly also some royalties from the logging activity that would precede it, and the benefits would basically be jobs in the future.

GARRETT: Now Papua New Guinea is not the only country having to deal with these kinds of land grabs. How does what is happening in Papua New guinea compare with what is happening elsewhere?

FILER: It is difficult to say because of the very patchy nature of the information that we have about what is happening in different countries and because different countries have different legal institutions and policy regimes relating to all this, so comparison between countries is really very hard.

GARRETT: But in terms of area say, how does Papua New Guinea compare with other countries?

FILER: Well, in terms of area, 11 per cent of the land has been converted from customary ownership to this form of lease arrangement over the past eight years or so. That is up there with the highest figures you would find anywhere in Africa, which is the continent on which most of the focus on land grabbing has been directed.

GARRETT: How is it that landowners could end up with virtually no rent on such large areas of land?

FILER: Well, basically because they have agreed to lease their land out to the state so the state can lease it back to some company, which has done a deal with another company and there is a promise, which may never be fulfilled of course, of some kind of large-scale development ,from which the landowners will be able to benefit primarily, as I say, by way of employment rather than rental incomes.

GARRETT: Now, this issue as to whether landowners have actually agreed and had knowledge of these deals is a big one. What is your assessment of that? Do the landowners actually know what is going on with these leases?

FILER: It is rather difficult to tell because in some cases there have clearly been ground-breaking ceremonies or some kind of ceremonial occasion where speeches are made about some new project that is going to happen on this land, in other cases not. Where there have been public ceremonies politicians and public servants turn up and, presumably, it is hard to tell from the newspaper accounts, a small crowd of landowners turns up, perhaps even a large crowd, and they all make speeches and they all seem to be happy for a while. In other cases, there is no record of such ceremonies taking place and, to judge by the newspaper accounts of the proceedings of the Commission of Inquiry, there are clearly several cases, probably most cases, where large areas have been converted where most of the landowners simply don't know what is going on.

GARRETT: You had a lot of difficulty getting information. Just what potential does that leave for corruption to sneak into this business?

FILER: Well, again, it is hard to say. The public servants fronting up to the Commission of inquiry, even very senior ones, are basically saying they were not acting corruptly in their view, they were simply under political pressure from government ministers to sign the relevant approvals and they didn't feel they could really resist what was essentially a political directive from a minister or a group of ministers. So, if that is correct, it would indicate that if there is corruption, that it is probably at the political level rather than the bureaucratic level.

GARRETT: Companies that log land are supposed to pay royalties. Are landowners getting royalties for their land that has been leased out under Special Agricultural and Business leases?

FILER: Royalties from the logging operations? Well, this is not clear. I think you were talking to Bob Tate from Forest Industries Association and he didn't seem to know either. Basically, once the forests Authority has lost control over what is going on, which would happen if they have granted a forest clearing authority to a logging company, then they would probably not be in a position to guarantee the payment of royalties for the logs that are harvested, as they would under a timber permit for example.

GARRETT: What sort of options does the Commission of Inquiry have to clean up the Special Agricultural and Business leases?

FILER: Well, there is a big question mark over that as well! The lawyers involved in the Commission have occasionally made statements to the effect that they would not have the power to revoke leases of this kind on their own account, basically because of the legal foundation of this kind of arrangement. On the other hand, it is possible that dissident landowners will be able to continue what they have done in the past and go to court to ask national court to revoke these leases in particular cases, using evidence from the Commission of Inquiry to back up their arguments.

Original source: Radio Australia

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