Government to endorse unlawful SABL land grab

ActNow! | 4 April 2106

Government to endorse unlawful SABL land grab
The government is to ignore the SABL Commission of Inquiry and endorse the SABL land grab by converting the unlawful leases into registered land and issuing new leases to the logging companies.
The plan was outlined for a second time by Lands Minister Benny Allen in Parliament on Friday . The idea was first raised by the Minister in February.
The Prime Minister has made numerous promises his government will implement the findings of the SABL Commission of Inquiry and cancel the unlawful leases, but after nearly three years that seems increasingly unlikely.
Endorsing the land grab by converting the unlawful leases will require amendments to the Lands Act. Those amendments should be vigorously opposed as the proposal will not only compound the injustice already suffered by village communities it will leave them even worse off and there land will still be in foreign hands.
Below we outline seven reasons why the government plans should be condemned.
One: Changes to the Lands Act will take away customary rights
The Lands Minister's proposal is to amend the Lands Act so the SABL leases can be converted into registered land and then subleases issued. But such a move will deny the landowners their constitutional right to decide what happens on their customary land.
Currently, only the landowners themselves can decide if they want to register their land and if they want a sub leases issued and who it is issued to. And each of these decisions can only be made after a lengthy and intensive process of consultation and empowerment [see endnote]
But the government is proposing to remove these rights.
Two: Customary landowners will still lose control of their land
Land registration and sub-leases means the landowners will still lose control and use of their land. It is just another form of land alienation, which will deprive rural people of their most vital asset, which they rely on for their daily subsistence and cultural heritage. To make things even worse the land registration will be in perpetuity, meaning it is forever. Customary landowners will never get their land back.
Three: Land area far too large
The SABL lease areas are huge, over 5 million hectares in total. That is 12% of the whole of PNG. On average each individual leases covers an area of some 65,000 hectares. This is far larger than is necessary for any agriculture project. The three genuine leases found by the CoI, which were for coffee plantations, covered less than 425 hectares in total!
Most of the SABL lease areas have in fact been acquired for logging or land speculation, not genuine agriculture activities. Where there are genuine agriculture activities within SABL areas they require far far less land than that actually acquired.
There could be no justification for registering 5 million hectares of customary land as the Minister is proposing.
Four: Conversion would allow the illegal logging to continue
The unlawful SABL leases have in some cases been used as a cover for illegal logging operations. The Forest Authority has allowed SABL lease holders to carry out large logging operations, ostensibly to clear land for agriculture planting. More than 5 million cubic metres of logs valued at over $500 million have been exported from SABL areas.
A process to convert the SABL leases to registered land will allow the government to continue to ignore the illegal logging rather than stopping it.
Five: Leaseholders not fit and proper persons
The current SABL leaseholders did not comply with proper processes and procedures in acquiring their leases. In many cases the Commission of Inquiry found evidence of fraud and in some cases recommended criminal investigation. These companies are not fit and proper persons and should not be allowed to retain their control of the land or be issued with any new leases.
Six: Conversion would undermine the Constitution
Land registration and sub-leasing to corporations defeats third National Goal in the Constitution. Customary landownership is central to the concepts of National Sovereignty and Self Reliance. Converting the SABL leases will further disenfranchises local people to the benefit of big-business and foreigners.
Seven: Lands Department dysfunctional and corrupt
The Department of Lands and Physical Planning is too centralized, dysfunctional and corrupt to be trusted or allowed to administer customary land at the current time. Rural landowners have no way of approaching or consulting Lands Officers in the capital Port Moresby or challenging their decisions. The SABL leases are just one example of the unlawful and often corrupt activities of the Department. What is required is a total overhaul of the Department, removal and prosecution of those involved in unlawful activity and a completely new system of land administration, not just some token staff changes, before any further land acquisition is attempted or any new titles issued.
Converting the SABL leases to registered land and issuing subleases would not only repeat all the injustice and human rights abuses inherent in the original SABL leases it risks compounding the problem by giving secure title over vast tracts of land to foreign speculators without the informed consent of traditional landowners.
Land registration would actually be worse than the SABL leases as it is not limited by time and once commoditized land can be sold, leased or mortgaged again and again. It is the first step to making people slaves and excluding them permanently from their land.
The only right and proper course of action is for the government to cancel the SABL leases and return the land to the customary landowners. It will then be for the people to decide on the future for their land.
Justice Gavara-Nanu in Maniwa v Malijiwi [2014]:
"For the landowners to be sufficiently informed of the new Government policies such as introduction of SABLs which would adversely affect their traditional lifestyle; more in-depth awareness meetings should have been conducted. This could have been achieved by Government officers travelling to the SABL areas and talking to the landowners in their villages. This exercise should have been done over a period of time, say six or twelve months or even more so that the people were made aware of and understood what SABL is about, its benefits, advantages and disadvantages and so on. To me, this is the true Papua New Guinea way of consulting with people in the villages, especially where new projects are introduced in their areas and especially where SABLs would attract other projects, such as the introduction of oil palm plantations in the SABL areas. In introducing projects such as this which would have permanent and long term effect on their land, genuine and meaningful consultation with the landowners must be carried out among the landowners. This is emphasized by the Constitution in the Directive Principles under the fifth goal, which provides for promoting and protecting Papua New Guinean ways."
"Papua New Guinean way of meeting and consultation with landowners as I discussed above and as provided by the Constitution was required because the SABL and the related activities or projects were going to interfere with and affect their traditional lifestyle, their customary rights to land, rivers, the sea and forests. The SABL was granted to the fifth defendant for 99 years, that is how long the landowners would be denied from the use and enjoyment of their land. So the generations of landowners would be affected. This is why the defendants needed to go to the villages in SABL areas and talk to the landowners, in their families clans and tribes, in the languages they could understand. If they did understand English, Pidgin or Motu, then use interpreters to interpret things in their own languages. This to me is the Papua New Guinean way of consultation and making awareness to the landowners as envisaged by s. 5 of the Constitution. By doing things this way, people and their cultures will be recognized, acknowledged and respected."

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