PNG villagers count huge cost of damage from logging

A road created by a SABL operation in Pomio, East New Britain. Photo: Global Witness

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Communities in Papua New Guinea's West Pomio District will suffer more than $US730 million worth of damage due to Special Agriculture Business Leases, according to a local advocacy group.

The social justice NGO Act Now says a damages assessment has been compiled by 17 communities that have lost over 42,000 hectares of customary land under the Pomata, Ralopal and Nakiura leases.

Many landowners in Pomio had complained that there was little or no consultation by the developers or relevant government agencies before logging commenced on their land. The loggers included subsidiaries of the Malaysian company Rimbunan Hijau which has long been a dominant player in PNG forestry.

The Pomio communities' assessment of costs comprises both the actual damage already suffered since the leases were issued and the future loss that will accrue through to 2110 if the leases are not cancelled and the land returned.

Members of the communities compiled the damages assessment using a framework developed by the University of Sydney's Tim Anderson, published in 2017.

Bleak future

The social justice NGO Act Now said that since the leases were issued around 2010 the communities had lost half of their garden areas, cash crops and cocoa sales.

According to a spokesperson from Malmaltalie, one of the affected communities, villagers never agreed to the loss of their customary land or the logging and oil palm planting.

Ana Sipona said with her community's forest removed, their future prospects were clouded.

“The landscape has really, really changed in a way that is going, into the future, going to cause much suffering for the village people, because of the changes in lifestyle, because of the fact that trees have gone, and you can't build new houses,” she explained.

“The land is gone. Where are the village people going to plant gardens to feed their families?”

Several years ago a PNG commission of inquiry into the country's Special Agriculture Business Lease system found that most of them were fraudulently obtained.

The national government had promised to revoke the fraudulent leases, but to date almost none of them have been cancelled, and in most cases logging and oil palm planting have continued.

“The villagers are still working as slaves on the oil palm trees,” Mrs Sipona said, adding that her community was unsure who had given the loggers approval to come to the district in the first place.

Intimidated

Several years ago various Pomio village communities, having become concerned about the logging on their land, met with pressure to say quiet by police when they started to protest.

Police in the district often acted to protect the interests of the logging companies over landowners. Mrs Sipona said those who complained were subject to police brutality in their own villages.

“There were (police) raids where the men and young boys were beaten. There have been many threats. even today the village people, women, we really fear, because of the police.

“They said if we don't sign (approval for the logging operations) we will be taken to court.”

Meanwhile, with the district's landscape altered and the natural fortification of forest cover gone, local communities were exposed to new elements.

“In the last couple of days, there's been very heavy rain, and what has happened is that because our villages are on the shoreline, and the logging is up on the hills… during the rain the village was flooded. All the houses were in the water, logs and things coming through our village. It's something that we've nver experienced before” Mrs Sipona said.

“I dont know what is going to happen, but something has to be done. I could say that our land should be returned, so we can start over again, and plant new trees.”

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