PNG moves to cancel illegal land leases

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Credit: Scheltema/Greenpeace

Credit: Scheltema/Greenpeace

Papua New Guinea’s Department of Lands and Physical Planning (DLPP) is reported to be clawing back land previously taken from traditional owners.

Between 2003 and 2012 customary landholding communities were alienated from 5.2 million hectares of forests for up to 99 years under a government decision to grant 78 Special Agricultural and Business Leases (SABL).

PNG is part of the third largest rainforest on earth and 97 per cent of the country remains under customary ownership which means the land is owned by traditional people who are able to produce food and use it according to their customs.

Nearly 90 per cent of PNG’s population live in rural areas, which make them particularly reliant on their land for their livelihood.
The SABL process was supposed to allow customary landowners to approve development activities on their land from which they would derive financial benefits. There were safeguards in PNG legislation which required the informed consent of affected landowners before their customary land could be converted to a SABL.

But, a Commission of Inquiry into the SABLs, established in 2011, found evidence of illegal and criminal activity around the process including fraud, inducements being paid to government officials, breach of legal requirements and forged signatures.

Three Australian related companies were named in the Commission of Inquiry reports as having benefited from illegally issued leases and two of the companies were criticised for their role in the issuing of the leases.

The Commission recommended that 29 of the SABLs be revoked, which covered land on which tens of thousands of people live. Last month there were reports that the DLPP wanted the titles on those SABLs to be surrendered to it within 14 days.

The titles not surrendered were to be cancelled.

The Commission for Mission resourced Uniting Church members to write to the Federal Government about the involvement of the Australia companies in the issuing of illegal leases. Two of the companies are now under investigation by the Australian Federal Police.

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