A LAND grab of 5 million hectares of Papua New Guinea, 11 per cent of its territory, has taken place quietly and apparently bloodlessly since 2003, half of it being signed over in the past two years.
But tension over one of the controversial leases has reportedly turned violent in the past week, with police chiefs investigating allegations of brutality by officers flown into the site in Pomio, East New Britain, by a logging company.
Police confirmed in an ABC news report that loggers financed the crackdown against local protesters who claim their traditional land was taken without their authority.
The Pomio lease is one of 72 deals being investigated by a commission of inquiry in Port Moresby.
Under the deals, title to the land, most of it densely forested, has been transferred from local customary ownership to the state and vested with a range of landowner, national and foreign corporate entities for 99 years.
The leases dramatically erode PNG’s proud but fraught heritage of customary land tenure, reducing it from 97 per cent of the nation to 86 per cent in less than a decade.
The land is then subleased to developers promising agricultural projects and roads into some of the nation’s most remote and disadvantaged country.
Landowners supporting the deals are banking on them paving the way for desperately needed jobs and basic services. But others fear the loss of control of land over three generations could have devastating consequences. More than 80 per cent of Papua New Guineans live in rural and remote villages, sustained by forests, fishing and food gardens.
The commission of inquiry is investigating concerns that most of the lease developers are loggers trying to bypass forestry laws and that a large majority have – in the words of the inquiry’s brief – acquired their rights ”without proper knowledge and involvement of the landowners”.
It is also investigating claims that many of the deals – Special Agricultural and Business Leases (SABLs) – have been brokered by corrupt officials, local leaders and developers colluding to exploit some landowners.
Australian developers involved in some of the largest leases strenuously defend the bona fides of their projects, which they say they fear will be undermined by less scrupulous deals.
Further muddying the waters, according to the picture emerging from the inquiry and investigations by academics and activist organisations, are bitter disputes between clan rivals; internecine political contests ahead of next year’s election; and profiteers speculating on increasing international hunger for land and resources.
Land-grabbing is a growing phenomenon across the developing world, with an Oxfam investigation last month identifying 227 million hectares as having been transferred to international investors in secretive deals since 2001.
While the focus has been on arable land in Africa, analysis by Pacific resources specialist Dr Colin Filer of the Australian National University found land deals in PNG forests amounted to twice the area grabbed across five African nations over a comparable period, and that the trend pre-dated the 2008 food price surge. Further, the land involved is predominantly forest already identified for its logging potential, not farmland.
”It is a moot point whether the companies interested in the acquisition of such land in PNG have any genuine interest in its agricultural potential, or whether they are simply looking for new ways to log PNG’s native forests,” Dr Filer says.
Greenpeace, which is supporting protesters at Pomio and other sites, says the leases capture about half of PNG’s accessible forest. They include pristine areas identified as potential pilots for investment by rich countries in preserving forests to offset carbon emissions, raising concerns that the deals will jeopardise PNG’s efforts to secure such investment.
Academics and policy experts have also warned of profound social, economic and environmental consequences if illegitimate leases are not extinguished.
Dr Filer says in a new paper investigating the land grab that if abuse of the lease schemes means benefits from the land are not fairly shared around customary owners, there could be a surge in rural social unrest and civil disorder.
Pomio has already emerged as a flashpoint as protesters used blockades, legal action and rallies to try to halt clearing for oil palm, clashing with other landowners supporting the project and site security. The lease is linked to Malaysian logging giant Rimbunan Hijau (RH).
After objectors took their case to the commission of inquiry, police last week made violent raids on villages while apparently searching out the protest leaders, according to official complaints now the subject of a police internal inquiry.
RH issued a statement saying the lease is legitimate and has the support of the majority of local landowners.