Recent amendments to PNG's Environment Act mean approvals granted by the Environment Department cannot be challenged in court. The Environment Minister Benny Allen says the changes are in the national interest and will protect resource projects from legal challenges. The changes followed complaints from the mining industry after landowners won a temporary injunction preventing a Chinese-owned Ramu nickel mine from dumping waste into the sea off Madang. Tiffany Nongorr, the landowners' lawyer says the amendments have effectively removed a person's right to sue for environmental damage.
Presenter: PNG correspondent, Liam Fox
Speaker: Tiffany Nongorr, PNG landowners lawyer
NONGORR: It is the most draconian piece of legislation with regards to human rights, particularly indigenous human rights that I have ever seen. It is ostensibly removed from the remote landowners, their English common law rights that they have had for about 100 years to protect their land from environmental harm and also to prevent it from any continuing environmental harm, it also removes their rights to sue for any environmental harm. Now what does that actually mean? So, for example, if Inter Oil did what BP has done in the gulf in the United States, had a big oil disaster because an accident happened, something happened that should not have happened whilst they were doing what they were authorised to do under a permit, then if all the coastline around the plant, 400 kilometres was destroyed by oil leaks, the landowners could not sue for compensation.
FOX: And what do you think is the government's motivation for this?
NONGORR: The government's motivation certainly is not the protection of its people or acting in the interest of landowners. Maybe it is to try and save face that the government knows, the Department of Environment and Conservation does not have the capacity to assess any of these environmental plans put up by miners or oil and gas companies and that these permits are given out without proper due process being followed. The government has signed contracts and says that its reputation is on the line. The problem is that it has now made its reputation worse and the reputation of Papua New Guinea worse, whilst the rest of the world or the rest of the Western democratic world have spent the last 50 years trying to undo the damage to indigenous peoples land rights. This government has managed to do what the white colonial rule did not do. The white colonial rule here didn't destroy any customary land rights, but now this government just has.
FOX: Bernie Allen says that the Department of Environment and Conservation does have the capacity to police the conditions of permits and to ensure that environmental damage is not done. What do you think about that claim?
NONGORR: Well, that particular claim is complete and utter rubbish. There are numerous breaches in many different projects now, none of which are picked up by the Department of Environment and Conservation and indeed even in the Ramu nickel matter. The Department of Environment and Conservation stated they did not have the capacity to assess the deep sea tailing scheme and got an Australian consultant to have a look at it.
FOX: How do you think if you can say this will affect your case?
NONGORR: Unfortunately all I can say at this stage is that whether or not this new piece of legislation affects the current case will be a matter for the court to decide.
FOX: As far as you're aware, is there an sort of consultation with people before these amendments were brought in?
NONGORR: Frankly, there was completely no consultation with any of the Rai Coast landowners. The Minister for Mines, Puka Temu, the Minister for Environment and Conservation, Benny Allen, came and accepted a petition on the 10th May at the village of Bongu on the Rai Coast did not mention a word about the fact that there was going to be legislation passed to completely remove the right of landowners to protect their land. Quite the contrary, they said the petition would be looked at and a response would be given. There certainly is in my role as a lawyer, there certainly has not been any consultation within the legal profession as to these far reaching amendments. As a lay person, I have seen nothing in the newspapers talking of these amendments and as far as I can see, there was no debate in parliament and it was a complete surprise to the Opposition. So it seems that the stripping of legal rights, both common law and customary from hundreds-of-thousands of Papua New Guinean landowners has been done in a rush with no consultation and it seems pretty much to save face of the current government. The government has portrayed its own people for the interests of foreign miners, there is no doubt about it.