The Oakland Institute, an independent policy think tank in the United States, is one of several strong critics of SABLs and the laws that allow them.
It says they allow logging companies to lease customarily-owned land through the guise of developing agricultural projects, which serve as fronts for unlawful logging operations that destroy the environment and devastate local communities.
Policy director and lead researcher on PNG at the Oakland Institute Frederique Mousseau says he remains concerned that only 28 SABLs are to be revoked.
MOUSSEAU: Yes this is one of the many questions that we are raising in the press release we put out today because there are indeed many questions around this new announcement, which sounded very positive initially from the Prime Minister, but we have to be very watchful and careful about too much optimism there because yes, the number but also when and how, there are many questions to be asked.
ABBOTT: The the Land Registrar as you've just heard has said that'll be the middle of July at least before the cancellations take effect, because there is a 14 day period required under the legislation to let somebody know that their lease is being revoked. Do you think that's fair that they should follow processes, or because this is a special circumstance ordered by a Commission of Inquiry, there should be some quicker way of ending these leases?
MOUSSEAU: Well this one story of SABL raises many issues of governance and functioning of PNG's institutions and government as well and ok, these 14 days might be enough. But we know that as this person said, he doesn't know and the government doesn't know what's going to happen if the companies go to court, they don't know necessarily how they're going to implement on the ground the decision, because what happened to the land that has been logged, what happened to infrastructure that has been built, what happened to the contracts? There are a lot of practicalities and decisions that have to be thought through, and we're not sure it has been done. We're looking at climbing, we know that it took one year for the commission to publish the report it had prepared, it took another year for the Prime Minister to hand down the decision. So we are very concerned about how this decision has been implemented because these two past years have already been very generous present made to logging companies. And the more we wait the less that would be left for the communities on this land.
ABBOTT: Do you think the delays in the commission's report going to the government, and then the government releasing that report were more or less deliberate, designed to give the SABL holders more time to continue their logging operations?
MOUSSEAU: We don't know if it was deliberate, but for sure there was a lot of resistance to the release of this report. And there was a lot of resistance to anything going against the interests of the logging companies. And we know there are high level officials in Papua New Guinea who have been involved in this and have been part of the deals with logging companies. So we are not in the politics of the PNG government, but the facts show that there have been resistance and definitely now even more resistance given the current announcement and the threat on the business of many that the decision is bringing.
ABBOTT: Now the Commission of Inquiry found that 42 SABLs should be revoked. Did it also recommend that charges be taken out against people involved in this very, very messy land lease scandal?
MOUSSEAU: Yes of course, the commission found so many irregularities and flaws in the way these deals have been written, and a lot of it is we can't just go after foreign corporations. A lot of what has happened was really due to the negligence or certainly the participation of a number of officials. So definitely there is action to be taken against many of them, and unfortunately in PNG we have a very bad record of this kind of fraud that has been identified by commissions, and we have other commissions in the past really resulting at the end into prosecution or disciplinary measures against those who have been involved. And we've seen so many examples in the past two decades that can make citizens of PNG concerned that this recommendation will never be implemented.
ABBOTT: What can be done to keep the pressure on the O'Neill government to do, to act on this SABL report as quickly as possible?
MOUSSEAU: I'm glad you're making this series of stories and I think it's important that we keep talking about it and remind the government that the world is watching, and it's not just people in Papua New Guinea who far from the capital who are concerned, the whole world is watching because what is happening there is one of the most outrageous instances of land grabbing in the world today. What we need to do to, and this is really something we've tried to show in our report last year on Papua New Guinea, which was looking at the land grabbing and these irregularities, but was also looking at what the commission didn't look at, is the whole policy that is behind that, and that has been really underlying the problem with SABL. The official policy of the government is to free up land for development. It is really to take away the land from its citizens to give it to corporations for development. And the government is expecting to have development by taking away farmland and forests from farmers and giving it to corporations. And we see the way it is happening. And what we are really challenging, and what needs to happen for a complete stop to all this, is really complete rethinking of this policy. We can't just free up land for development, and people are going to come and develop your country, it's not happening this way, doesn't happen this way, and it is leading towards the problems we have seen. So this is really beyond the SABL problem, what we are courting the governments to do is to rethink its approach to development. And unfortunately the last announcement by the government doesn't mention any rethinking, it's rather promises some reorganisation of how to do things better, but they want to keep doing the same thing.
ABBOTT: Now the government is prepared for the leaseholders to fight this move to take the leases off them by going to court. What about the people, what about the land owners, surely the cancellation of leases is not enough, there have been people moved off their land, they've seen their forests clear-felled I imagine and suffered abuse at the hands of logging companies and the police force. Are they ever likely to see compensation?
MOUSSEAU: We really hope so and we really encourage the citizens to claim their rights. We know many of them have been trying to do so but your listeners have to really realise that what local communities face on the ground is complete lack of access to justice and court. But also the police forces of Papua New Guinea themselves have been working on behalf of these logging companies. People have been really under all forms of repression. And we've met when we're doing our research last year, we met so many communities who were feeling so frustrated and exhausted because they didn't know where to go, to who to go to claim their rights. And that will be a big problem for many of them within communities in Papua New Guinea which may be in some remote island, will not have access easily to the capital, to a lawyer, to not know the procedures. And all this is going to make it very challenging for them. So definitely we would call for support for communities from NGOs and the government itself to help them to claim their rights, and it won't be easy. And I wanted also to point out another aspect of the question that I don't know if it was mentioned by your previous contemporaries, but the government might be ready to go to court, but it is also saying that it will make some of these illegal leases compliant with laws. And that was another court that was raised on our site from this recent announcement, because the National Executive Consular has officially said they want not to just revoke, but they want also for leases which are illegal to make them legal, find a way to make them legal in the interests of parties. And in terms of parties we can ask which parties are we talking about, because it's clearly for all this we have seen, it's clearly not in the interests of the people. It's in the interests of those who have been striking these deals. And we really need to monitor what's going to happen when the government is trying to make legal something that has been showed and proven to be illegal today.
Presenter: Brian Abbott
Speaker: Frederique Mousseau, Policy director, Oakland Institute