Chatham House found PNG's indigenous landowners have 'uniquely strong' customary rights but says these are not being enforced.
Presenter: Jemima Garrett
Speakers: Sam Lawson, author Chatham House report 'Illegal logging in Papua New Guinea'
Bob Tate, Executive Officer, PNG Forest Industries Association
Paul Barker, Executive Director, Institute of National Affairs, PNG
GARRETT: The international forest governance project at Chatham House has been running for six years and has examined many tropical timber producing countries.
Its latest report says the majority of timber production in PNG is in some way illegal illegal practices are widespread.
Sam Lawson, the report's author, says clear-felling on fraudulently or corruptly-issued Special Agricultural and Business leases is a big contributor to PNG's problems.
LAWSON: One of the most blatant illegalities of recent years has been the illegal issuance of licences for conversion of forests for large scale agriculture projects.
GARRETT: A recent Commission of Inquiry into how more than 5 million hectares of land was leased out in this way found many leases were legally flawed or did not have landowner consent.
LAWSON: There other kinds of illegalities though including some small-scale logging for domestic consumption and there is also plentiful evidence that selective harvesting, so called sustainable forest management in PNG, often involves breaches of the regulations meant to minimise the environmental impact of such logging.
GARRETT: Just how did PNG rate on transparency in the logging industry?
LAWSON: Incredibly poorly! I mean I have examined some of the most poor countries in the world which suffer from illegal logging including countries which are only just recovering from conflict situations, civil wars and so on, and yet PNG was really probably the worst country we've examined in terms of transparency of information on the logging industry.
GARRETT: In his final report the Chief Commissioner of PNG's Inquiry into Special Agricultural and Business Leases said the most shocking abuse he found was the practice of extracting logs under the pretext of genuine SABL activities.
The Executive Officer of PNG's Forest Industries Association contests Chatham House's findings.
TATE: The main basis for their finding is this concept of free, prior, informed consent on the part of the landowners. Now, unfortunately Chatham House have chosen to ignore our laws and used a definition promulgated by, in the broadest sense, by the Forest Stewardship Council which has no standing in law in PNG hence their finding that landowners don't know anything to do with anything to do with forestry which of course is totally wrong.
GARRETT: In fact Chatham House found that the use of legally flawed Special Agricultural and Business leases was one of the main problems in the timber industry in PNG. What is your response to that?
TATE: A total exaggeration of, if you like, the size and scope of the way SABLs have crept into the forest industry. They are still only a minority of logging operations and we hope as the government ministerial committee works its way through the SABL debacle that many of those SABLs will be either rectified or terminated.
GARRETT: Chatham House found there was little completely unlicenced logging in PNG and little or no smuggling, and that tax coollection is better than in many countries.
Sam Lawson says forest laws are strong and landowners significant rights but these, and other laws, are are often not enforced.
LAWSON: We found that law enforcement was incredibly poor and we weren't the first to say that. A number of international bodies have stated this including the International Tropical Timber Organisation and others. Law enforcement is largely non-existent in PNG in terms of the logging industry. It is a very inaccessible country and the enforcers don't have independent means of transportation. They have very limited budgets and their bosses are often, in the past at least, have been found to be in hock to the logging companies. I mean more often than not the enforcer is expected to be given a lift by the logging company itself to travel around the concession, so you can imagine it is not a meaningful situation when it comes to enforcement of forest law.
GARETT: In PNG the debate hinges around what will happen to Special Agricultural and Business leases found to be legally flawed.
Chatham House has added its weight the Commission of Inquiry's recommendation that they be revoked.
Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has promised to act.
Paul Barker, Executive Director of PNG's Institute of National Affairs says the matter is urgent.
BARKER: Early action is needed and an immediate revocation of all those. I know some people in the Agriculture department have been running around trying to legitimise the SABLs that have been authorised when clearly, uh, they should start off being recognised as needing to be revoked because they were effectively undertaken without landowner consent or approval.
GARRETT: The Forest Industres Association acknowledges some Special Agricultural and Business Leases are flawed.
But Bob Tate says the Prime Minister's promise does not mean all flawed leases will must be revoked.
TATE: The Prime Minister and the NEC (National Executive Council) directive to the Ministerial Committee reviewing SABLs left the way open for where an SABL may have been, if you like, incorrectly issued but it is a minor and correctable mistake in paperwork or procedure, where possible those SABLs may yet be made legally compliant.