Lands held and managed under custom in Papua New Guinea (PNG) are regularly quoted as covering the vast majority of the country’s land mass, 97% is the usually accepted figure. The remaining 3% of lands, no longer governed by tradition and custom, are referred to as ‘alienated lands’ and come under the management of the Department of Lands and Physical Planning. However these remarkable figures of land tenure security hide a grimmer truth. Over the past 13 months alone almost 10% of the land mass of Papua New Guinea has been issued out as concessions under an arrangement known as ‘Special Agricultural and Business Leases’ (SABL). Under these lease agreements, the government leases customary lands from traditional owners and re-leases the same lands, often to a third party, with customary rights to the lands suspended for the term of the lease.
Although originally intended to enable access to capital for indigenous peoples themselves, the massive expansion of these leases (predominately for extendable 99 year leaseholds) represents an extraordinary de facto extinguishment of customary rights over lands and resources in Papua New Guinea. Access to the court system has proved difficult for indigenous communities intent on challenging these leases, but for those who have managed to reach the courts, cases of manipulated or falsely claimed consent from the traditional owners have been documented.
The Center for Environment Law and Community Rights (CELCOR) in PNG, together with the Forest Peoples Programme, and with the Bismark Ramu Group (also in PNG) and Greenpeace Asia Pacific as signatories, raised the issue of land loss represented by these SABLs with the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in March 2011. In addition to SABLs, the submission also raised the issue of loss of rights by indigenous people in Papua New Guinea brought about by the enacting of the Environment (Amendment) Act 2010. This was an Act passed by the PNG government that effectively bars access to judicial remedy where environmental degradation occurs on customary lands under certain permit conditions. CERD responded with an urgent letter to PNG’s Ambassador to the United Nations, detailing the Committee’s concern with the issuance of SABLs and with the amendments to the Environment Act in PNG.
The rapid rise in the number of SABLs has been raising concern throughout PNG, the region and the world. In March 2011 a group of PNG lawyers and activists together with others from around the region issued what is commonly known as the ‘Cairns Declaration’, condemning the huge rise of these permits in PNG. The PNG government has announced a moratorium on these permits that will begin later this year, one reason perhaps for the recent escalation in issuing the permits. CELCOR and others in Papua New Guinea are calling for a review of the existing permits, assessment of the consent procedures on which the permits are based and cancellation of permits found to be invalid.