Papua New Guinea (PNG) is one of the few places on earth where indigenous people still control their ancestor's land, with just three percent of the country controlled by the government or private enterprise. Customary ownership is partly responsible for the fact that PNG is home to one of the world's largest areas of intact tropical forests. PNG's indigenous people have close spiritual connections to their land and must be given free, prior and informed consent before any commercial activities can be carried out. The recent assignment of almost 20 per cent of PNG's remaining forests to agriculture leases (SABLs) is therefore profoundly disturbing to all Papua New Guineans.
Greenpeace ship the Esperanza has joined local landownders in the remote Pomio province to confront a logging scandal and protect PNG's vital forests. Greenpeace crew painted "stop the land grab" on the side of a ship loading stolen timber bound for China. The activity was met with hostility from the logging company but welcomed by local communities who want to see an end to a new lease system called 'Special-purpose Agriculture and Business leases' or SABLs. The introduction of SABLs will destroy over 5 million hectares of PNG's remaining forests and, along with it, the homes and livelihoods of hundreds of traditional communities.
Most SABLs run for 99 years and alienate customary owners who can only remain on their land at the discretion of the leaseholder.
"Our land has been stolen and our forests are being destroyed and no one asked our permission. These SABL leases must be stopped or my people will lose our livelihoods for 99 years and our forests forever" said Paul Palosualrea, a landowner leading today's protests in Pomio.
In October, the notorious Malaysia logging company, Rimbunan Hijau, paid police to fly into Pomio villages and silence the protesters. They abused people with fan belts and sticks and locked young men in shipping containers.
Like many leases, the Pomio SABL was fraudulently obtained and many of the names said to have approved the lease were of local children - one was as young as three.
A coalition of landowners, NGOs, civil society groups and a local timber union in PNG is calling for an end to all destructive and fraudulent SABLs and the protection of PNG's forests and landowners' rights. .
"The logging companies promise much needed roads and health services but all they deliver are dirty rivers and destroyed forests. The new PNG government must choose the rights of its people over company profits. This massive land grab has to stop" said Greenpeace forests campaigner in PNG, Sam Moko.