A Massive Land Grab in Papua New Guinea?

Via Radio Australia, a report from a leading Australian academic of a massive land grab happening in Papua New Guinea:

“…In a paper to be delivered at a conference in London Australian National University Associate Professor, Colin Filer, says 5 million hectares of customary land has passed into the hands of national and foreign corporations in PNG using a legal mechanism called the ‘lease-lease-back scheme’.

That land amounts to 11 per cent of PNG total surface area and is twice as much has has been lost to corporate interests in 5 African countries where land aquisition is regarded as a major problem.

FILER: It’s a rather complicated piece of legislation, but basically it allows the customary owners to lease land to the state and agree for the state to lease it back to a body which they approve of which could be a private company. And what we’re seeing is that 5.1 million hectares, about 11 per cent of the total land area has been leased back to private companies in this way since 2003, so that’s how it works. Why is it a problem? There are two aspects to the problem. One is have the customary owners really consented to this arrangement and what is actually going to be done with land? The question of what is being done with the land is basically coming down to the likelihood that most of it is going to be logged on the understanding that it will then be converted to some kind of agricultural development, but the prospect of the agricultural development seems a little bit shaky, which comes back to the question of whether the landowners knew that it would be shaky when they agreed to lease their land to the state in the first place.

COUTTS: It seems that the land is going to corporate entities, will the landowners get adequate share of the profits?

FILER: Well, possibly not, if the deal is the logging activity will fund the agricultural development, then it’s quite likely that the landowners would have been persuaded if they were agreeable that they would forego the benefits they would have got from the logging in order for those benefits to be invested in the agricultural development, but if the agricultural development doesn’t happen, then they might just make a loss on the whole venture.

COUTTS: Well, under these lease backed schemes, how long are they, the leases actually fall. will the landowners lose the say in the right over their own land for how long?

FILER: In most cases, 99 years which is the maximum period allowed under the legislation as in most other countries where these kind of leasing arrangements apply. So yeah, in most cases they would have given up their rights for 99 years, but whether anybody else could actually make use of the land for 99 years through some trading arrangement in the leases, well that’s a very open question. The customary owners are still sitting there in occupation of their land.

COUTTS: So what is actually driving the land grab?

FILER: Well, I think in most cases, it’s simply the interest of the logging industry in getting access to additional forest resources through this mechanism when in fact their ability to access resources through the forestry act and legislation is far more constrained and there is a real pressure on them to try and get that access quickly because of the prospective decline in the market for the sort of logs that Papua New Guinea export, which are things from many sources, because it’s likely to happen within the next two, three, four, five years or so.

COUTTS: How can this happen when Papua New Guinea has constitutional guarantees for customary land?

FILER: That’s a very interesting question, because here I am at the conference in Europe, where everybody is saying kind of the land grab that’s happening in Africa or Latin America because the state ultimately owns the land and customary rights are not protected. So Papua New Guinea is an unusual case where there is this legal protection of customary rights and yet these customary rights are being abrogated. So is it simply the total corruption of the system or is it a degree of consent from the customary owners? This is a really interesting question.

COUTTS: Well, we’ve talked about some of the problems of the 99 year lease and the question mark over whether there’ll be other access given during that 99 years or whether the customary landowners lose it altogether. Is that the extent of the potential dangers of the lease backed scheme?

FILER: Well, look you can’t, I mean there is no serious prospects of customary owners being evicted from their land under these arrangements. They are simply not going to take it. They will resist if necessary with violence, so they will continue to occupy their customary land. The real question is will the arrangements produce any benefits for them. If they don’t, then they will simply ignore the arrangement and who is going to enforce the rights. I don’t think that the state and its police forces are going to be capable of doing that.

COUTTS: Well, if the demand is decreasing as you suggest and the logging supplies are also running out. What’s going to happen?

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR FILER: Well, it’s not that the logs are running out, it’s mainly because the Chinese market for the logs which currently consumes 90 per cent of the logs that come from Papua New Guinea is by all accounts going to dry out because the Chinese themselves are investigating other ways of securing their raw materials and producing their furniture and so forth. So it’s a bit like what happened with the Japanese already. So word is that the Chinese market will dry up in which case the loggers have to get their logs to the Chinese market sooner rather than later, otherwise they’re won’t be a market.

COUTTS: So hence, the motivation for the land grab at the moment?

FILER: Yes, I think that’s the main driver of it.

COUTTS: What action should the PNG government and the landowners be taking to tackle the issue on their own behalf?

FILER: I don’t see any alliance there right now. I think interesting political consolation is that the sort of key players in the current national government are allied with various logging companies and so-called development partners to push these things through and there is sort of a growing opposition which involve not only environmental NGOs, but elements of the private sector, including the existing oil palm industry in Papua New Guinea, which has interests of its own to stop this happening and also significant elements of the public service, although they are to a degree silenced by the desires of their own political masters.

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About This Blog And Its Author
Seeds Of A Revolution is committed to defining the disruptive geopolitics of the global Farms Race.  Due to the convergence of a growing world population, increased water scarcity, and a decrease in arable land & nutrient-rich soil, a spike of international investment interest in agricultural is inevitable and apt to bring a heretofore domestic industry into a truly global realm.  Whether this transition involves global land leases or acquisitions, the fundamental need for food & the protectionist feelings this need can give rise to is highly likely to cause such transactions to move quickly into the geopolitical realm.  It is this disruptive change, and the potential for a global farms race, that Seeds Of A Revolution tracks, analyzes, and forecasts.

Educated at Yale University (Bachelor of Arts - History) and Harvard (Master in Public Policy - International Development), Monty Simus has long held a keen interest in natural resource policy and the geopolitical implications of anticipated stresses in the areas of freshwater scarcity, biodiversity reserves & parks, and farm land.  Monty has lived, worked, and traveled in more than forty countries spanning Africa, China, western Europe, the Middle East, South America, and Southeast & Central Asia, and his personal interests comprise economic development, policy, investment, technology, natural resources, and the environment, with a particular focus on globalization’s impact upon these subject areas.  Monty writes about freshwater scarcity issues at www.waterpolitics.com and frontier investment markets at www.wildcatsandblacksheep.com.