“Land is life” says Aipapu Marai, ward councillor in Sausi Village in the Madang Province of Papua New Guinea (PNG), to explain why he refuses to lease his land to a palm oil company despite years of pressure from the local administration and promises of good money.
In PNG, farmers grow or harvest more than 400 different plant species. An average family like Aipapu’s regularly grows between 30 and 80 species of food crops – and, interestingly, almost no cereals. Whereas a few crops are generally sold for cash, most of the food produced is consumed within the family or the wider community.
This diversity of crops lends to both food security and nutrition because it provides people with a diversified and nutritious diet and also works as insurance against changing conditions such as drought or new diseases. For instance, local farmers know that a minor or moderate drought results in increased production of mango and breadfruit but reduced production of other fruit, such as pawpaw. Similarly, sweet potato and cassava are tolerant of minor drought, whereas the same drought can negatively affect taro production.
Thanks to this diversity and good access to agricultural land for most people, household food security in PNG is considered to be high and most of the rural population can grow enough food to meet their minimum daily caloric requirements. Despite rapid population growth in PNG in recent decades, 83 percent of food energy consumed in the country continues to come from garden-grown foods.
By rejecting calls to give away his land, Aipapu Marai opposes the official development policy of his government, which intends to “free up land for development,” with the aim of “unlocking” it for “productive use.” As explicitly explained to the Oakland Institute research team by officials from the Department of Agriculture and Livestock, the administration is intent on convincing people to give up their their rights to their land, which are “hindering development,”.
The government has begun to break down protections for customary land rights established by the constitution enacted following independence in 1975. Thanks to this constitutional protection, the vast majority of PNG’s territory still belongs to its people. Until the end of the 2000s, 97 percent of the country’s 46 million hectares were governed by local tribes and clans under consensual regimes of customary rights. There is no private ownership of land in PNG. There is also no homelessness. Every single individual belongs to a tribe or a clan, and as such is entitled access to land and common resources.
But this is changing now. In the name of development, over the last decade the government has spared no effort to remove land from customary landowners and hand it over to foreign corporations for the establishment of plantations, primarily palm oil.
As a result of this policy, in a matter of a few years, more than 5.5 million hectares, or 12 percent of the country, were acquired by foreign firms through a scheme called Special Agriculture and Business Leases (SABLs). Ostensibly formed to launch agricultural projects, these firms appear to be mostly occupied with harvesting timber that is then exported to overseas markets. With the SABL scheme, foreign companies have found a new and relatively easy way to open new areas for logging in the world’s third-largest rainforest.
These land deals constitute one of the swiftest and largest land grabs in recent history. The Commission of Inquiry into the SABLs established by the government in 2011 found that land allocations almost never had the free, prior, and informed consent of the local people and involved countless accounts of fraud, corruption, misconduct, and incompetence by the government agencies in charge of managing these deals. In a number of cases, police force was used to intimidate people. Villagers were beaten, arrested, and, in some cases, forced by security forces to sign documents. In many deals, landowners were blatantly misled about the size and the nature of projects. In Turubu, East Sepik Province, villagers gave their consent to lease 10,000 hectares of land they had decided to set aside for an oil palm project. The lease eventually signed by a Malaysian logging company ballooned to more than 116,000 hectares–virtually all of the villagers’ land, including their houses, gardens, and all the surrounding forest.
This is one example among dozens of deceitful projects documented in the latest Oakland Institute report, co-published with Fiji-based Pacific Network on Globalisation, On Our Land: Modern Land Grabs Reversing Independence in Papua New Guinea. All over the country, local people are opposing the theft of their land and resources. But they are desperate for outside help, since from the top down the authorities seem to be working against their own citizens: from an official policy set to take away resources from the people and local police forces being hired by logging companies to repression of opposition on the ground. At the Oakland Institute, we are committed to stand with the people of Papua New Guinea and we ask the government and the corporations involved to immediately stop this land grab and to return titles of all irregular land deals to the people.
Beyond Papua New Guinea, this is a time of growing concerns over environmental degradation, depletion of resources, and the effects of climate change. Institutions and governments around the world are looking for ways to promote sustainable agricultural systems, which can both feed the people and respect the environment. Papua New Guinea is an open textbook offered to all of us who are seeking solutions to the problems and challenges of today’s world. We should not let anyone tear its pages.