A newly released documentary exposes what it calls the largest, swiftest land grab of our times. “On Our Land” lays bare the machinery behind land misappropriation in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and its effect on the local population and environment.
“On Our Land” delves deep into the culturally diverse nation that includes the world’s third largest rainforest and one of its fastest growing economies. The World Bank has called what is happening in PNG “a paradox of wealth without development.”
According to the documentary, PNG is now the second-largest exporter of tropical lumber on the planet, with an estimated one-third of its land now under the control of foreign logging companies. These companies export lumber out of the country, primarily to China. The illegally logged wood is re-labeled and then sold into the international market for legally harvested exotic wood products.
When the nation gained independence in 1975, a constitution was crafted that supported sustainable management of natural resources, emphasized national self-reliance and assigned 97 percent of PNG territory to local clans and tribes under customary land ownership. This type of land tenure, considered one of the world’s most equitable, was seen as a means of maintaining a traditional way of life and supplying a basic level of food security. The motto on the PNG flag states, “Land is Life.” More than 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas.
In the early 2000s, the government created Special Agriculture and Business Leases (SABLs), intended to foster agricultural investments through long-term leases. Instead, the SABLs opened the door to the subversion of land oversight regulations and authorities, granting access to outside logging companies. According to the documentary, many of the villagers and clans believed that by agreeing to an SABL scheme they would be ensuring sustainable economic progress and infrastructure development for their regions.
PNG Department of Agriculture official Dong Manuk makes clear the government objectives, which would seem to be in contradiction to the country’s own constitution: “Land ownership rights and the mentality here are hindering development and progress. We must free land. We are trying to get people to be mono croppers so they concentrate on only one crop.”
Many who signed lease consent forms found that once access had been granted, the amount of land claimed was exponentially larger than the amount agreed upon. Sustainable agricultural developments never materialized. In their place: Large-scale timber operations that send the country’s precious natural resources abroad. Left behind are areas stripped of the most valuable wood, fragmented ecosystems and none of the promised mono culture palm oil plantations, themselves the subject of questionable viability.
A 2011 report commissioned by a PNG government agency found widespread bribery and corruption in the SABL process, but no action has been undertaken to return leased lands to their customary owners, or to force logging companies to meet their obligations under the SABL agreements.
“On Our Land” highlights the effects of the international logging trade and the global market on the people and environment of one of the world’s last rainforest countries.