WHEN Papua New Guinea Forestry Minister Douglas Tomuriesa last week confirmed an attempt to bribe him with “a bagful of money”, it once again brought to light the illegal exploitation of PNG’s forests by foreign interests.
In this case, the Malaysian national who offered the bribe was deported but Tomuriesa (pictured) admitted that many people, especially foreigners in the forestry industry, had tried to "entice" him in the past.
But he said he had performed his ministerial duties “based on his ethical values and conscience”, adding that the main factor was his wife’s plea for him to live an honest life.
“This is the kind of stance I’m taking at Forestry and I wish to leave a legacy of a corruption- free office during my term,” Tomuriesa said, saying he was “cleaning up a mess in the office” including and the deportation of the foreign national who tried to bribe him.
In PNG, the Land Act facilitates much forest clearance in addition to much illegal logging. The Act was supposed to help customary landowners convert forested land into agriculture, in partnership with investors but logging companies, mainly from Malaysia and Australia, saw it as a potential bonanza.
According to a Greenpeace report, between 2003 and 2011 over five million hectares of land, mainly along the Papuan coast and the islands of New Britain and New Ireland, was leased under Special Agricultural and Business Leases (SABLs).
This equates to more than 11% of the country’s land area and over 16% of its accessible forests. Exports of logs grew by 20% in 2011 alone, mostly from within SABLs and mostly headed for China.
Because of growing international concern over the improper leasing of customary land, the PNG government in early 2011 issued a moratorium on issuance of SABLs and ordered a commission of inquiry. This inquiry made recommendations but left existing SABLs in place.
Unfortunately, the improper leasing of customary land -- referred to by many in PNG as 'land grabs' -- is still playing out.
One example is the 200,000 hectares of Musa Pongani land in eastern Papua. This area was gazetted as Special Agriculture Land in 2010 so opening it to SABL processes.
While a legal SABL requires full and informed consent by all customary landowners, this was not done. Two customary landowner-incorporated bodies and their Asian development partners are now wrangling in the courts for control of title to the whole area.
The majority of the customary owners in PNG are illiterate or nearly so and have no understanding of the impacts of these multimillion dollar developments.
Many are pressured into signing papers after glib promises of good roads, education, health services and cash in hand.
The prognosis for these lands and their customary owners is bleak.
So bleak that the world is starting to pay close attention to the dodgy dealings going on in PNG.
According to a 2014 report from Chatham House in the United Kingdom, which monitors illegal logging, the findings of PNG’s commission of inquiry into the SABLs and associated logging showed that over 90% of them were illegal and that the process was entirely corrupt.