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New study reveals dangers inherent in land registration

New oil palm planting and mill in Pomio District  ENBP
New oil palm planting and mill near Pomio in East New Britain


BOROKO - Customary land registration processes can easily be captured by local ‘big men’ and companies with disastrous consequences for local people.

This is the conclusion of a study on recent oil palm expansion in Papua New Guinea by academic Caroline Hambloch from the University of London.

Hambloch’s findings are based on three months field research in East and West New Britain and are presented in a paper titled ‘Land Formalisation Turned Land Rush’ presented at a World Bank conference in Washington earlier this year.

The paper demonstrates how land registration processes, rather than protecting customary land, can easily be used to disenfranchise local communities and alienate them from their land. This is because of an environment of weak governance and huge power and information imbalances.

Hambloch details how PNG’s weak or non-existent capacity for regulation and enforcement of laws has been exploited by logging and oil palm companies who have surpassed various government agencies.

The results have been disastrous for local communities, which are experiencing worsening poverty, increasing wealth inequality, increased conflict and a lack of basic service provision such as roads, schools and health centres.

The study is important for PNG as it exposes and debunks the myth that land registration or ‘formalisation’ is necessary to generate income, improve productivity and drive development.

This is a theory that has long been backed by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the World Bank and foreign governments and has therefore dominated the development discourse in PNG.

It is frequently repeated by government ministers, industry bodies and ‘think tanks’. But it is not supported by the evidence.

Hambloch’s study reveals that, rather than increasing agricultural activity and national income, customary land formalisation has had the opposite effects, deepening poverty and retarding economic growth.

It has also “exacerbated deeply-rooted, pre-existing power relationships at the national and local level, as local powerful ‘big men’ have abused their power to exclude other customary group members from land decisions”.

Hambloch argues that further understanding is needed of the nuances of customary land tenure and to detail the power relationships within communities and at a local and national governance level if land policies are to successfully address economic and development goals.

The study looks in detail at four recent oil palm projects in East New Britain, Sigite-Mukas, Illi-Wawas, Kairak and Sagamar.

The author examines their histories, legal status, ownership structures and agricultural feasibility as well as their regulation, the underlying relationships, local conflict and economic performance.

Hambloch argues the recent oil palm projects are “non-inclusive and unsustainable” and “effectively unregulated”. They have been initiated primarily as logging projects and are geographically unsuited to oil palm.

The land formalisation process was dominated by a select group of actors in patron-client relationships. This has led to local and provincial government departments being sidelined, land consultation and awareness with local communities being completely neglected and many people, especially women, not being involved in decision making.

There was no proper awareness and consent, agreements are unreasonable and unfair and rents negligible and ‘insufficient for the economic development of affected communities’.

Weak governance and corruption are the major inhibitors to economic development in PNG and are preventing equitable income generation and wealth distribution.

This means attention should be focused on strengthening state institutions to ensure transparency, explicit oversight and effective monitoring of large-scale projects.

At the same time customary land tenure should be legally recognised and user rights protected while systems are put in place to ensure free prior informed consent and equitable and fair benefit sharing.


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Boniface Aipi

In the pretext of oil palm development, hardwood logging and exporting is a major concern.

Recently I spoke to Turubu oil palm landowners who have currently taken the developers to court.

When the initial deal was done to grow palm oil on the land, there was no separate agreement in place for the hardwood logs, which were to be cleared to grow palm oil.

The Asians cut down hardwood logs and exported them and the landowners were paid less money.

In the pretext of growing palm oil, the Asians were basically running a logging operation and started exporting logs. Then they started planting oil palm on the cleared land.

Oil palm is not like other cash crop commodities like cocoa or coffee, where you can pick the fruit, pulp and dry it before shipment.

Palm oil needs to be processed fresh from the trees, hence a factory is needed onsite. Without a processing facility, the palm trees that are grown and subsequent harvest of fruits will go to waste.

This is exactly what is happening with the Turubu oil palm plantation in East Sepik. There is no processing plant to process the oil palm fruits, hence the fruits are getting wasted and no exports.

The Malaysian company fooled the Turubu people to harvest logs. Frantically now the people of Turubu are looking for an investor who can build a processing plant to process the matured oil palm trees which are bearing fruit.

I think a similar thing is happening elsewhere in PNG. Asians are harvesting logs in the pretext of developing oil palm plantations.

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