| Guardian Australia
SYDNEY - A Malaysian company that won a permit to clear tropical rainforest on Manus Island has been accused of failing to deliver on its promises to the local community, while reaping millions of dollars in profits from the logging of valuable hardwood timber.
According to licensing documents, the company, Maxland Ltd, secured a permit to clear land in the south of Manus to plant between three and five million rubber trees as part of the Pohowa Project.
The project’s stated aim in documents was to “benefit smallholder rubber farmers [and] the surrounding communities”.
However, according to a new report produced by Global Witness, two years into the five-year contract, not a single rubber tree had been planted, but there was evidence that valuable hardwood timber had been felled by the company and was being exported.
When Global Witness visited the project site in October 2019 they found that no rubber seedlings had been planted. However, Global Witness did observe a few thousand rubber seedlings on the far side of Manus.
The report cites emails from Josephine Kenni, the head of PNG’s National Rubber Board, who said that since Global Witness’s visit some of the few thousand seedlings had been planted and 60,000 more were expected to arrive from Malaysia by late 2020.
But a local villager, Eddie Kalai, contacted by Global Witness after Kenni’s email was received, reported that no rubber had yet been planted at the project site.
“The fact none have been planted is a pretty serious failing on the company’s part,” said Lela Stanley, forest investigator for Global Witness.
“They are more than a million seedlings behind at this point and there’s no indication that they’re catching up.
“What we see instead is very significant logging,” said Stanley.
The Global Witness report cited “extensive infrastructure [that] has arisen to support Maxland’s logging operations”, including a wharf so barges can transport logs to cargo vessels, a large logging camp “with housing for staff and its own garage and petrol station to serve the company’s fleet of trucks”, as well as evidence of logging, including “skidding tracks … left by logs hauled from the forest”.
The report estimated that more than 18,000 cubic metres of timber had been cleared, valued at 6.36m kina (AU$2.8m). As of October 2019, the company had declared log exports from the project worth about AU$2.8m.
Maxland Ltd has an address listed in PNG. However, the Global Witness report reveals the company is linked to Joinland Group, a Malaysian conglomerate with a history of logging projects in PNG.
In documents filed with PNG’s Investment Promotion Authority, seen by The Guardian, Joinland Group listed the Pohowa project as one of Joinland’s operating locations and multiple people involved with the project confirmed Joinland was the “mother company” of Maxland.
Joinland was contracted to clear land on the island of New Hanover in New Ireland province in 2007 and establish a rubber plantation.
An investigation by Global Witness found that despite its promises, no rubber was exported from this operation.
A local activist told Global Witness the Hanover project was “chaos”, leading to the pollution of the local river system.
“No one really cared if the rubber trees would grow, it was the logs they wanted,” local activist John Aini told Global Witness.
“This is the company’s track record that we can point to,” said Stanley. “I hope that’s not what is in store for Manus, but we worry that something similar is on the cards.”
The Guardian attempted to contact Thomas Hah, the founder of Joinland Group, for comment. He did not respond before publication, but did respond to Global Witness denying all accusations about his company contained in their report.
“For your information, all our projects in Papua New Guinea are granted by the National Forest Authority and proper[ly] monitored by the government,” he said in an email to Global Witness.