NOOSA – It is easily the biggest illegal land grab of customary land in Papua New Guinea.
Or maybe anywhere in the world outside what used to be called Communism before they discovered how much loot could be made out of Capitalism.
It is a mass theft encompassing more than five million hectares of land, 12% of the country.
The fraud bears a complex and almost incomprehensible name, Special Agriculture and Business Leases, or SABLs, and it seems that in its original definition the concept was established mainly for the benefit of foreign owned logging companies.
And very little remediation has happened despite a government-instigated Commission of Inquiry nine years ago exposing the land grab and unambiguously stating SABLs were unlawful and should be cancelled.
Not that this is the fault of the admirable community action group, Act Now, which has sought strenuously but unsuccessfully for many years to persuade successive governments to revere the law, respect the commission of inquiry and honour its promises.
For the Marape government has no reverence, no respect and no honour. Shame really.
Anyway, last week the most recent lands minister John Rosso told the PNG parliament that of 70 SABL leases recommended to be cancelled in 2013, only 20 have been rescinded.
“Just 20 leases cancelled over a nine year period is frankly pathetic”, said a despairing Act Now campaign manager, Eddie Tanago.
“Even more worrying is that the pace of the cancellations has slowed to an almost complete halt.
“Since 2019, just one SABL lease has been cancelled.”
Readers may recall that it was in 2019 that James Marape grabbed the prime ministership from that alleged rogue Peter O’Neill, still avoiding every court case that has been brought against him.
“Since the commission of inquiry reported in 2013 the public have been repeatedly misled over the government’s intentions,” Tanago said.
“Politicians have promised time and again that all the SABL leases will be cancelled.
“There have been three different committees appointed to oversee the process.
“Yet only 20 out of the 70 leases have been cancelled.”
Between 2003 and 2011, the commission of inquiry investigated 75 leases covering a land area of 50,000 square kilometres.
In 2013, the commissioners found that almost all the SABL leases were illegally issued and that the whole land acquisition process was riddled with corruption, mismanagement and abuse.
“The failure by successive governments to cancel the majority of the leases clearly suggests the problems of mismanagement and corruption identified by the commission are still prevalent today,” said Tanago.
“Just as serious is the fact that thousands of customary landowners are still suffering the unjust loss of their land and all the associated human rights abuses.”
Imagine if all those landowners knew something about the law.
In 2018, the United Nations accused the PNG government of racial discrimination against its own people over its failure to stop foreign companies using SABL leases to illegally occupy customary land.
This was after Act Now and the UK based War on Want published a report highlighting the serious human rights abuses suffered by victims of the land grab.
But a government that ignores its own laws, its own commissions of inquiry and its own people can hardly be expected to concern itself with what a few troublemakers like the UN think.
After all, there’s still plenty of kina left for plundering in those SABLs - just ask James.