PNG prime minister Peter O'Neill said last week that controversial land leases under the country's Special Agricultural and Business Leases (SABLs) will be cancelled if they are found to be run for extracting timber.
The SABL program was meant to increase development of local agriculture in the country, but many of the leases—some of which last 99 years—were given to timber companies that had no intent to develop agriculture.
The Prime Minister's statement confirmed that the government intended to cancel all SABLs abused by the timber industry. In addition, it said that future large-scale land leases will go before Cabinet.
Following protests and widespread criticism, in 2010 the PNG government set a moratorium on issuing future SABLs, but by then the country had already handed out 11% of its total land mass.
The handout of massive tracts of land, which in PNG is ostensibly owned by local communities, led to conflict and worsening poverty as communities lost access to traditional forests.
"The first that many communities would know about a [SABL] project was when the bulldozers arrived," reads a recent report on illegal logging from UK think tank, Chatham House. “This failure to obtain consent has led to large numbers of conflicts between developers and local people.”
If the prime minister's pledge is fully implemented it could mean the end for a majority of the now-notorious SABLs.
Last September, a Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry found that over 90% of these land leases were illegally obtained and recommended cancellation. But the government has been slow to act.
"The biggest challenge is dealing with collusion between corrupt officials and logging firms," Chatham Report author Sam Lawson told mongabay.com.
"The logging industry in PNG is very powerful, while the government is extremely weak. The largest logging firm owns one of the two national newspapers, for example."