I have just returned home from Pomio, where the clear felling of the bush and subsequent oil palm planting are in full swing despite the vast majority of villagers opposing both.
Villagers are powerless to stop these activities, which continue even though the special agriculture and business leases (SABLs) have recently supposedly been revoked.
This looks likely to have the same status as the Police Commissioner’s public order of December 2011 that police be pulled out of logging camp sites. The police were never removed.
Indeed, it is only their continued presence, violence and intimidation that prevents villagers from setting up road blocks to protect their land, gardens and environment.
What is clear to me is that, for most local villagers in Pomio, the PNG government has shifted away from them and is largely in the pockets of large Malaysian logging companies.
These companies control officials in crucial government departments such as Lands, Forestry and the Police. The same applies to other officials in District Administration, Local Level Government, Provincial Administration and national government departments.
Nearly all sectors of the state have been co-opted into coercive pro-development policies that seek to privatise land and resources without villagers’ consent.
These logging companies were supported by, and gave support to, the local national member for Pomio who is now in jail on corruption charges.
The substantial funds these foreign companies provide at election time has transformed voting into a patron-client relationship that props up local, provincial and national government politicians who support the SABLs.
Police and company directors often tell complaining villagers that the land is no longer theirs but belongs to the state which has leased it from them so as to lease it to the Malaysian companies.
The state has become the crucial intermediary in the forced process through which villagers lose control of their resources and especially their land.
Much of this depends upon the production of dubious reports by the Lands Department, which collects and produces lists of signatures which are highly selective in that they are not the signatures of major clan leaders and of those people who represent the majority of villagers.
These have institutionalised corruption in PNG to a point where villagers find it almost impossible to achieve justice concerning the fraudulent nature of state processes that have effectively dispossessed them of huge areas of land.
Officials in departments like Forestry write reports that are not just wrong but are intentionally designed to conceal and legitimise the forced appropriation of land.
For example, one “explanatory” letter by a local forestry official in Pomio concerned the late night visit of the armed riot squad to the village of Mu in 2012 when villagers were forced by police to sign English documents that they could not read.
This was said to be not violent intimidation, but simply the police correcting an administrative oversight. The riot squad had just gone to collect the names of villagers who had attended a recent meeting over logging, where record keeping had been poorly implemented.
None of this explains the swearing and violent demeanour of the armed police and the forcible collection of signatures from many people who did not attend the meeting.
The state is not just incompetent but has become the crucial instrument for foreign large scale capital. It is state officials who seek to manage and placate opposition to the loss of vast areas of customary local land.
Then they produce the dodgy reports that seek to sanitise and obscure what is actually happening on the ground.
Recently the Malaysian logging company Rimbunan Hijau has shifted tactics and there has been a movement away from using the violence of the riot squad to intimidate opponents. Instead there is a greater use of courts and restraining orders to prevent the organisation of protests.
The cost of legal action has become another form of intimidation that is meant to penalise protesters and their leaders.
The judiciary has now become co-opted into this realisation of a coercive development agenda that has little respect for people’s customary property rights.
Professor Andrew Lattas is from the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Bergen in Norway. His new book Dreams, Madness, and Fairy Tales in New Britain is published by Carolina Academic Press http://www.cap-press.com/isbn/9781594607271
(top) The huge area of clear-felled land stretches from Mauna, Lau, Bairaman Mu to Puapal where it proposed that the oil palm plantings cross the Unung River and continue to Malakur . This massive tract of land is being given away to Malaysian companies, effectively stolen from villagers with the active participation of the state and government officials.
(middle) Worker in shorts and thongs spraying herbicide. No boots, gloves, mask or overalls are provided and the worker is covered by the chemical spray endangering himself and other family members when he returns to the village.
(lower) A logging truck makes its way through oil palm plantings.