AN AUSTRALIAN ACADEMIC has accused The National newspaper, owned by Malaysian logging giant Rimbunan Hijau, of supporting the controversial Special Agricultural and Business Leases (SABLs) program, suspended on Friday by acting prime minister Sam Abal.
Prof William Laurance, a scientist at James Cook University and a member of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, which has taken a strong stand against SABLs, applauded the decision.
"This is a wise move by acting prime minister Sam Abal," he told mongabay.com. "There's a great deal of nervousness in PNG about these SABLs, given their long-term nature and the fact that they're mostly held by foreign corporations. Many PNG residents call them land-grabs."
Prof Laurance added it is now critical that Abal appoint "truly independent people—not industry puppets" for his Commission of Inquiry.
He also highlighted the role of the media in reporting on the SABLs issue.
"Thank goodness for the Post-Courier newspaper, has been investigating this issue thoroughly," he said. "The National newspaper, which is the other major paper in PNG, and is owned by Rimbunan Hijau, has supported the SABLs or been tacitly silent."
Mr Abal said the government would immediately suspend leases and launch an official inquiry. He cited "concern" for the rights and interests of customary landholders.
The program has granted logging and plantation development concessions to mostly foreign corporations across 5.2 million hectares of community forest land.
The move comes after local protest and complaints from prominent scientists, including the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, the world's largest professional society devoted to studying and conserving tropical forests. Last month ATBC urged the government to declare a moratorium on SABLs.
SABLs are a hot political issue in PNG, where 97% of land is communally owned. In some cases they were granted without permission or knowledge of the local community, a direct violation of PNG’s Lands Act. SABLs allow companies to clear forest without complying with existing forestry regulations.
Meanwhile new Opposition leader Belden Namah slammed Mr Abal’s decision in a statement described by one PNG Attitude analyst as “not a good start” to his new role.
Mr Namah said under SABLs, private funds were invested to establish important sustainable agriculture and forestry projects “providing employment and business opportunities for thousands of people in rural parts of the country, where the national government has failed miserably.
"Land owners have power to obtain SABLs to develop resources in their customary land in the absence of government initiated agriculture projects," he said.