AS Papua New Guinea prepares to host government ministers from across the Asia-Pacific for talks on the future of the region’s forests, logging companies are making millions liquidating PNG’s rainforests, often illegally.
Investigations by advocacy group Global Witness show that nearly one-third of PNG’s timber exports in 2014 came from logging under agriculture permits at the centre of a nationwide scandal over widespread land grabbing.
This year’s meeting of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forestry ministers began in Port Moresby yesterday to discuss how to preserve the region’s forests and combat illegal logging.
Host PNG is the world’s largest exporter of tropical logs, with an export value of $US365 million last year. PNG also suffers from one of the highest rates of illegal logging in the world and rampant government corruption.
Some 91% of PNG’s timber exports go to fellow APEC member China. Global Witness has called on both countries to lead by example and commit to taking steps to address the crisis in PNG’s forests.
“This year’s APEC meeting on forests is being held in an epicentre of illegal logging,” said Rick Jacobsen of Global Witness.
“For more than four years, the PNG government has stood by and watched while its people are stripped of their land and its rainforests wiped out under leases deemed illegal by its own investigation.
“Meanwhile, foreign-owned logging companies are making millions selling the timber to China. This inconvenient truth should be top of the agenda in Port Moresby this week.”
By 2014 nearly a third of PNG’s log exports came from highly controversial agriculture leases that have violated indigenous land rights and destroyed huge tracts of the world’s third largest rainforest.
A 2011 inquiry into the leases commissioned by the government found that nearly all those reviewed were issued in violation of PNG laws. Despite this, timber exports under the leases has increased dramatically since the inquiry was set up, now accounting for an estimated one of every 10 tropical logs imported by China.
From 2002 to 2011, the PNG government handed out over 50,000 square kilometres of land mostly belonging to local communities using a mechanism known as a Special Agriculture and Business Lease (SABL) intended to promote agricultural development.
After international outcry at their abuse, in 2011 the government set up a Commission of Inquiry to review their legality.
In 2014 the PNG government committed to cancelling illegal SABLs on the basis of the Inquiry’s findings but, more than two years after the inquiry, the government has failed to stop a single logging operation while log exports under SABLs have increased dramatically.
“The PNG government must stop all logging operations under SABLs until it has completed the review started by the Commission of Inquiry and cancelled all permits found to be issued illegally” said Jacobsen.
“To help its trading partner tackle illegal logging, China should require its importers to carefully check their supply chains to ensure they do not buy timber produced in violation of source country laws.”
PNG has the lowest human development indicators in Asia and was one of only three countries that didn’t meet any of its Millennium Development Goals, alongside North Korea and Zimbabwe.
Rural communities in PNG, which account for around 86% of the country’s population, depend on smallholder agriculture and natural products harvested from forests, rivers and the sea for their daily survival.
In August 2015, the SABL holders successfully challenged the Commission of Inquiry’s findings in court on the basis of a technicality – that the report was submitted late.
But the courts did not refute the substance of the Commission’s findings.
The same court decision also quashed the government’s decision to cancel the SABLs on the basis that significant investments had been made by the company.
A Global Witness analysis indicates that logging has significantly increased since the Inquiry published its findings, with more than 80% of logs going to China.