CARDIFF, WALES – Those foreign loggers are so entrenched with the spivs of the national government that the Special Agriculture and Business Lease (SABL) saga can never end well for Papua New Guinea’s ordinary villagers.
In his letter written in 2002 and published recently in PNG Attitude, the late Sam Gallaher said:
“On the day they (Rimbunan Hijau) got access to this country’s timber they signed a deal with UMW Komatsu tractors and purchased 700 major items of second hand plant from UMW owned by a Malaysian company. The then prime minister of this country picked up a consideration of K60 million.”
In late October 2017 I was in Kavieng when I was handed a copy of Government Gazette G161 notifying the gazettal of a SABL over almost 80% of my wife’s island of Lavongai for 99 years free of any land tax.
It was one of three SABL that had been foisted onto semi-illiterate rural people as a clever trick to get around the tighter legal requirements of a normal logging permit.
SABLs weakened Forestry Department’s regulation of the granting of leases because their intent was alleged to be agriculturally motivated.
This gave the developers the wonderful opportunity not to log according to normal forestry rules but clear fell for a monoculture of cocoa, rubber or most likely oil palm with all the inherent environmental dangers a single crop can experience.
Over the years coffee and cocoa borers spread worldwide, rhinoceros beetles in Indonesian palm oil migrated into South Pacific plantations and later banana Black Sigatoka. None of these serious agricultural impacts ever slowed down the rapacious loggers.
I had arrived home to our place on south coast Lavongai in March 2007 and not one of my extended family was aware of the initial activities in various villages of groundwork preparing for a SABL lease to be granted.
On the day we saw that Gazette, emotions ran high among Lavongai wantoks, even threats of harming the elite spivs of their tribe who had so obviously sold out to the loggers.
But nothing eventuated except histrionics and all too soon the daily toil of just eking out an existence as subsistence farmers and fishing families overtook the almost unbelievable larger threat to the very roots of their community.
After all, the 20,000 people of the island knew their future, just like their past, was bound by thousands of years tradition involving their land.
They harboured an innocent belief that nobody could take it away from them.
Sadly for them, just as Chris Overland has written about the independence struggle in West Papua, the only practical way of stopping the exploitative caterpillar tractors, bulldozers and jinkers would have been a concerted uprising against their wantok elite-puppet spivs along with their foreign handlers.
Sadly also, from the prime minister down to the lowliest MP, there is no meaningful support for their plight, merely empty promises of, ‘We will stop the rot!’ as Act Now! regularly reminds us.
The loggers know how to pull the strings of national politicians and provincial police - they clear fell at will under the protection of those rotten SABLs.
There have been many reports of ill treatment of those brave souls who try to disturb the melodies of the chainsaw. The police joined at the hip to the loggers, with their food, shelter and even transport provided by the loggers.
Way back in 1972 I was on patrol to oversee the construction of a classroom complete with a new water catchment system in the Min River area of Lavongai.
I was there for a week and took my wife and two kids to enjoy a break from muddy Taskul. We all enjoyed the experience at our little camp alongside the clear waters of the Min.
In 2017 I felt like crying when Global Witness prepared a small booklet about PNG’s SABL destruction, particularly as it showed graphic pictures from both aerial and at ground level of what the logger has done to that region of beautiful Lavongai.
Rimbunan Hijau refuted the claims made by Global Witness saying, “however in this case all allegations raised by Global Witness are again without foundation.”
Global Witness said by way of reply that Rimbunan Hijau was “simply incorrect as scientists have used images taken by the Landsat satellite to keep tabs on logging activity in Southeast Asia and the Amazon for more than a decade, and they’ve published their analyses in peer-reviewed scientific journals. We can see the illegal activities in question directly on the imagery.”
Yet daily the SABL log ships leave PNG shores for the factories of Asia. The corrupt leaders of PNG have forgotten, or perhaps conveniently ignored, the fifth Goal of the Constitution: ‘Traditional villages and communities to remain as viable units of PNG society and for active steps to be taken to improve their cultural, social, economic and ethical quality.’
Having lost traditional control over your land for three generations does nothing to honour that fifth goal.