Papua New Guinea Profile

Forest Conversion for Commercial Agriculture and Associated Exports

Until at least 2002, most deforestation in Papua New Guinea (PNG) was due to subsistence rather than commercial industrial agriculture (Shearman et al. 2008). However, this is likely to have changed in the last few years. Since 2003 (and mostly since 2007), 5 Mha (16 percent of the accessible commercial forest area in the country) of PNG’s forests have been licensed for conversion for large-scale agricultural plantations, mostly oil palm but also cocoa and other crops (Greenpeace 2012). If even a small percentage of this area is converted as planned, it will easily outstrip the past rate of mostly subsistence-driven deforestation (of around 140,000 ha/year).

In PNG, 30 percent of log exports in 2012 originated from forest conversion, up from just 1 percent five years earlier (Lawson 2014). Equivalent figures for log production are not available, but given that around 90 percent of log production in PNG is exported unprocessed, then the proportions must be similar. This increase in conversion has stemmed from the growth of Special-purpose Agricultural Business Leases (SABLs) and associated Forest Clearance Authorities (FCAs), mostly for oil palm. All of the tropical timber being produced from agro-conversion in PNG is exported, as is all of the country’s palm oil production.

Illegalities in Conversion

The principal type of illegality documented in PNG is the illegal issuance of licenses to convert forests for commercial agriculture plantations. Numerous protests by local landowners and a series of exposés by NGOs led the government to institute a Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry in 2012 to investigate the large number of SABLs that had been issued for the conversion of millions of hectares of the country’s forests into large-scale agricultural plantations. The results of the inquiry were tabled in Parliament in September 2013. Of 42 SABLs examined, only four had proper landowner consent and viable agricultural projects. The remainder—more than 90 percent—was obtained through fraudulent or corrupt means (Pacific News Agency 2013; Numapo 2013; Mirou 2013). The findings confirmed suspicions published in a peer-reviewed academic study, which assessed the plausibility of 36 oil palm plantation projects issued under SABLs covering almost 1 Mha, and found that only five were likely to actually be planted, while the rest were most likely simply covers for obtaining valuable timber (Nelson et al. 2014). In June 2014, the Prime Minister announced that the government would cancel all illegal SABLs recommended to be revoked by the Commission of Inquiry, and would also set up a Ministerial Committee to examine the legality of those SABLs not already assessed by the Commission (PNG Prime Minister’s Media Unit Office 2014). The following month, the Department of Lands and Planning issued a public notice demanding the submission of 29 SABL licenses for cancellation (The National (PNG) 2014), including most (but not all) of those recommended for cancellation by the Commission. However, more than two years later the licenses have still yet to be revoked (PNG Exposed, 2016).

The principal illegality in relation to the SABLs is that they were issued without obtaining the legally required Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) of customary landowners. However, numerous other breaches of procedures and regulations by various government agencies have been documented. The Parliamentary Inquiry Commissioners found that legal requirements governing license issuance were “deliberately breached and proper processes either by-passed or simply ignored” (Numapo 2013). Analysis by Greenpeace shows that 130,000 ha of the SABLs even overlap with protected areas, while some of those that had already begun clear felling did so without the required Environmental Permit (Greenpeace 2012).

There is little published information relating to compliance with regulations governing the process of forest clearance (such as protection of river buffers or steep slopes) in PNG. The Commission of Inquiry did not seek to address such matters.

CASE STUDY: Independent Timber & Stevedoring (PNG) Ltd, Papua New Guinea

By far the largest controversial Special Agricultural Business Lease (SABL) issued over forestland in PNG was in relation to a project implemented by Independent Timber & Stevedoring (PNG) Ltd (IT&S). It is also one of the most egregious in terms of documented illegalities and irregularities. Initially a project to build a road, encompassing just 2,400 ha of forest, the project ballooned in size to cover more than 2 Mha (Mousseau 2013). Had it gone ahead in full, the project would have been the largest tropical logging project in the world, and could potentially have doubled global tropical timber production and exports.

The Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry uncovered numerous irregularities relating to the issuance of the IT&S SABLs. The legally required consultation with local landowners was found to have been inadequate, and the leases based on counterfeit land registration. One landowner representative told the Inquiry that the signature under his name on one of the official documents was not his. The land investigation and Environmental Impact Assessment were not performed as required by law. The company also did not hold the Forest Industry Participant Certificate needed to apply for a Timber Permit or Forest Clearance Authority. The Inquiry heard how IT&S had hijacked the approval process, including preparing official documents that should have been prepared by the government. The Provisional Lands Officer who approved the leases claimed that he had been misled by IT&S about what he was signing (Mousseau 2013; Mirou 2013).

The Inquiry concluded that the company had “conducted unlawful and unethical actions,” while there was also evidence of malpractice by various officials (ibid.). In July 2014, three SABL licenses covering 1.25 Mha of the IT&S project were among those that were ordered to be cancelled, following the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry (The National (PNG) 2014).


Shearman, Phil, Jane Bryan, Julian Ash, Peter Hunnam, Brendan Mackey, and Barbara Loks. 2008. “The State of Forests in Papua New Guinea: Mapping the Extent and Conditions of Forest Cover and Measuring the Drivers of Forests in the period 1972- 2002.” University of Papua New Guinea, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

Greenpeace. 2012. “Up for Grabs: Millions of Hectares of Customary Land in PNG Stolen for Logging.” Greenpeace Australia Pacific, Ultimo, Australia.

Lawson, S. 2014. “Consumer Goods and Deforestation: An Analysis of the Extent and Nature of Illegality in Forest Conversion for Agriculture and Timber Plantations” September 2014

Pacific News Agency. 2013. “Reports on Land Leases Reveal Corruption: PM O’Neill.” Pacific News Agency, September 20.

Numapo, John. 2013. Commission of Inquiry into the Special Agriculture and Business Lease (SABL), Final Report, June 24.

Mirou, Nicholas. 2013. Commission of Inquiry into Special Agriculture and Business Lease (COI SABLE), Report, June.

Nelson, Paul N., Jennifer Gabriel, Colin Filer, Murom Banabas, Jeffrey A. Sayer, George N. Curry, Gina Koczberski, and Oscar Venter. 2014. “Oil Palm and Deforestation in Papua New Guinea.” Conservation Letters 7 (3): 188-195.

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister’s Media Unit Office. 2014. “PM: We will Reclaim Land Lost to Illegal SABLs,” June 18

The National (PNG). 2014. Announcement by Department of Lands & Physical Planning, July 11

PNG Exposed. 2016. ‘O’Neill’s illegal logging: 1176 days and counting’, 16th September 2016

Mousseau, Frederic 2013. ”On our Land: Modern Land Grabs Reversing Independence in Papua New Guinea.” The Oakland Institute, Oakland, CA.

This summary was last updated in September 2016. For more recent information, please see news on Papua New Guinea here.