PNG Prime Minister says SABLs are being cancelled…but is it more of the same?

Tuesday, December 20th, 2016

The Government of Papua New Guinea has failed to cancel controversial and hugely destructive large-scale agricultural leases, more than three years after promising to do so.

The commitment to cancel the land deals came after a state review of so-called Special Agricultural Business Licenses (SABLs), which allowed the government to lease land owned by indigenous communities to private companies. The system led to an explosion of land deals in the last decade, as it was widely abused to facilitate an illegal land grab that Global Witness describes as “one of the biggest in modern history”.

A national inquiry carried out between 2011 and 2014 led to the recommendation that almost all of the SABLs should be revoked, supporting allegations of fraud and mismanagement. In 2013 Prime Minister Peter O’Neill promised to end the crisis, and in late 2014 the National Executive Council committed to implementing the inquiry’s recommendations.

But despite repeated promises to cancel them since, the SABLs remain in place, and logs from them continue to flood into China.

The most recent pledge that the SABLs would be cancelled came last month, when O’Neill told parliament: “I am pleased to say that all the SABL leases to be cancelled, instruction has now gone to the Lands Dept and as of today [November 4] I can assure you that leases are now being cancelled and where there are projects now existing, we’ve encouraged the landowners to renegotiate many of those leases arrangements that they have made with the developers.

“We do not want the rightful landowners lose their rights to land. That is why we have instructed the department of Lands and Forestry to cancel all the SABL.”

In view of previous statements, the failure to implement the revocation already is bizarre. The blog PNGExposed has meticulously documented the government’s failure to deliver on the promise, and this week noted that, as of Monday, it is 1,274 days since the detailed reports of the state inquiry were published.

“[D]espite all the promises, no action has been taken to cancel the leases, landowners are receiving no support from the government in their battles against the land grabbing and WE ARE STILL WAITING for the logging to be stopped,” it wrote this week.

The blog argues that O’Neill is complicit in the theft of logs “worth hundreds of millions of Kina and the destruction of thousands of hectares of pristine forest.”

For extensive coverage of the SABL scandal, visit PNGExposed.

Cartoon on homepage, showing Peter O’Neill, courtesy of PNGExposed