By ABC PNG correspondent Liam Cochrane
PHOTO: A man walks past land cleared for oil palm plantations at Bairaman, near Pomio on PNG’s East New Britain province.(Global Witness)
Papua New Guinea’s National Forest Board will consider a Malaysian company’s bid to continue to logging virgin rainforest in order to plant palm oil.
The clear-felling around Pomio on the island of East New Britain has been hotly contested by some locals, as well as international groups like Greenpeace and Global Witness.
Malaysian company Rimbunan Hijau (RH) says it is bringing jobs, infrastructure and long-term investment to the area.
RH says it has the support of the local people, but some locals object to their land being cleared for plantations.
The land is being used under PNG’s controversial Special Agriculture and Business Leases (SABLs).
Last year a Commission of Inquiry into SABLs recommended almost all leases be revoked, but there was no recommendation for Pomio because one of the three commissioners simply never handed in his report.
Pristine and profitable
Global Witness researcher Rick Jacobsen visited Pomio this month, and said it is one of the most beautiful places he has ever been.
“[The Nakanai] mountain range is covered in virgin rainforest, extensive cave and underground river systems, rivers that are clear and pristine like you will not find anywhere else in the world,” said Mr Jacobsen, campaign leader for international forest policy at Global Witness.
Four years ago, RH subsidiary company Gilford Ltd obtained a licence to clear the forests around Pomio and plant oil palms.
“It is one of the most important agriculture projects in Papua New Guinea. It has received huge support from the local populous in the area,” said Axel Wilhelm, RH’s corporate policy manager.
Mr Wilhelm said cutting down trees is part of RH’s plan for a long-term investment for plantations and a mill to produce the palm oil that goes into so much of the world’s food.
He said 7,000 hectares has been cleared so far and palms have been planted on 6,300 hectares of that land.
“This project is not a logging project. The only forestry component is simply to prepare the area for oil palm planting,” he said.
“If there is any timber of value in it, of course the timber will be commercially utilised. The landowners and the national government of course will receive their levies and their royalties.”
British-based organisation Global Witness estimates 500,000 cubic meters of timber have been cut from around Pomio and sent to China to make plywood, flooring and furniture.
Global Witness estimates the value of that timber to be around $50 million and believes some of these products are being exported to the US and Europe.
PHOTO: Villagers work and play on the beach at Bairaman near Pomio on PNG’s East New Britain province. (Global Witness)
While RH says the project has community support, not all locals want their land turned into palm oil plantations.
Paul Povol is a community leader in the village of Mu and said clear-felling has turned the land around him into “a desert”.
But he said the environmental damage goes beyond logging.
“To make oil palm grow in my area, they like to use a lot of fertiliser,” he said.
“The fertiliser sinks into the soil, ends up in the underwater rivers and gets washed out into the sea… so definitely it’s a permanent disaster.”
Mr Povol said his village is opposed to the development, which he said brings with it social problems.
“Most children don’t turn up to school these days because they go to work in the oil palm, they fill up nursery bags [for palm seedlings],” he said.
“Traditions, customs, culture … we’re beginning to lose all those things.”
Mr Jacobsen said many locals are not benefiting and have spoken out against the clear-felling of their forests.
“That [local opposition] led in 2011 to a police crackdown, that led the police commissioner to announce police would no longer be stationed in logging camps,” he said.
“That hasn’t been followed through on and there are still police stationed in the camps, and the communities cite that as one of the reasons why they don’t feel like they can protect their land.”
The land was originally leased to Gilford Ltd by a landowner company and some community leaders around Pomio have expressed their support for the oil palm project.
Mr Povol alleges that some landowner documents were forged and even bore the signatures of children not yet born at the time of the signing.
Last year, the RH subsidiary Gilford Ltd sought a restraining order against Mr Povol and other community leaders.
Special agriculture and business leases
In 2005, Mr Povol’s community was running a small-scale sustainable logging operation around their village.
Nearby communities had achieved certification from the internationally-recognised Forest Stewardship Council and Mr Povol’s village was working towards the FSC accreditation.
But in 2010, the forests they were selectively logging were included in four 99-year SABLs awarded for clearing and oil palm plantations.
The adjoining SABLs cover an area of 55,000 hectares and a Forestry Clearance Authority gives the company logging access to 42,000 hectares.
The process of granting SABLs in Papua New Guinea has been widely discredited for using agri-business as a cover for logging.
A Commission of Inquiry spent millions of dollars investigating and last year two commissioners tabled reports recommending almost every lease be revoked.
The third commissioner, Alois Jerewai, has never made his report public and it is that report that includes Pomio.
This loophole means the SABLs around Pomio have not been cancelled and it is why this week the National Forest Board will sit down to consider whether to renew the license to log within that leased land.
The nine-member board includes representatives from the government, the forestry industry, women, landowners and environmentalists.
Chairman of the National Forest Board Thomas Paka said trying to make sense of often-conflicting information is “complicated” but both sides will get a fair hearing.
“There’s always this argument that we brought in investment [but] that investment must also be supported by compliance issues and the board will look at those issues very closely,” he said.
“And the communities – why is it that half of you wanted it and half of you didn’t want it? Is there evidence of bribery?”
RH insists all necessary approvals have been obtained and relevant laws followed in Pomio, so is confident the logging license will be renewed.
“We cannot see any reason why the government should cancel, would cancel such an important project, important for the economy of Papua New Guinea,” Mr Wilhem said.
‘Like David against Goliath’
Mr Jacobsen from Global Witness said the board decision is a test of PNG prime minister Peter O’Neill’s pledge in June to cancel any SABLs acquired illegally.
“This decision is really an opportunity for the Govt to follow through on its recent commitments to address the SABL situation,” he said.
Mr Poval is determined to fight on but he is well aware that his little village is taking on a giant.
“It’s like David fighting against Goliath. But somehow David won,” he said.
“In our case it’s very hard because we are very small people – once we see an issue it takes time to get money, travel out and share the information with people who can help us.”
The National Forest Board will meet on August 28 to consider the renewal of the Forestry Clearance Authority for Pomio, which expires on October 7.