Kanoagil: The anatomy of an illegal logging operation
Two Malaysian owned logging companies are currently destroying the forests of southern New Ireland. Local MP and Minister for Mining, Byron Chan, says the authorities should investigate and the illegal logging operations should be shut down, but how was it possible for the logging to start in the first place and what are the chances those officials complicit in authorising the operations will now take action?
From a detailed study of the very limited public documentation on the organisations involved we are able to start to answer these questions; and those answers provide a unique and fascinating window into the anatomy of an illegal logging operation.
The documents expose how one person, in this case businessman and aspiring politician, William Schnaubelt, conspired with a small elite of local leaders to take illegal control over large areas of community owned forests. Deception, fraud and misinformation were all used to exploit the hopes, dreams and ignorance of local people while the willing connivance of public servants and politicians was used to secure the permits and authorities for the multi-million dollar logging operation.
Central to the whole Konoagil logging operation are four organisations, two companies and two associations, all set up by the central ringleader, William Schnaubelt.
Konoagil Agri Development, Laka Forest Development Limited, Kandas Landowners Association and Lak Landowners Association are all presented as ‘landowner’ organisations as if they are owned by the local communities and represent their views and interests. But all four organisations were set up without the knowledge and consent of customary landholders, all four are privately owned by a small group of individuals, all four make decisions affecting landowners assets in secret and local communities have no financial or beneficial interests.
Informed consent is supposed to be at the heart of any decisions affecting customary land in Papua New Guinea. Local people must give their informed consent before any changes are made in the use or management of their land. This is a fundamental right that is protected in the Constitution and in all laws affecting land and forests.
As the Supreme Court recently explained:
“These provisions are designed to ensure that customary landowners whose title is, after all, usually collective, rather than individual, are protected from the loss of their interest in the land whether it be a result of the actions of exploitative outsiders or fraudulent or self-interested co- owners”.
Unfortunately these legal protections mean little for people living in rural communities, without access to lawyers or the courts, and it is all too easy for people like businessman Walter Schnaubelt, working with a small group of unelected leaders and in concert with lazy or corrupt public servants and foreign businessman, to trample all over constitutional rights and legal protections.
The two foreign logging companies illegally destroying the forests of southern New Ireland are Millionplus Corporation and Islands Forest Limited. The companies have been given approval for their operations by the PNG Forest Authority despite the fact the people of Konoagil have not given their informed consent to the logging, indeed the people have been intentionally kept in the dark, fed lies and half truths and have been denied any opportunity to participate in key decision making.
Registering the organisations
To set up the whole illegal logging operation Schnaubelt started by registering the two phoney ‘landowner companies’, Konaoagil Agri Development Limited [registered on 21 February 2014] and Laka Forest Development Limited [registered on 19 December 2013], and the two phoney ‘landowner associations’ Lak Landowners Association and Kandas Landowners Association [Notice of Intention to Registered filed 5 March 2014]. All these organisations were registered without any consultation with the customary landholders or their Incorporated Land Groups (ILGs) and with no attempt to obtain their informed consent.
One of the so called ‘landowner’ companies, KADL, is owned by the other so called ‘landowner’ company, LFDL, and LFDL is in turn owned by three organisations, WA Holdings, LLA and KLA. The landowners have no direct or indirect financial or legal interest, no legal rights and no representation in any of these organisations.
Appointing the directors
Having organised the registration of the companies and associations, Schnaubelt then handpicked the 18 local men, one from each Konoagil Local Level Government ward, he would use to push through his logging plans. Schnaubelt took the 18 men all the way to the Kokopo Beach Village Resort, in East New Britain, so they could meet in complete secrecy over the course of two days, March 30 and April 1, 2014.
There, as the meeting minutes reveal, the 18, on the direction of Schnaubelt, as meeting Chairman, elected themselves as the directors of the two Landowner Associations.
Having appointed themselves as the decision making committees, the 18 then endorsed, with no prior disclosure and no consultation with the customary landholders back in New Ireland or the landowners ILG committees or even the ILG chairmen, Walter Schnaubelt’s scheme to set up the logging operation. This first involved appointing LFDL as the ‘landowner company’, agreeing that 50% of the shares would be held by the two ‘landowner’ associations and agreeing that the other 50% would be handed to a third party, WA Holdings (owned by Malaysian businessman Leslie Woo).
Seizing control of the land
This small handpicked group of men, who had no rights to make any decisions regarding customary land, had no delegated authority from the people themselves or from their ILGs, then, completely unlawfully, agreed to Schnaubelt’s plan that all the communities’ ILG certificates would be used to provide a 60 year lease over the whole of the Konoagil district to some unnamed and yet to be identified ‘developer’ who would log the forests, establish 35,000 hectares of oil palm and bring ‘development’.
Not only was this a decision the meeting could not make as they had no rights to make decisions regarding the use of the ILG certificates much less the customary land itself, it also had no basis in law. Walter Schnaubelt completely misled the meeting by telling the directors the ILG certificates are land titles and giving those certificates to the ‘landowner’ company gave the company “the right to market our [sic] land on our behalf’. This is completely false, ILG certificates are NOT land titles.
To be clear, all this was done without any consultation with the landowners or their ILG committees and with no attempt to obtain their informed consent. Indeed, as the meeting minutes clearly show, at that stage, not all the ILGs had been formed.
Revealingly, the minutes of the landowner association meeting show that when Schnaubelt told the newly appointed directors it was now their job to go back to their LLG wards and tell the ILG committees that they had to endorse their appointment and explain they had already given away the land “all the ward directors raised concern”!
According to the meeting minutes, after listening to all their concerns for “about 25 minutes”, Walter Schnaubelt advised them to only speak to those in their communities who they knew had always supported them and to “leave the others to him”.
Endorsement from government officials
Disturbingly, even at this early stage, Walter Schnaubelt was already able to assure the 18 hand picked and self appointed ‘directors’ that his plans for logging had the full support of the Managing Director of the Forest Authority and the new Forest Minister, Douglas Tomuriesa.
Indeed, according to Schnaubelt, the National Forest Board had already approved LFDL to “commence its project submission” officials would be visiting the area in six-weeks time to conduct the Forest Clearance Authority approval process!
Thus the people and institutions who are supposed to protect the interests of landholders and ensure the full and vigorous application of the law had already been brought on board to facilitate the illegal logging. These are the same people, PNGFA Managing Director, Forest Minister and National Forest Board, Byron Chan is now calling on to investigate the permits given to the logging companies – what a joke!
The whole Konoagil illegal logging operation and the process used to obtain the logging permits makes a complete mockery of the words of our judges:
“Decisions about the transfer of interests in customary land must be made carefully and thoughtfully and in strict accordance with procedures prescribed by law” this must include “a thorough identification and investigation of the land and the customary landowners and their agreement to what is proposed. In PNG land is a critical natural resource required by National Goal Number 4 to be conserved and used for the benefit of the present generation and for the benefit of future generations.”
It seems futile to believe that the poor people of Konoagil will be able to successfully mount a legal challenge through the courts, against the might of the logging companies, government officials and their own corrupt leaders, to protect and defend their land and forests.
The fact is, legal protections and constitutional rights have no meaning when only one side has access to financial resources and the institutions of government supposed to uphold the law are already compromised!
A short timeline
July 24 Notice of issue of shares in LFDL filed with the IPA
July 24 Notice of transfer of shares in LFDL filed with the IPA
May 2 LLA registered
May 2 KLA registered
Apr 25 Application for incorporation of LLA filed with the IPA
Apr 25 Application for incorporation of KLA filed with the IPA
Apr 1 Notice of issue of shares in LFDL prepared and signed
Apr 1 Notice of transfer of shares in LFDL prepared and signed
Mar 30 First meeting of the ‘Directors’ of the Landowner Associations
Mar 30 Shares in LFDL issued to WA Holdings Limited
Mar 30 Shares in LFDL transferred to Lak and Kandas Landowner Associations
Mar 5 Notice of intention to register Lak Landowners Association (LLA) filed with the IPA
Mar 5 Notice of intention to register Kandas Landowners Association (KLA) filed with the IPA
Feb 21 KADL registered
Dec 19 LFDL registered as a company
Dec 18 Application for registration of LFDL filed with the IPA
Dec 12 Application for registration of KADL filed with the IPA
Nov 13 Application for registration of Konoagil Agri Development Limited (KADL) prepared and signed
Nov 13 Application for registration Laka Forest Development Limited (LFDL) prepared and signed