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PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (PNG Post-Courier, Nov. 8) - Woodlark Islanders yesterday demanded that Milne Bay Provincial Government halt plans to set up a 60,000-hectare oil palm estate on their island.

More than 100 people joined the islanders in front of the provincial government headquarters in Alotau yesterday morning and urged the authorities to scrap plans to set up an estate on the 85,000-hectare island.

The islanders, whose total population is about 6,000 fear such a mammoth project could result in the people being alienated from their own land and result in the loss of endemic flora and fauna.

[PIR editor’s note: Remote Woodlark Island is located in the widely-scattered Milne Bay province of Papua New Guinea. Woodlark is southeast of the Trobriand Islands, which are also part of Milne Bay province. ]

They presented a petition outlining their concerns to the province’s deputy governor and Samarai-Murua MP Gordon Wesley.

"We’ll wait for the deputy governor to table the petition (in Parliament) and for him to come back to us," said medical officer Dr. Simon Piywes, a Woodlark Islander who is leading the fight to stop the project.

The oil palm estate is part of a project by Malaysian firm Vitroplant Ltd and includes the building of a US$300 million [PGK844 million] 100,000-ton capacity oil palm methyl ester plant in Alotau that will convert palm oil into bio-diesel for both the PNG and international markets. But the sticky issue is at least two former lands ministers in previous PNG governments had promised the islanders that their land -- which became "alienated land’’ in the 1880s -- would be returned to the customary owners.

Dr. Piywes said former ministers Boyamo Sali (1978 to 1980) and Charlie Benjamin (2003) declared the land would be returned.

However, the islanders were surprised when the provincial government of the then governor Tim Neville announced plans to set up the estate, he said.

Mr. Wesley yesterday confirmed the dilemma and said the project went ahead despite him tabling a petition in the last parliament for the land to be returned.

"The National Government gave the lease (but) I petitioned the Government and (despite that) they went ahead and gave the lease…I was not informed, some people could have been paid," he said.

Vowing to table another petition when Parliament sits next week, Wesley said the National Government was threading on dangerous ground if it went against the islanders’ wishes.

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