The National

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (Nov. 16, 2010) - The most important asset that PNG has, apart from its people, is land.

Land demarcations define statehood.

It gives people an identity.

Without land, it would be impossible to exist.

Yet, land is the most neglected by successive governments in Papua New Guinea.

Only recently has the government seen fit to enter land into policy considerations on a serious basis.

It is small wonder that development is lacking in much of PNG because land has not been freed up for development work. It exists solely in the hands of customary landowners. Figuring what land belongs to which individual is a minefield.

Of the alienated land that is in the hands of the government, and administered by the Lands Department, there has been so much abuse.

Land leases granted by the PNG Lands Board, selected at random by the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee, show blatant disregard for laws and processes in every instance studied.

No records exist for much of the land dealing and the PAC has drawn the conclusion that this may be standard practice.

This indicates that almost all state land may suffer from the same.

One case studied is portions 109 and 110 in Madang at the site of the township serving the Ramu nickel project.

This land was owned by the Evangelical Lutheran church of Papua New Guinea, which held an agricultural lease issued in 1924 for a period of 99 years – plus an extra five years to take account of the period of World War II.

This lease, over 83.989ha, is good until 2027.

In 2005, the church discovered that its title had been cancelled for no reason and an agriculture lease issued to the Ganglau Landowner Company Ltd.

The PAC has satisfied itself that the "land had been compulsorily acquired – unknown to the church and, by some means, reissued to the current leaseholder by a lands board decision."

The original owner had no knowledge of this and has received no compensation whatsoever.

The Lands Department had clearly failed in its duty to protect the lawful titleholder.

In another instance, a parcel of prime land in the heart of Boroko business district, in Port Moresby, has been sitting with no improvements and land rent in arrears for well beyond the three years within which improvements were to be made under the contract.

The lease sets the land rent at PGK19,825 [US$7,531] per annum and an improvement covenant to a value of PGK200,000 [US$76,000] within the first three years.

As of Feb 8, 2006, the land rent arrears was PGK129,704.38 [US$49,000] and no improvement at all had taken place.

The land remains vacant and undeveloped.

At allotment 69, section 229 at Hohola, in Port Moresby, the PAC has reported that there was "arrogant disregard of departmental officers for decisions of the lands board and the law and the failure of past and present departmental management to control or reverse, or even acknowledge, illegal dealings".

A special purpose lease was granted to the Sisters of Charity in 1999 by the Lands board to 2014, for the purpose of building a hospice for the dying and, in particular, for people living with HIV/AIDS. The grant was gazetted on Dec 23, 1999.

A private company applied for a town subdivision lease ("TSL") in 1991.

A TSL can only be granted for five years. The registrar, ultimately, gave the company a residential lease over the land in 1999, despite the grant to the Sisters of Charity by the Lands board.

This lease was for a 99-year period, despite the fact that the applicant had only applied for a five-year lease and that the land had already been granted to the Sisters of Charity.

The registrar had completely ignored the Lands board recommendation and has acted unlawfully.

The lease was not advertised or tendered, but simply issued in defiance of the grant by the Lands board.

A letter was finally received from the department advising the Sisters of Charity that the private company had indefeasible title and that the sisters should buy the land from that company.

These are but a few instances of what goes on in dealings with land in PNG.

Today, state land is scarce and getting scarcer.

Far too many of the kinds of dealing referred to above has placed much of the alienated land in private hands so that the state has no land to mobilize for public purposes.

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