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Group calls for moratorium on ‘special’ land leases

By Peter Korugl PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (PNG Post-Courier, April 20, 2011) - The world’s largest scientific body, devoted to the study and wise use of tropical ecosystems, is opposed to the rapid expansion of the Special Agricultural and Business Leases (SABLs) in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

[PIR editor’s note: Special Agricultural and Business Leases (SABLs) are agreements that allow the PNG government to act as an intermediary in the leasing of tribal land.]

The Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) recently resolved that there was an urgent need to curtail the SABLs in PNG.

The ATBC urges that PNG Government "declare and enforce an immediate moratorium on the creation of new SABLs and Forest Clearing Authorities, and declare a temporary moratorium on the implementation of existing Forest Clearing Authorities and immediately conduct a thorough, transparent and independent review of the legality and constitutionality of SABLs and Forest Clearing Authorities in PNG".

The ATBC noted that PNG is among the most biologically and cultural diverse nations on earth, sustaining about 850 distinctive cultural and linguistic groups, who rely intimately on their traditional lands and forests.

The Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation further noted that the PNG land area was presently owned by indigenous communities and this is recognized in the national constitution.

It added that in the past two decades PNG had experienced a dramatic increase in industrial logging, mining, gas and other large-scale projects and the formal permission of the majority of local landowners was required under the law. The ATBC said SABLs, which were originally intended to promote local agricultural development, have been used on a large scale in PNG to circumvent forestry reforms by granting protracted, often 99 year leases, mostly to foreign or multinational corporations and logging interests.

The scientific body said abuses of trust with local communities have occurred far too often under SABLs, which greatly diminish the rights of traditional landowners for long periods of time.

It noted that in 2010 alone, 2.6 million hectares of SABLs were granted, all for 99 year terms, bringing the area of land alienated from customary owners in PNG to over five million hectares.

It also noted that authorizations to clear native forests, known as Forest Clearing Authorities, have been already issued for about two million hectares of forest in existing SABLs, much of which is of outstanding biological and cultural significance.

"With members from over 70 nations worldwide, the ATBC recognizes that raising the living standards of the people of Papua New Guinea is an urgent goal that will require the sustainable exploitation of the country’s natural resources and the development of viable domestic industries.

"However, such development needs to be undertaken in sympathy with the customary ownership embodied in the PNG constitution. It must also operate in concert with ongoing efforts to limit rampant and often predatory industrial exploitation of the country’s forests, lands and other natural resources, which far too often fail to yield fair or equitable benefits for the majority of PNG citizens," the ATBC said.

It said this is the interest not only of the majority of PNG nationals but also of those business people who were presently operating responsibly in Papua New Guinea.

"The Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation agrees with the need for sustainable economic development and to achieve this is a comprehensive land-use plan, based on participatory land-use agreements, is clearly needed. Only then can the sustainable economic, social and environmental benefits of PNG’s enormous natural wealth be secured for its people," the ATBCs said.

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