PNG Landowners Win Landmark Legal Battle To Retake Their “Hijacked” Land From Controversial Special Agriculture And Business Lease

The process of acquiring customary lands for the special ag lease was under review, proper landowner consultation was deemed to have not been conducted

By Isaac Nicholas

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (PNG Post-Courier, August 29, 2016) – Landowners in East New Britain Province have won a landmark legal battle to retake their “hijacked” land from the controversial Special Agriculture and Business Lease (SABL).

The people of Baining in Gazelle district had taken the State and developer to court over the SABL deal which has now been declared null and void by the National Court in Kokopo last Thursday.
 
The Sukpramatka Land Group, led by chairman Joel Puipui, had filed an application for judicial review against the State and developer East New Britain Palm Oil Limited last year.
 
The proceedings before the court was for a judicial review of the decisions of the State and developer over the process of acquiring the customary lands for SABL, described and known as Baram-Gransait land over Portions 908C and 909C comprising 10,980 hectares and 23,556 hectares in the Inland Baining area.
 
The application for judicial review was filed by Mr Puipui representing the Sukpramatka land group, Mr Penias Wagire as acting chairman of Sael Mander ILG, Mr Mathis Sabatka as chairman Malangait ILF of Qaget clan, Chief Jonah Todi of Avir clan and Chief Hosea Kailam of Uramat clan.
 
They filed the judicial review in 2012 and leave for the review was granted on March 5, 2013.
 
The respondents are Secretary and Minister for Lands and Physical Planning, the State, Kairak ILG, and East New Britain Palm Oil Limited.
 
The landowners sought judicial review alleging that the process of acquisition of customary land for Business and Agriculture Leases pursuant to Land Act 1996 were not followed, that there was no diligent and no meaningful consultation with landowners taken by Minister and Secretary for Lands and that the Minister had failed to comply with the statutory preconditions for acquisition of customary land by the State and for granting of lease for special agriculture and business purposes.
 
Justice Lenalia Selatial said in his 37-page decision that “the process was hijacked from appropriate landowners” as shown in evidence presented during the proceedings and breached the Land Act and the Constitution.
 
He said the Minister can only grant SABLs when he is satisfied that reasonable inquiry has been carried out by officers of his department and the provincial lands office to establish that landowners agree for the land to be compulsorily acquired.
 
“I am not satisfied that the three-day meetings held at Malabonga High School community hall on September 1-3, 2010, met the requirements of meaningful consultation.” with landowners.
 
“Those decisions cannot stand and having discussed the evidence by all parties and issues involved and the position in law, the court declares that decisions are null and void,” Justice Lenalia ruled.
 
Prime Minister Peter O’Neill had promised to cancel all SABLs and abolish the provisions of the Land Act that allow for SABLs to be granted, allowing more than 5.5 million hectares of land being taken over by foreign corporations.
 
Mr O’Neill’s decision refers to the investigation by the Commission of Inquiry which determined that the majority of the leases were in flagrant infringement of laws and fraught with abuse and corruption.

PNG Post-Courier
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