PNG Villager Takes Six-Year Logging Fight To The World Stage

Recipient of international human rights award for his struggle to prevent logging around his home

By Eric Tlozek

MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, December 2, 2016) – A Papua New Guinean villager's six-year battle to stop logging around his home has won him an international human rights award and given him the chance to lobby the United States Government for help.

Paul Pavol travelled to New York and Washington DC to see politicians and foreign policy staff.
He was flown to the US to receive the Alexander Soros Foundation Award, which recognises human rights and environmental advocates.
The foundation's patron, philanthropist Alexander Soros, said Mr Pavol had won for his efforts to stop logging around his home village of Mu in East New Britain province.
"When you think about the environmental movement, the face you think of would mostly be Hollywood celebrities, and the purpose we have here is to put the face of the people who are actually doing the work and risking their lives," Mr Soros said.
"Paul is receiving this year's award because he has never given up his fight, despite the obstacles against him.
"We hope that this award provides him with some leverage to bring back the rule of law and justice to his home."
'Big corruption' claims
Mr Pavol's community and many others on the island of New Britain are being dramatically changed by logging.
Six years ago, the giant Malaysian forestry company Rimbunan Hijau (RH) began clearing the area and planting oil palm.
"The last six years — very, very terrible," Mr Pavol said.
"They've cleared the forest already, they replanted with oil palm, they've constructed a mill, they've built roads, infrastructure that can benefit themselves and that's it."

Mr Pavol has been opposing the development, arranging public meetings and protests.

He said the landowner companies, which leased the forest to RH for 99 years, did so fraudulently using the signatures of dead people, children and those living outside the district on their approval forms.

"It does not come in the right way. It contains fraud, forgery, misleading information," Mr Pavol said.

"There is big corruption in these such things so we cannot just sit down."

John Parulria, the chairman of the umbrella company for the landowner groups Memalo Holdings, denied the fraud allegations and said only a small number of people oppose the leases.

"Fraudulent, that is the wrong term to use, I deny that," he said.

"There were some people who were anti-development and even now, people are still anti-development.

"They do not want any change to the lives of people."

Mr Parulria said the company had obtained the informed consent of landowners before agreeing to the development.

"Initially there was a number of awareness [meetings] taken across the board based on the cries of the people for development since people felt that the area was neglected by the Government for too long," he said.

"The people accepted the idea for development."

Development 'progressive and positive'

The company logging the area and developing oil palm plantations, Rimbunan Hijau, is one of the biggest operating in Papua New Guinea.

RH, as it is known, no longer just works in the forestry sector.

It owns a national newspaper, a transport company, and just opened a $160 million hotel in Port Moresby.

RH said its Pomio development, like its hotel, is a landmark investment that will bring hundreds of millions of dollars in benefits to communities and employ 4,000 people.

"It is progressive and it is steadily positive because it is now changing and bringing change to that area," said Kanawi Pouru, the former managing director of Papua New Guinea's Forest Authority.

He recently audited the Pomio project for Rimbunan Hijau.

"During the one month I was there working through with them, no-one was standing up to say 'we don't want the project'."

Rimbunan Hijau said it complies with all laws and regulations and has no concerns about alleged fraud committed by the landowner companies who leased it the land.

"That is a matter for the Lands Department, for the landowners to answer, it's not for the investor," Mr Pouru said.

"I don't think it is their duty to go down and do a due diligence on whether every landowner signed."

There are dozens of other projects around PNG that conduct logging under a lease for agricultural development, called a Special Agricultural Business Lease (SABL).

'We had everything we needed'

Some landowners have successfully opposed such logging in court.

The Turubu project, one of PNG's largest, has been found to be illegal.

The National Court said its operators failed to get proper consent and imposed "oppressive" lease conditions on unwitting landowners.

It is not an isolated case, with a Commission of Inquiry into the SABLs identifying similar problems across the country.

The commissioners found negligence by PNG's Lands Department in checking landowner approvals.

"In some instances landowners' signatures were forged," the Department said.

"In another shocking instance signatures of minors and deceased clan members were 'procured'."

PNG's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill recently announced all SABLs would be cancelled.

"Instructions have gone out to the Department of Lands to cancel every SABL," he told Lateline.

"We've stated very clearly — cancel everything."

But the instruction does not rule out further logging on the leases.

"They can go and reapply, they can go and reapply through the normal Land Act provisions that are there," Mr O'Neill said.

Mr Pavol said he will not give up the fight.

"The land is our mother and before it was stolen, we were very rich," he said.

"We had everything we needed. Our land provided us food and water, protein, building materials, medicines, beauty, warmth and everything else.

"We were promised developments, we promised jobs, service, money. We never wanted these to happen, we were never asked.

"Money cannot buy any of the things our land provided for us."

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