Western activists attack PM and forest exports

False accusations and media coverage threaten livelihoods and jobs

Recent articles in PNG’s print media include false claims about PNG forestry and agriculture. The claims are based on a report released by anti-development activists based in London. The activists have directly attacked the Prime Minister, as well as agriculture and forestry – two of PNG’s most important export industries – with unfounded accusations of illegality.

Significant commercial damage to essential export industries

The report’s authors claim that any PNG timber that is processed in China and then exported to the USA risks infringing the Lacey Act. The Lacey Act is a controversial US law that penalises US citizens who import animal or plant matter – including, since 2008, ¬†timber – that was illegally harvested.

There is no basis for the claim that the tiny amount of PNG timber that ends up in the US market was harvested illegally. The claim is part of a long-term strategy of anti-forestry activists to halt forestry in tropical countries.

Bob Tate, Executive Officer of the PNG Forest Industries Association said that the activists are attempting to attack the Prime Minister and damage PNG’s major exporters.

“They are lobbying retailers in the US to stop buying products from Papua New Guinea,” Mr Tate said. “This will have a profound impact on jobs, livelihoods ¬†and government revenues in Papua New Guinea.”

“Their claims have no factual basis. They are effectively stating that because a [small number] of agricultural leases have been successfully challenged in court, then all timber exports from PNG are illegal. This is nonsense.”

Mr Tate said that the vast majority of Special Agricultural Business Leases (SABLs) have not been ruled illegal by any court and that agricultural operations have every right to continue. Even the incomplete review inquiry into SABLs recommended the cancelation of only 29 out of the more than 70 SABLs that then existed.

“It’s a fact that over 70% of timber exports from PNG don’t even come from SABL areas. This is wilful ignorance of the situation on the ground that could cause significant commercial damage to PNG’s export industries.”

Misrepresentation of facts

Media coverage of the activist report has referred to the major agricultural development project in Pomio that is operated by a subsidiary of Rimbunan Hijau. According to Mr Tate, the Pomio project is in fact an excellent example of a major investment that is bringing crucial development to a neglected part of PNG.

“The Pomio project – which includes timber harvesting and land clearing followed by establishment of oil palm plantations and processing facilities – employs more than 4000 people, including highly-skilled researchers and managers. As part of the project, a state of the art palm oil processing mill has been built, which is now fully operational. More than 80% of customary landowners in the area have repeatedly pledged their full support to the project, and are now reaping the significant benefits, which as well as jobs include education and health services, roads, bridges and a new airstrip.

“There is a small group of local activists who are opposed to the project. This group – supported by foreign NGOs – has repeatedly attempted to disrupt the project, by erecting illegal blockades and bringing legal challenges. Three times this matter has been brought to the National Court, and each time the court has confirmed the legality of the Pomio project. How can the activists claim that the project is illegal when the court has ruled three times that it is legal? They have the right to express their dissent, but under PNG law, they must accept the will of the majority of landowners.”

Coverage in the print media in PNG even repeated the claim that “the government falsified documents to grab” the land of a PNG activist. This is a serious accusation against the government of PNG, and no response from the government was included in the article.

Part of a long campaign by foreign anti-development activists

The activist report is simply the latest instalment in a foreign-funded anti-PNG forestry campaign that has been running for more than a decade. Originally it was Greenpeace, which claimed in 2006 that PNG forestry is illegal, and that PNG’s forests were on the edge of extinction. According to Mr Tate, neither claim is true:

“PNG’s forestry laws were reviewed by the International Tropical Timber Organisation and found to be of an exemplary standard. The most recent Forest Resource Assessment produced by FAO found that more than 80% of PNG’s land mass remains covered in forest or other wooded land, and that the rate of forest loss from 1990 to 2015 was zero percent. It is a stated development goal for the government that some of this forest land be converted for agriculture, which is our most important national industry.”

Mr Tate goes on to point out the hypocrisy of foreign activists:

“The activists claim that clearing forest for agriculture – or “deforestation” as they call it – must be avoided in PNG at all costs. So how are we supposed to feed our growing population? How are we supposed to develop new industries? Why is it OK for the United Kingdom to maintain just 13% forest cover, but PNG must keep 80% of the country forested? PNG is neither a museum nor a zoo, and customary landowners should have the right to partner with genuine developers to gain an income from their primary asset – their land and forest resources.”

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