Incoming Minister for Lands and Physical Planning Justin Tkatchenko has announced a thorough review of all outstanding Special Agricultural and Business Leases, promising to confirm the legitimate projects and cancel those deemed fraudulent. This is welcome news, and will hopefully put an end to the controversy that has surrounded these projects for more than five years.
SABLs have been the subject of controversy since before a Commission of Inquiry was announced into the issue in 2011. The resulting investigations identified a number of developers that appeared to want access to valuable timber, but had no real intention of establishing agricultural projects.
There are also instances of SABL projects that have already invested hundreds of millions of Kina in remote parts of PNG. These investments are establishing productive agricultural projects, and delivering significant health, education and development benefits for local communities. An example is the Sigite Mukus Integrated Rural Development project in East New Britain, which employs over 4,000 people, and has generated millions of Kina in tax revenue, plus royalties and levies for landowners.
Unfortunately, the SABL issue has been widely misreported, with more than one media outlet claiming or implying that the vast majority of PNG’s 175 SABL projects are fraudulent attempts to clear-cut forests and leave nothing behind. In fact, Of the 175 SABLs issued only 33 have gone on to apply for a Forest Clearance Authority which is required for any logging operation to commence. Of those 33; four have been cancelled, four have expired, five are non-operational, and twenty are operational. (all numbers at 1st August 2017).
Of the twenty operational projects, it is possible that some are non-compliant, but even if all twenty proved to be fraudulent, twenty out of 175 does not constitute the “wide exploitation” that is being consistently claimed by anti-forestry activists and academics and reported by the foreign press.
In this context, the thorough project-by-project review that has been announced by the Minister is especially welcome. The process will identify the instances of abuse, and confirm the validity of the genuine agricultural projects that support PNG’s national development priorities.