PAPUA NEW GUINEA: Resisting illegal logging

Tim Stewart

Indigenous lawyer Anne Kajir from the Environmental Law Centre in Papua New Guinea is one of six recipients of the US$125,000 Goldman Environmental Prize. According to the prize's website, she won this year's award for her tireless work in defending landowner interests against commercial logging operations in PNG.

Kajir uncovered evidence of widespread corruption by the Papua New Guinean government, which has allowed rampant, illegal logging that is destroying the largest remaining block of tropical forest in the Asia-Pacific region. In 1997, her first year practising law, Kajir successfully defended a precedent-setting appeal in the Supreme Court that forced logging companies to pay damages to customary landowners.

"The Environmental Law Centre is working around fisheries, mining and policy development reform, but the biggest campaign is around illegal logging", Kajir told Green Left Weekly during a recent trip to Sydney. "We are helping to expose illegal logging and government corruption in the courts. There is also a market angle - getting the buyers from China, Japan and Australia not to buy wood products from PNG because the timber is being taken from the rainforests."

While PNG has "very good laws in the constitution protecting landholder rights in relation to natural resources", Kajir explained that "Unfortunately, there is a push on now to change those laws so that they favour big business. There is also a push to change the mining and landholder legislation. It is not looking good for landholders who own these resources."

Describing the impact of illegal logging, Kajir said: "Once the logging operations are finished, waste logs are just buried. During wet season everything is just mud. Rivers that were previously flowing fresh are now running dirty. Women have to walk very long distances now to get water."

The worst-affected areas include the Western Province, but the problem exists across PNG. "The logging is out of control. Forty per cent of the forest in PNG is already gone. It's going from bad to worse. Every day permits are being granted illegally."

Kajir believes the most urgent issue facing PNG landowners is to be properly informed of their rights. "If they're not careful, those forests are going to go. The land is going to be destroyed. If the government ends up changing the forestry laws in favour of the developers, it will be the small people who will miss out eventually. The Forestry Act has been passed by parliament but it has not yet been gazetted."

Kajir explained that a Supreme Court challenge has been filed by the Ombudsman's Commission after pressure from NGOs. "It is being challenged on the basis that the proposed new laws are unconstitutional ... The new forestry bill takes away the need for consent by landowners."

Pressured by the International Monetary Fund, the PNG government has also "begun setting up committees to review the Land Act ... This will make it even more difficult to challenge the logging operations. The landowners will end up being beggars on their own land."

From Green Left Weekly, May 24, 2006.

Informant: Andy


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