The Laws of Land Grabs in Papua New Guinea

Dec 23, 2019

Logging Road In East New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. According to a new report, 85 percent of the population still live in rural areas and practise subsistence agriculture. They depend entirely on the country’s land, forests, rivers and seas to meet their food and other basic needs. The legislative framework of PNG explicitly recognises the customary land rights of its traditional communities. As such, the customary land rights in the country are extensively affirmed by various constitutional provisions as well as by its laws on land, forests, conservation areas and strategies and the extractive and mining industry. 

Land grabbing in the PNG has largely been caused by a lack of consultation with traditional landowners. This is despite various natural resource laws mandating community consultations when there are proposed activities or operations that may affect the rights and well-being of traditional landowners. 

The Special Agricultural Business Lease (SABL) which is required before customary land used for agricultural or commercial activities, requires the consent of customary landowners. However, many SABLs have reportedly been obtained through manipulative and fraudulent means. The limitations of rural communities who may have modest levels of literacy, knowledge on the law and the documentation procedures on land rights, often get taken advantage of. These communities may also face various technical and logistical challenges in organising and mobilising themselves into an incorporated group as provided for under the law.

Community Governance Structure and The Role of Women

Customary law recognises patrilineal and matrilineal communities whose assets and ownership rights are passed down through the male and female lineage. In matrilineal communities, women own the land and make decisions regarding land within their clans. Land is passed down from mother to daughter, following the female generation line. However in PNG, patrilineal communities account for three-quarter of the country’s population. Therefore, the status of women born or married into patrilineal communities is dependent on her ability to raise her children and execute her domestic duties, such as cooking, food production and nurturing, all in compliance to her cultural obligations.

Cultural attitudes on gender relations have remained as a significant barrier in preventing women from playing greater roles in leadership and decision making. However, one of the most significant catalysts for change is the empowerment of women that has resulted in the overcoming of gender stereotypes and negative cultural attitudes. This has created the space for women to develop their skills and talents and contribute to the community in ways that were traditionally reserved for men.

Forest Clearance for SABL (Oil Palm expansion) in Bairaman Village.
Picture courtesy of Greenpeace

Community Awareness,
Paralegal Training and Legal Services

Center for Environmental Law and Community Rights (CELCOR) provides legal support and conducts various activities designed to empower local communities. CELCOR facilitates  environmental and ecological awareness programmes, community workshops and paralegal training to develop community groups whose members are capable of responding to the needs of protecting the environment and the customary property rights owners.

CELCOR works directly with female members of its partner communities during its capacity building activities. As an organisation where women form the majority of its staff, CELCOR is mindful in demonstrating to the communities it works with, the potential for women to play important roles and contribute constructively in community development discussions.

Papua New Guinea Recommends

  1. The cancellation of all Special Agricultural and Business Leases (SABL) found to have been illegally obtained as well as the withdrawal of other operating permits connected to such illegal SABLs, following which, the affected land must be returned to the customary landowners. 

  2. The introduction of legislative provisions which:
    • Will allow the halting of resource extractive licences and permits if there are failures to conduct proper consultations with affected customary landowners, including the process of obtaining their free, prior and informed consent,
    • Guarantee the right of customary landowners to freely access information on resource extraction and development activities that will affect their rights, livelihood, and well-being,
    • Define the rights of customary landowners in order to improve its scope and clarity, in particular,
    • Clearly emphasise the responsibility of the state to carry out social mapping for the purpose of identifying customary landowners,
    • Allow the creation of trust funds which can ensure that benefit-sharing mechanisms for landowners may be extended to future generations,
    • Ensure that the rights of customary landowners will not be suspended and that their access to particular parts of their land may still be permitted after a land acquisition process,
    • The review of the constitutionality of legislative provisions that directly vest the title of natural resources found underground to the state.

Read more about the issue of land grabbing in our new report ‘The Laws of Land Grabs in Asia Pacific’.

For more information contact:
Rebecca Melepia
Community Legal Education Awareness Officer
Center for Environmental Law and Community Rights (CELCOR) Inc