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Indigenous people lose out on land rights

A woman outside the provincial capital of Madang. The native population is largely Melanesian and Papuan but is divided into many distinct cultures David Swanson/IRIN
Papua New Guinea’s indigenous people have lost their right to challenge developers and the state over deals involving their land and resources.

Numbering some six million people, Papua New Guineans - comprising hundreds of ethnic groups - own 97 percent of the country’s land.

“This raises huge human rights issues,” Tiffany Nonnggor, a lawyer and human rights advocate, told IRIN in Port Moresby.

While the rest of the western democratic world has spent the better part of the past 50 years trying to restore indigenous property rights, this government “has just stripped its most vulnerable citizens, those in the remote rural areas where the projects are, of their rights with no consultation and debate, let alone compensation”, she said.

“It is obvious that the government has decided that development of any type is good and that any obstacles to resource projects must be swept aside,” wrote the country’s English daily Post Courier on 31 May.

“National interest”

On 28 May, the country’s parliament amended sections of the Environment and Conservation Act 2000, which rules on major resource projects in the Pacific island nation.

The amendments give the director of the Office of Environment and Conservation wide-ranging powers to grant various certificates relating to environmental plans submitted by investors, in addition to provisions that complying certificates issued by the director will be final and “may not be challenged or reviewed in any court or tribunal, except at the instigation of an Authorization Instrument”.

PNG Minister for Environment and Conservation Benny Allen, when introducing the amendments, said the “national interest” was paramount and therefore the law needed to be changed.

A group of young men in northern Madang Province. Papua New Guinea is home to a huge indigenous population speaking more than 800 languages
Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
Disputes over land and resources are not uncommon
The opposition is up in arms over the amendments, saying the changes were open to legal challenge to determine their constitutionality.

“The new laws [are] meant to protect the interests of investors at the expense of the environment and the resource owners. The new laws [are] selling [out] the rights of the people,” deputy opposition leader Bart Philemon told a press conference.

Rights removed

The amendments are devastating for all landowners, not only customary ones.

The changes remove the rights that Papua New Guineans have had for years to protect their property from environmental harm and the right to sue for compensation for environmental damage and the customary rights to claim compensation for environmental harm.

“Not only have they breached many sections of the constitution, they have managed to breach the international convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, ratified by parliament in 2000,” Nonnggor said. “This is the worst piece of legislation as far as human rights go that I have ever seen in a supposed western democracy.”

Disputes concerning land and resource rights between indigenous groups, the government and corporate entities are not uncommon in PNG.

While figures vary significantly, more than 5,000 people lost their lives on the island of Bougainville off the east coast of PNG between 1989 and 1999 following a bitter fight over compensation between Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), an Australian-owned mining company, and the hundreds of indigenous landowners it displaced in Panguna.

The conflict escalated into a bloody civil war between members of the indigenous population and government troops.

At present, there are claims of environmental damage caused by the Ok Tedi copper mine in the country’s Western Province, the Kutubu oil project in the Southern Highlands, the Porgera gold mine in the Southern Highlands Province, the Lihir gold mine in the New Ireland Province, the now defunct Misima gold mine in the Milne Bay Province and the Tokoluma gold mine in the Central Province.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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