Protecting Native Lands

March 31, 2000

Papua New Guinea is blessed with tremendous rainforests and unparalleled biodiversity. Roughly 70% of the nation`s traditional communities are living on the land as they have for generations. Fortunately, Papua New Guinea law recognizes that these local communities own their land. Local communities own almost 97% of Papua New Guinea.

Multinational logging companies anxious to reap profits from the forests have established a shameful track record of shady dealings. Companies that promised communities funds for schools, health centers and jobs, in exchange for timber rights, have failed to deliver. Some companies, allegedly in collusion with local elected officials, have acquired timber rights without the consent of local communities — leaving communities without the means to support themselves.

Lawyers with the Environmental Law Centre (ELC) are helping one community stand up against the logging companies and their dishonest practices. In 1993, the Maisin of Collingwood Bay formally rejected large scale logging and agricultural development on their 200,000 hectare ancestral lands. They sent a delegation of community leaders to make this declaration to the Minister of Forests, and received international acclaim. Rather than relying on logging revenues, the community established a program of marketing tribal art and supporting local enterprise and inter-village community institutions.

In 1998, however, the government awarded two companies land leases on 32,000 hectares of land belonging to the Maisin and their neighbors, without their knowledge or consent. The companies claimed the leases were valid and planned to clear-cut the forest to develop a palm oil plantation. The community has claimed the companies obtained the leases unlawfully and without informed consent.

The community has turned to lawyers at ELC to help challenge the government and the companies in the courts. With help from the ELAW network, ELC has won a victory for PNG`s forests and the communities that rely on them. Rejecting the logging company`s efforts to have the case dismissed, the Chief Justice has ordered the logging companies to stay off the land while the case goes forward. With ELAW`s help, ELC and the Maisin people are working to protect PNG`s native forests, expose fraudulent practices and strengthen the right of native communities to manage their land for the benefit of future generations.

For more information about this ELAW Impact, please contact: Environmental Law Centre, Ltd., P.O. Box 49, University PO, National Capital District, Papua New Guinea.