Papua New Guinea fails to halt massive land and timber grab as delegation talks forest protection at Asia-Pacific Rainforest Summit

As governments convene in Sydney, Australia for the Asia-Pacific Rainforest Summit, Global Witness is calling on the government of Papua New Guinea (PNG) - home to the world’s third largest expanse of rainforest – to take action to protect its forests and the people who live in them from the largest land grab in modern history (1), covering around 12% of the country’s landmass.  

A new briefing by Global Witness shows that in recent years around US$100 million worth of timber is being exported from land that the PNG government has leased under a scheme intended to allow communities to develop their land for agriculture. Nearly all of these permits - Special Agriculture and Business Leases (SABLs) – were issued over land and forest owned by indigenous communities, and some appear to be fronts for logging operations rather than genuine agriculture projects.

Many locals say their land was given away without their knowledge or consent, but their protests have been met with police force and intimidation. Most SABLs are for 99 years, in effect permanently expropriating the land from communities.

“The PNG government has blithely ignored its citizen’s constitutional rights to their land, and is allowing the decimation of forests of critical importance - both for local health and livelihoods and for keeping global atmospheric carbon at safe levels.” said Rick Jacobsen of Global Witness. “The PNG delegation has a lot to hide at today’s Rainforest Summit.”     

More than a year after an official inquiry into SABL allocations published evidence of “widespread abuse, fraud, lack of coordination between agencies of government, failure and incompetence of government officials to ensure compliance, accountability and transparency within SABL process” and concluded that “developers and people with vested interests have hijacked the SABL process to suit their own ends”, the government has taken no meaningful action to remedy the situation.

Logging under SABLs continues full throttle and new logging authorisations are being granted. Meanwhile, roughly 40% of the SABLs have still not been properly reviewed, three years after the government committed to doing so.

“Despite some token actions earlier this year, the situation on the ground in PNG is getting worse, not better. People are seeing their lives upended and one of the country’s greatest assets – its unique rainforests – is being destroyed as a result of government inaction,” said Jacobsen. 

Global Witness is calling for the government of PNG to urgently fulfil its recent public promises to: 

  • Cancel SABLs where recommended by the official inquiry and ensure that operations in all cancelled SABLs are halted
  • Expedite an independent and transparent review of the remaining leases and cancel those found to involve violations of PNG laws
  • Prosecute or sanction officials and companies implicated in the abuse of SABLs where evidence of criminality or negligence was uncovered by the official inquiry



Alice Harrison (London) +44 7841 338792 [email protected]

Rick Jacobsen (Washington DC) +1 202 621 6666 [email protected]  

Notes to editor:

(1) Based on the PNG government’s abuse of a single type of lease over a short period of time to allocate at least 5.2 million ha of customary land to a numberof companies on an effectively permanent basis without the free, prior and informed consent of all affected landowners.