The Decline Of Nature In Papua New Guinea: An Analysis Of Land Reforms In PNG



Papua New Guinea (henceforth as PNG) is resources rich and this ecological diversity could lead to actuating the Resource Curse Theory. Land as a component of nature and a pivot of economic centrism in case of PNG is worth evaluation. The Land Reforms in PNG entail a long story of upheavals and downplays especially against a highly mercurial political economy context.

Becoming independent in 1975, PNG is a resource rich country. Log exports by volume saw an increase of 597% while palm oil of 1537% from 1975 to 2016 (Fletcher, 2020). In 2000, Palm oil as export industry surpassed coffee (Boniface Aipi, 2012).  The palm oil production on commercial basis began in PNG after the advice of the World Bank in 1965 to branch out agriculture sector for economic growth (G. Koczberski, 2001). While this growth is being reported, the 2021 “undercover” report by the Global Witness brought to limelight the ill-fated palm oil industry of PNG as one rigged with corruption; child labor; human right violations; and, environmental degradation (Witness, 2021). While companies responded to the findings as baseless and works of a “group of economic vandals” (Butler, 2021).

The genesis of land reform and development in PNG

Land in Papua New Guinea used to be historically held by customary holdings transcended down from one generation to the other (Mousseau., 2019) and no one until the recent land reforms owned the land as individual property but rather as a clan hold. They have been using land primarily for subsistence farming and would even incorporate people of different clans who would fall short of land since the primary extraction from the land was subsistence farming (Gina Koczberski, 2017). 

After independence and with the arrival of the World Bank, this land holding system was premised as a predicament to economic development and therefore was declared to require reforms. The government through Land Groups Incorporation Act 1974 facilitated arrangement of “Incorporated Land Group (ILG)” (1974) through which, the customary land owners could form a group as a body corporate to undertake private economic activities (Mousseau, 2019). The government in 1979 introduced “lease-leaseback scheme” through which people would lease land to government who then created a formal ownership title for them (Filer, 2017). This in turn enabled the people to further lease it for commercial purposes (Goddard, 2020). The government could also lease on their behalf but with their prior consent. 

In 1980s, the World Bank and the AusAID launched a “land titling and registration program” which asked the people to register their lands to access to bank loans (Frédéric Mousseau, 2020). Through its 1986 “Land Evaluation and Demarcation (LEAD) Project” (Payer, 1979), it advised the PNG Government for more rigorous land reforms focused at changing how the land was held by people. 

In 2003, the government introduced the Special Agriculture Business Leases (SABLs) through which the land holders would seize few rights of holding while mainly possessing the title to the land. In SABLs, first an agreement is executed between the government and the customary land holder followed with a license to lease out the land either by people or by government to integrate economic activities (Jennifer Gabriel, 2017). This was done as measure to integrate land use to economic activities.  

The National Land Summits of 2005 and 2019 have been convened both stemming around the land reforms especially arguing for augmenting the customary land holding and inclusive role of the land management towards robust economic growth especially through increased palm oil sector. The land reforms continue but whether they “do more good” and “do no harm” (Clapp, 2005) remains questionable. 

Let’s have a discussion 

Land reform did not originate from and within PNG rather it was something imposed upon it (Vlachou, 1993) just like its constitution which has been the brain child of Faber Report (Duguman, 2009): a World Bank hired consultant. Land reforms were instigated through a vast tidal wave of institutional reform and discursive adjustment (Harvey, Neoliberalism as Creative Destruction, 2007) by these very regimes of accumulation (Scoones, 2016). These reforms created new markets which hither to then were nonexistent in PNG and consequently new power relations. The Oil Palm market, the timber phenomena through logging, and the catalytically influential corporations were the new results of land reforms urged on the government from outside (Payer, 1979). Interestingly and ironically, all of this was happening in a country where land was conceived as socio-culturally inalienable and never meant for a tradeoff (Gina Koczberski, 2017). 

The World Bank created an inversion of development through the neoliberal nature discourse (Lynch, 2013). It concluded that underdevelopment in PNG was because people held the land by “communal ownership” without any “formal title to land” and “individual property rights” (Gina Koczberski, 2017). Thus, it disallowed the foreign and private companies to bring in their projects. The diagnoses of underdevelopment were found in customary land holdings; while the prognoses were situated in agricultural modernization and thus rigorous land reforms.

Another allied inversion only to accelerate “production of nature” (Paul Robbins, 2014) was the World Bank discourse that people did not know how to manage and use land sustainably. On the contrary, Papua New Guineans have always been subsistent agricultural farmers before the advent of forces of development. The customary land holdings themselves ensured two things: socio-economic stability, as no single person was the owner of the land and it was owned by customs by the whole people; and environmental sustainability, because they always relied on subsistence agriculture. These together provide that Papua New Guineans practiced “sustainability” in action long before its emergence in Western contemplation.

The role of the government through its “land formalization” reverberates to the pervasive “elite capture and dispossession” creating both environmental or ecological imbalances, and also socio-economic stratification (Hamblock, 2022). Under SABLs, in 2005 Baina Agro-Forest Ltd was leased 40000 ha of land for forty years without any criteria. Another logging company namely Nasyl No. 98 Ltd was issued export license in 2007 which “exported a large quantity of logs in 2008, and then disappeared” (Filer, 2017). Lands were acquired under SABLs for Palm Oil but actually were used for logging (Paul N. Nelson, 2014) which transpired potential environmental dents especially against the “growing economic weight” (HELLEINER, 2012) of new global market demands such as “China” (Davidson, 2021). 

SABLs contributed immensely to deforestation turning “these once-pristine carbon sinks” into “sources of global emissions” (Roberta Staley, 2019) while irregular accumulation surmounted around (Tarzi, 1991). The watershed moment to “compartmentalize, commoditize and privatize” nature (James Fairhead, 2012) was in 2010 only when the news surfaced that  “12 percent of the country (5.5 million hectares)” was leased to foreign companies (Frédéric Mousseau, 2020) using the SABLs initiative (Monson, 2014).

The recurring intention of land reforms (Manning) is, as it has always been, to alienate people off their land holding rights through appropriation by privatization to favor powers of “influence” and “lobbying” (In Song Kim, 2019). In 2010, government, by amending the Environment Act, introduced “national interest” by which the government could acquire any land on pretext of national interest (Babon, 2011). This amendment was instigated by the conspicuous companies (Greenpeace, 2002). Thus, the multinational corporations, the land holders, the government and the international aid organizations have formed into “economic forces” which are both generating “environmental change” and also acting to control this change (Newell, 2008).

The SABLs 2011 Commission of Inquiry (Frédéric Mousseau, 2020) report (Tran, 2012) exposed the politicians, officials and the corporations involved in corrupt practices but nothing in action came out of it. These multinational corporations are eroding nature in pursuit of limitless profits (Irogbe, 2013).


The land reforms following the World Bank’s agricultural modernization paradigm (Mol, 2002) executed through an elitist politician-officials junta (Bree Hurst, 2019) in PNG have created new power relations; new social relations of intensified access to land and resource (Hamblock, 2022); enhanced multinational corporatist capture and a decaying natural resource. We have seen in the foregoing analysis how the power structures are even used in creating abstractions, imaginaries, imageries and inversions and all at the behest of land reforms. The farmers of subsistence agriculture are no more. They have formed collusions with the corporations. 

Another significant thing that requires further inquiry is the absence of social movement in the PNG. These “movements” (Escobar, 1996) are novel elements that can function as forces of resistance and provisions of alternatives (Vlachou, 1993). Such movements are also necessary to shift people from being “one component” to be being “central figure” (Costanza, 1991) in a political economy setting. But formation of such movements in PNG seems formidable against the backdrops of “fragmented social settings” (Phillpot, 2002) and a “propertied society” (Saurin, 2010) which has pledged its future to “debt slavery” of World Bank and multinational corporations (Harvey, The Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, 2020). In this quagmire of “land reforms” in PNG, the World Bank has been “irreprehensible”; the multinational corporations have been paradigmatic forces of “Corporate Savage Irresponsibility” while the triangle is only made complete with the “disenfranchised people, abandoned by the state” (Shaw, 2008).


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Muhammad Jahangir Khan

Muhammad Jahangir Khan is an independent analyst based in Quetta.

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