Corruption in the PNG forest industry

March 20, 1991

By Kaylene Allan

As rapacious forestry operations sweep across the tropical forests of the Asia-Pacific, the island composed of Papua New Guinea and West Papua will be amongst their last destinations. By the turn of the century, New Guinea will harbour the largest continuous tracts of tropical rainforest wilderness left in the world.

Already more than half of the operable PNG forest area has been allocated to logging concessions.

These forests are also threatened by massive resettlement programs, insensitive mining operations and pulp mills — many with Australian support and involving Australian companies.

After intense pressure from the Australian government, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, PNG Prime Minister Rabbie Namaliu last June announced "an almost revolutionary program to remove bureaucratic obstruction and facilitate private sector development". This would throw open the PNG economy to unregulated penetration and control by multinational companies.

The measures would include a government crackdown on traditional owners who make compensation claims and restriction of people's ability to organise and protest against the activities of big business and the government's austerity drive.

In this climate, it is crucial that the PNG people have access to the real facts about the PNG forest industries. But crucial information from an inquiry into logging has been suppressed by the PNG government and the country's power elites.

In May 1987, then Prime Minister Paias Wingti appointed Justice Thomas Barnett to head an inquiry amidst allegations of large-scale corruption and fraud in the industry.

Released in July 1989, the Barnett Inquiry's report exposed a forest industry riddled with corruption, fraud and incompetence at all levels. Senior government ministers implicated included current deputy prime minister Ted Diro and Sir Hugo Berghuser, recently appointed to the Board of the Forest Industries Council.

In reference to the situation in the province of New Ireland, Barnett said: "It would be fair to state of some of the companies that they are now roaming the countryside with the self assurance of robber barons; bribing politicians and leaders, creating social disharmony and ignoring laws in order to gain access to, rip out and export the last remnants of the province's valuable timber.

"These companies are fooling the landowners and making use of corrupt, gullible and unthinking politicians ... rapacious foreign exploitation has been allowed to continue with ... devastating effects to the social and physical environment and with ... few positive benefits.

"It is doubly outrageous that these foreign companies ... have then ecret and illegal funds ... at the expense of landowners and the PNG government."

Only two of the nine volumes of the commission's report were printed, and none are now publicly available in PNG.

There was an attempt to murder Justice Barnett; evidence held at the Ombudsman's Commission was stolen; other evidence held at the Anti-Corruption Office was destroyed a few days later in a suspicious fire.

The Asia-Pacific Action Group, a social and environmental justice organisation, has produced a 60-page summary of the commission's 5500-page report for distribution both within and outside PNG. Copies are available in English and Pidgin. Please contact APAG, PO Box 693, Sandy Bay, Tasmania 7005.n

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