PNG landowners block logging


By Jake Jagoff

The clash between logging companies and the traditional landowners of Madang Province in Papua New Guinea escalated considerably starting on May 16, when the Gogol-Naru and North Coast landowners resumed blockades of Jant's (subsidiary of Honshu Paper) and Gasmata Resources' timber "mining" operations. The landowners vow to maintain the blockades until the companies meet their demands.

Both groups of landowners have previously blockaded Jant's and Gasmata Resources' operations in order to force these companies to follow through on agreements contained in their timber permits.

Jant has clear-felled over 60,000 hectares (out of a total of 70,200 hectares) in its 17-year-old woodchipping concession. Last November, the Gogol-Naru landowners blockaded logging roads for five days before the company and the provincial government agreed to negotiate.

These talks culminated in Jant promising to compensate the landowners K15 million (approximately $20 million) for lack of services and to complete an environmental impact study of the area. To date, both the company and the province have ignored these promises, leaving the landowners no choice but to organise further blockades.

The situation for the North Coast landowners is similar. They originally blocked roads near Sarang on February 14. The impetus behind their blockade was the sale of Madang Timbers, the company that holds the timber permit, to its former owners, Gasmata Resources.

Madang Timbers was officially bankrupt and in the receivership of ANZ up to February, when the bank sold 75% of its equity to Gasmata Resources — the same company that left Madang with a bad debt of K3.4 million to ANZ, K175,000 in unpaid landowner royalties and an unknown amount to the National Provident Fund. Gasmata Resources was one of the companies named in the Barnett Inquiry for its activities in West New Britain, where it left owing K400,000.

Leery of Gasmata's poor track record, the landowners shut down the access roads and instructed the company to drive all its equipment into one area so that it can be closely monitored that no logging is taking place. The North Coast landowners warned that, if any logging occurs, the equipment will go up in flames. Gasmata Resources seems to be taking this seriously.

Much of the landowners' awareness of the ecological and social impacts of large-scale clear-felling coalesced during the Momase Landowner's Awareness Conference held April 19-23. More than 200 landowners from Morobe, Madang, East Sepik and Saundaun provinces attended the event in one of the last remaining forests of the Gogol-Naru people. Here they shared horror stories of multinational rape: bulldozers operating on 55 degree slopes; bulldozing trees to the edge and even into rivers; and the widespread waste of an industry that levels all the trees but then takes only the premium species.

The landowners now also understand how the industry influences the >PNG and how they are intimidated and taken advantage of by that system.

Despite the fact that the provincial government, remains in the back pocket of foreign timber interests, the landowners' resolve is stronger than ever. Their spirits were lifted when they learned that coordinated actions against Jant/Honshu were taking place on May 17 in Tokyo, Seattle, Brisbane and Port Moresby.

One of the highlights of the Tokyo protest was the toppling of a mountain of cardboard boxes, produced by Honshu from tropical hardwoods in Madang, by James Jogamup, a Gogol-Naru landowner who flew to Tokyo for the protest. Jogamup stated, "These boxes come from my people's forests. What an incredible waste!"

In Seattle, activists from the local rainforest action group and Greenpeace gathered outside of Honshu's office building displaying two metre tall photos of Jant's clear-cuts and last November's blockade.

In Brisbane, activists from the Rainforest Information Centre, Rainforest Action Group and Greenpeace converged on the Japanese consulate and presented a gift-wrapped cardboard box full of woodchips to the consul general to symbolise the connection between woodchipping rainforests and producing paper and cardboard.

Members of the Melanesian Environment Foundation in Port Moresby staged a demonstration with placards and leaflets at the Murray Barracks intersection. Foundation spokesperson Kenae Ka'au said, "The idea is to support the landowners in Madang and to help stop foreign timber companies from destroying our resources."