Papua New Guinea (PNG) is one of the most culturally diverse countries on Earth, with over 900 different languages and cultural groups. It occupies the Eastern half of the island of New Guinea, and is located less than 200 kilometres from the Northern tip of Australia. PNG is home to one of the richest rainforests in the world.
Bikpela Bagarap is set in Sandaun Province, and its capital, Vanimo, which is located on the northern coast of PNG, only 40km from the border with West Papua/Indonesia. It is essentially a gateway to and from Asia. Sandaun Province is extremely rich in natural resources, particularly timber and gold. It is also the poorest and least developed of all provinces in Papua New Guinea.
Today, it is generally accepted that all logging in Sandaun Province is being undertaken by Malaysian logging companies. The largest operations are being run by WTK Realty, operating under the company names Vanimo Forest Products (VFP) and Amanab Forest Limited (AFL). There are suspicions that they have involvement in some or all of the other logging companies operating in the province, but it is almost impossible to determine.
Collectively, the group of Malaysian companies is commonly referred to as “The Company”, and Vanimo is now essentially a one company town. “The Company” own the one supermarket, the hotel, the gaming machines and the sawmill. They control the shipping and fuel. Their brother company Rimbunan Hijau owns one of only two national newspapers.
Kwila (merbau) is the dominant timber species for export due to its strength. Over 90% of all logs harvested in Papua New Guinea are exported to China, where they are sawn and processed for further export. Over 50% of all kwila (merbau) harvested in PNG is eventually shipped to Australia, mainly as outdoor furniture or decking. Kwila is listed as an endangered species, categorised as “facing a high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future.”
It is estimated that an average of 200,000 logs are exported every year from Sandaun Province, with an open market value of over US$300 million. Local landowners are paid less than 1% of this value, if they are paid at all. They are promised fresh water, health and education, but these essential services are never provided. PNG Nationals are being treated like second-rate citizens in their own country.
Papua New Guinea today remains one of the few countries in the world that still allows the export of raw logs. As this practice has been banned in Malaysia and Indonesia, asian logging companies are exploiting this to export huge amounts of raw logs from PNG. The World Bank estimates that 70% of all logging in Papua New Guinea is illegal, although most unofficial sources put the rate even higher than that …
After World War I, Papua New Guinea was placed under the administration of Australia, who soon recognised the value and potential of PNG’s forests. PNG operates under a system of traditional land ownership, with 97% of the total land area classed as “customary land”, which cannot be bought and sold. To get around this, they developed Timber Rights Purchase (TRP) agreements, where rights to the trees on customary land were essentially “purchased” by the state from the customary landowners for a certain time period. The state was then free to issue permits or licences to logging companies on agreed terms and conditions. These agreements were managed by the Department of Forestry.
In 1967 and 1968, the first TRPs between the state and customary landowners in and around Vanimo were signed, for a period of 40 years. All of these agreements were written in English, and with such high levels of illiteracy, most (if not all) locals were just forced to sign documents of which they did not understand the content. Most of the landowners that signed these originally agreements have since died, and as no copies were made or provided, the local people have little or no knowledge regarding the agreements affecting their land.
In 1975, Papua New Guinea was granted Independence from Australia.
In 1984, the PNG Government issued a permit under the existing TRPs to Australian company Bunnings Brothers, who commenced logging under the local company name Vanimo Forest Products.
In 1990, Bunnings Brothers sold their shares in Vanimo Forest Products to Malaysian company WTK Realty in extremely controversial circumstances, without the knowledge or consent of customary landowners. Large protests in Vanimo followed, but to no avail. WTK were already in Sandaun Province operating in a separate logging area, and they just increased their existing operation. A new Project Agreement and 20 year permit was issued to WTK under Vanimo Forest Products, covering the existing TRP agreements. This agreement and permit are due to expire this year (2011) however the existing TRPs expired in 2007 and 2008 so all logging in these areas has been illegal since then, as there is no agreement between the landowners and the state.
While logging under the existing TRP agreements, WTK obviously saw and realised the potential to continue and expand their logging operation deeper into the forest. Hand in hand with the State of Papua New Guinea, new agreements with customary landowners have been signed over the past 30 years, and logging permits continue to be issued. TRP’s have now been replaced with a new agreement called Forest Management Agreement (FMA), but essentially the principles are still the same.