I have just arrived back from Pomio, where the clear felling of the bush and subsequent oil palm planting are in full swing despite the fact that the vast majority of villagers oppose both. Villagers are powerless to stop these activities which continue even though SABLs have recently supposedly been revoked. This looks likely to have the same status as the police commissioners public order (Dec 2011) that police be pulled out of logging camp sites. The police never were removed, and it is only their continued presence, violence and intimidation that prevents villagers from setting up road blocks to protect their land, gardens and environment.
What is clear to me is that for most local villagers in Pomio the state has shifted away from them and is largely in the pockets of large Malaysian logging companies.
These companies control important governments departments and officials in crucial departments such as Lands, Forestry and the police force. The same applies to other officials in District administration, Local Level Government, Provincial Administration and national government departments. Nearly all sectors of the state have been co-opted into coercive pro-development policies that seek to privatise land and resources without villagers consent.
These logging companies were supported and gave support to the local national member for Pomio who is now in jail for corruption charges. The large funds of money these foreign companies provide at election time has transformed voting into a patron client relationship that supports local, provincial and national government politicians who support the Lease-Lease back schemes (SABLs).
Police and company directors often tell complaining villagers that the land is no longer theirs but belongs to the state which has leased it from them so as to lease it again to the Malaysian companies. The state has become the crucial intermediary in the forced process through which villagers lose control of their resources and especially their land. Much of this depends upon the production of dubious reports by the Lands Department that collects and produces lists of signatures that are highly selective in that they are not the signatures of major clan leaders and of those who represent the majority of villagers.
Through the SABLs and the Private, Public Partnerships, the Somare government created two interlocking policies that have institutionalised corruption in PNG to a point where villagers find it almost impossible to achieve forms of justice concerning the fraudulent nature of state processes that have been effectively dispossessed them of huge areas of land.
Officials in departments like forestry write reports that are not just wrong but are intentionally designed to conceal and legitimise the forced appropriation of land. For example one letter by the local forestry official concerns the late night visit of the armed riot squad to the village of Mu in 2012 where villagers were forced by police to sign English documents that they could not read. This was said to be not at all violent intimidation, but was simply the police correcting an administrative oversight. The riot squad had just gone to collect the names of villagers who had attended a recent meeting over logging, where record keeping had been poorly implemented. None of this explains the swearing and violent demeanour of the armed police and that the signatures were collected forcibly and from many who never went to the meeting. The state is not just incompetent buthas become the crucial instrument for foreign large scale capital, it is state officials who seek to manage and placate opposition to the loss of vast areas of customary local land. They produce the dodgy reports that seek to sanitise and obscure what is actually happening on the ground.
Recently RH has shifted tactics and there has been a movement away from using the violence of the riot squad to intimidate opponents. Instead there is a greater use of courts and restraining orders to prevent the organisation of protests. The cost of legal action has become another form of intimidation that is meant to penalise protesters and their leaders. The judiciary has now become co-opted into this realising a coercive development agenda that has little respect for people’s customary property rights.