The core strength to environmental protection in PNG is the customary land tenure system and the fact that the environmental act before the amendments considered landowners traditional rights and protected it under the law. That has been my view every since I watched a film (forgot the title) in my environmental science class at the university of PNG as a final year student.
That video was about a medical scientist doing research on traditional medicine somewhere in the Amazon forest. The medical scientist spent 10 years of research with an indigenous tribe that lives in that forest area. The research involved traditional and indigenous knowledge of various plants, barks, roots and leaves.
One day the government decided to sell the land to a company who decide to clear fell the forest and build a cattle ranch. Without warning or negotiation with the indigenous tribe who lives in that forest area, the company dispatched heavy machinery clear fell the forest and burn it at the same time. It was the fire that destroyed the indigenous village and the research centre. The forest people lost their homes and everything while the medical research work for 10 years was completely destroyed.
Two things came to my mind as I was watching the film in my class.
1. Firstly, that indigenous forest community did not have their traditional rights protected under the law of their country and therefore their government did whatever it pleased and it was non-negotiable. There was no consultation and there was no free prior informed consent. Therefore, that forest community was forced to evacuate their traditional village without any form of compensation or relocation plans from their government.
2. Secondly, the 10 years of medical research based on traditional and indigenous knowledge of forest people which would have resulted in the cure for various diseases we have today was destroyed in the furnace.
That film inspired me to be a strong advocate of customary land protection in PNG and I have always referred to many times especially in discussions on environmental protection and customary lands.
The fact that the government and the companies in PNG had to go through a lot of hassles to deliberate on landowners’ issues which is in fact an impediment to their progress, but from the landowners’ perspective, it is a ‘buffer’. That buffer provides for the avenue for all negotiations with consent landowners with regard to any project development and that includes issues relating to environment. By removing the traditional land rights of landowners from taking legal action on environmental damage will escalate environmental impacts by project developers.
I feel it is not wise to remove this important buffer by changing the Environmental Act. The government should be representing the interest of its people and not foreign investors. Given the fact that the number one crisis affecting and threatening both the rich and poor nation in the world is directly related to environmental issues now resulting in global warming and climate change. Therefore it is the last thing; we want to see our government going down the track of environmental irresponsibility especially on the eve of June 5 –the World Environment Day.