28 Mar 2013

Papua New Guinea commissioners stand by work over agriculture business leases

8:09 pm on 28 March 2013

The three senior lawyers on the Papua New Guinea Commission of Inquiry into the special agriculture business leases, or SABLs, are standing by their work after stinging criticism from the government.

The Attorney General Kerenga Kua has described the performance of the three - former chief magistrate John Numapo and senior lawyers Alois Jerewai and Nicholas Mirou - as substandard and not worth the 6.8 million US dollars he says was spent on the commission.

Johnny Blades reports:

The granting of new SABLs was halted in late 2011 when the Commission of Inquiry began amid growing concerns about a large-scale land grab.

SABLs occupy more than 5 million hectares of customary land, or almost ten percent of PNG's total land mass.

Kerenga Kua says the issue concerns millions of people and significant economic opportunities.

However he says that to have only produced an interim report after 18 months, covering just three of the commission's 16 terms of reference, which deal with legal and administrative issues, is not good enough.

"The commissioners, in my view, ought to have given it a lot more professional dilligence than what they have done. Quite frankly, unless they can publish the report within the next two months for the Prime Minister, it borders on gross negligence and gross professional misconduct."

However, Alois Jerewai says he and his fellow commissioners take exception to the criticism, disputing Mr Kua's claim about the cost and defending their efforts investigating under difficult conditions and with fragmented funding.

As far as we're concerned, there was no justification whatsoever for his criticism to be levelled in the manner he did, particularly before the tabling of the interim report and him having pre-empted and gone through the contents of the report and criticised us not only in relation to the report but also to the extent of undermining our professional integrities.

The prominent PNG writer and blogger Martyn Namorong, who has researched the SABL system, says comments about the Commission from the government don't come as a surprise.

I think it's common knowldege that at a leadership level, there are politicians with vested interests in this issue so it's hardly surprising (the attack on the Commission)... and this is probably the first shot being fired against the Commission of Inquiry to basically discredit it and to distract people and draw their attention away from the real issue and that is that customary land rights must be restored back to the rightful owners.

Alois Jerewai says the commission found that the lease system was generally being abused.

The government officials - the extent of abuse involving government officials related to the processing aspects. Those will come out in the report... if we're allowed to proceed with it; But there were also abuses by the landowners themselves and those are abuses involving landowners who, purely through aggressive stances and ignorance of their fellow tribesmen, get the customary landowners to be involved without the customary landowners at large in their own clans knowing fully the implications of giving up their customary rights during the period of the lease; and of course the developers, so-called developers, the investors. There are quite a number of abusers.

He says the balance of the report, which will comprise findings for each of the 77 leases across 14 provinces, will be finalised next month.

My challenge to the Attorney General was that the findings are there, who is fearful of these findings? It appears no one wants to table the report.

Alois Jerewai says the government should let the public judge the report.