Hopes logging giant will finally be held accountable in Papua New Guinea

11:20 am on 28 March 2024
Log piles in East New Britain, PNG.

Log piles in East New Britain. (file image) Photo: Global Witness Media Hub

Nearly 12 years ago the then Catholic archbishop of Rabaul in Papua New Guinea, Francesco Panfilo, led a campaign against giant Malaysian logging and palm oil developer, Rimbunan Hijau, hoping to win improved conditions for the beleaguered landowners of West Pomio in East New Britain.

RH, as the developer is mostly known in PNG, was accused along with its subsidiary Gilford Pty Ltd, of making unfair contracts with some landowners in the Sigite-Mukus district of West Pomio, ignoring other legitimate landowners, taking many trees illegally and planting oil palm where it shouldn't.

The archbishop led the battle to try and have these contracts renegotiated, with mediation agreements made.

But this process was then stymied, both by the Covid-19 pandemic and what Panfilo sees as legal manipulations on RH's part.

RH has been difficult to reach for comment but RNZ Pacific is continuing to reach out to it for comment.

Now retired and living in the Philippines, Panfilo, is still involved in the battle and said there are hopes the PNG Supreme Court will next month direct RH to renegotiate the land agreements with the landowners.

"What we want is to oblige RH to renegotiate because that is the agreement that we came upon that we had. We have to renegotiate the agreements."

"Strictly speaking, if the landowners were to go to court on specific issues, they could have so many cases, for example, the environmental destruction," Panfilo said.

An environmental impact audit conducted at the request of landowners and completed four years ago said the company had not complied with the requirements laid out in the original contract.

These include a need to protect water quality and to provide buffer zones around rivers and communities.

These zones are necessary to also protect sacred sites, graveyards and old villages, and they are an attempt to save wildlife and provide safe passage of fauna between areas that remain unlogged.

The audit goes on to say "Gilford Pty Ltd, unashamedly and incontrovertibly, wantonly destroyed all buffers within the Sigite-Mukus Oil Palm Development Area, to the detriment of theh environment, landscape and the cultural heritage of people,"

Another report looked at the way the workers, mostly local, working for Gilford, were treated.

It found the environments in which they lived and worked were substandard, posing major risks to the health of the workers and their families.