More on Logging at Collingwood Bay

A letter from John Barker

Dear Colleagues,

In a year when we finally have some good news about a significant decline in illegal logging globally, it is disappointing to report an instance of what appears to be timber piracy in the Collingwood Bay area. 

In May 2002, the Maisin and their neighbours in Wanigela won an important PNG National Court case that overturned illegally obtained timber licenses and set strict conditions for the approval of commercial developments in the area. In June of this year, a group of 10 foreigners (apparently Malaysian citizens) turned up in Wanigela claiming to have papers overturning the court order and the support of local landowner groups. 
They were accompanied by an armed police reservist. A barge arrived with heavy equipment and proceeded to widen the track from the coast and to prepare a log dam on the beach. In the course of building the new road, gardens were damaged, latrines exposed and houses threatened. 
The saddest immediate result was the burying of the clay pit from which Wanigela women gather material for their famous cooking pots, which continue to be traded and used across
the region (apparently, when it became clear what was about to happen, women rushed to the area with bilums and other containers to gather as much clay as possible).

Village leaders called in the police from Popondetta, who removed the outsiders to Port Moresby and confiscated a number of rifles from local villagers who may, or may not, have been aligned with the logging crew. 

I have just heard that the group has returned, accompanied by armed reservist policemen, according to Adelbert Gangai (local activist), are intimidating the community, focusing in particular on those who earlier called in the police from the provincial capital. An urgent call to the Popondetta police has now gone out. There are rumours that a second barge is on the way to Reaga near the Milne Bay border. The three companies claiming the right to log the area have also apparently filed papers with the national court to restrain local protests against the projects.  

Logging has been a contentious issue in southern Collingwood Bay over the past 30 years. The strongest opposition has come from Maisin living in the central villages of Uiaku and Ganjiga, who in the late 1990s were able to forge a regional alliance, with the strong support of environmental NGOs, in opposition to a series of large-scale projects (partially documented in my “Ancestral Lines”).

This alliance was always tentative, even among the Maisin, and it appears that in this round the logging companies have found some supporters among Maisin living in the eastern villages as well as in Wanigela. Apparently, there is a proposal to replant logged areas with cashew
trees (one of a sequence of sketchy proposals over the past two decades, previously for oil palm and coconut sap). That said, following the familiar pattern, deals with “landowner groups” have been conducted in secrecy and have almost certainly involved bribes along with fantastic promises of the benefits of “development”. Prior to the barge turning up,  there had been no community meetings and most people were taken by surprise by these events and by the muscle behind them. What is new, sadly, is a very real threat of violence.

In light of other developments in PNG, this is small kai kai, but still very distressing. In his letter requesting immediate police intervention sent out yesterday, Adelbert Gagai writes: “It is a
repeat of what we have heard in countries under military rule where militia is used to trample village chiefs for logging companies to continue their illegal activities. Similarly at Wanigela elders have been placed under house arrest and those who have been vocal about trespassing on their customary land and the destruction of traditional taboos are being threatened and abused.”

A detailed report, including photographs, has been prepared by John Nilles of the Center for Environmental Law and Community Rights, which I would be happy to pass on to anyone interested.

John Barker



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