Indigenous Lawyer vs. International Logging Interests
Attorney Anne Kajir, 32, uncovered evidence that widespread corruption and complicity in the Papua New Guinea government has allowed rampant, illegal logging, which is destroying the largest remaining intact block of tropical forest in the Asia Pacific region.
In 1997, her first year of practice, Kajir successfully defended a precedent-setting appeal in the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea, which forced the logging industry to pay damages to indigenous land owners. Today, Kajir is the chief executive officer of the Environmental Law Centre in Port Moresby and is the lead attorney in a Supreme Court case aimed at stopping foreign timber companies’ large-scale, illegal deforestation practices, often accompanied by threats of harm to local landholders who dare to challenge them.
Timber historically is a corrupting force in the politics of Papua New Guinea, whose government has long-standing, lucrative relationships with timber interests. Although the country’s constitution guarantees the land rights of traditional communities living in the forest, the reality is far different. Kajir has found evidence of widespread government corruption that has allowed these companies to act as a law unto themselves, ignoring the terms of the government-issued timber permits, and terrorizing the local communities – at gunpoint in some cases – into signing over their land rights.
Facing Great Personal Risks
Kajir has faced considerable personal risks in her nine years of posing legal challenges. She has been physically attacked more than once, and robbers forced their way into her home to steal her computer, which had files on all her legal cases.
She continues to fight, building on her early legal success in representing communities and landholder groups against the timber companies. A current case alleges that the PNG Forest Authority, the state, and the lead logging company, Rimbunan Hijau, repeatedly violated federal law by issuing and using illegal logging permits in the forests of PNG’s western Province. The case includes evidence of logging company representatives refusing to get informed consent and timber rights from landowners, and villagers’ personal accounts of extreme intimidation, including having to sign documents at gunpoint and physical abuse and humiliation.
Industrial Logging Decimating Forests of Papua New Guinea
Since the 1980s, industrial logging has severely depleted and damaged PNG’s tropical forests. Malaysian companies dominate the business, led by Rimbunan Hijau, a multinational timber conglomerate with logging operations in China, Brazil, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Australia, New Zealand, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea.
Forestry experts consider Rimbunan Hijau one of the most damaging and irresponsible global logging companies. Besides controlling 80 percent of logging in PNG, Rimbunan Hijau also owns one of the country’s two national newspapers. The current executive and legislative branches of the government fully support the logging industry, and particularly Rimbunan Hijau.
The government’s support has weakened landholder rights. In 2005, a new forestry bill stripped language that had guaranteed consent of landowners as a requirement for timber permits; it also removed the “NGO seat” on the National Forest Board and replaced it with a seat for the timber industry.
Many NGOs and legal experts in PNG believe that the revised bill violates protections and rights embedded in the country’s constitution. In fact, PNG is known for its pro-ecological constitution and sound environmental laws.