What Rainforest?


Natives get restless in PNG
May 26, 2009, 6:42 am
Filed under: Indigenous People, Logging, Media Reports

From The Star Online
25 May 2009 by Eddie Chua

Locals of Papua New Guinea, angry with decades of exploitation, corruption and illegal logging by foreigners, are turning to violence to show their displeasure.

THE riots against Chinese businessmen which rocked the Pacific island of Papua New Guinea (PNG), leaving a trail of destruction and at least one person dead, has shocked countries in the region.

A man was reportedly hacked to death as thousands of locals looted shops belonging to the Chinese community in Lae, the second largest city in PNG. The racially-motivated attack has received wide coverage in newspapers across the world, particularly in countries with a large ethnic Chinese population.

China, for example, has demanded safety for its citizens, Last week, construction of a nickel mine and processing plant was stopped after a fight between about 70 Papua New Guinean and Chinese workers. The mine’s part-owners, Australia’s Highlands Pacific Ltd, said on Friday that work had resumed on the US$1.7bil (RM4.2bil) project, it was reported.

Fighting had reportedly broken out between workers and villagers angry at Chinese managers over an industrial accident. The project is mostly owned by China Metallurgical Construction Group Corp.

Local workers protested last year over working conditions at the remote site. PNG is a mountainous nation of some six million people located north of Australia, and its people feel closer to Australia than their Asean neighbours.

Its small expatriate community comprises Australians, New Zealanders, Malaysians, Singaporeans, Chinese and Taiwanese. Papua New Guinea is rich in a variety of minerals and other resources but has significant crime problems, with at least 85% of its people living in poverty in villages. Resentment against foreigners, including even those from Malaysia and Singapore, has been high for some time. The situation has worsened in recent months because food prices have shot up while the income of the indigenous people have remained the same.

Chinese shopkeepers have been blamed for the price hike. For Malaysia, Rimbunan Hijau, the single largest timber operator, has long been a bane and boon for PNG. Operated by Sarawakian Tan Sri Tiong Hiew King, it runs the largest sawmill in PNG since 1976 with an estimated annual turnover of US$1bil (RM3.5bil).

It owns a supermarket and an English newspaper in PNG.

The reclusive Tiong also owns many Chinese newspapers worldwide including the Sin Chew Daily in Malaysia. But Rimbunan Hijau has been accused of alleged human rights abuses, ignoring indigenous people’s rights, political corruption and ecological destruction. The World Bank has also said up to 70% of logging in PNG is illegal, which has not helped the Malaysian image there.

Two groups that have made investigations and held protests against the company are Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network. But Rimbunan Hijau in turn has threatened to sue Greenpeace for defamation because of its report “The Untouchables – Rimbunan Hijau’s World of Forest Crime and Political Patronage” demanding that the group withdraw the paper.

Greenpeace has declined to comply. Rimbunan Hijau suffered another setback recently when PNG’s Supreme Court overturned the company’s right to operate in the vast Komula Dosa area comprising 791,000ha of logging land. Eco-Forest Forum, a local civil group, had challenged Rimbunan Hijau’s claim of its rights to log in the area granted by the National Court in 2007. The fight, whether in the courtrooms and newsrooms, by Rimbunan Hijau is unlikely to end. The Malaysian company owns The National which is the largest newspaper in the country. The company, which had been heavily criticised particularly by NGOs, was recently awarded the first independent certificate verifying its timber operations in PNG. The Societe Generale de Surveillance awarded Rimbunan Hijau’s subsidiary, Saban, an official citation stating its timber operations was 100% legal. But local NGOs have dismissed the award, saying groups critical of the operator were shut out of the verification process. The fears,
however, remain.

A study said that more than half of PNG’s forests, the third largest in the world, would be lost or badly damaged by 2027 because of “wasteful logging.” In the years ahead, the volatile political situation in PNG looks certain to explode with further resentment building up. A combination of factors ranging from exploitation of local workers, dominance of local trade by outsiders and the destruction of the forest can only see a rocky road ahead. Stories of harsh treatment of local workers has led to resentment with locals feeling they have been excluded from their own society by the influx of these relatively well-off traders, the AFP reported recently. With over 600 islands, PNG was one of the last places on earth which remained isolated and untouched, but greedy foreigners are raping this country with the help of corrupt government officials.

Eddie Chua is a news editor with special interest in the Indonesian archipelago and surrounding islands. He has also visited Papua New Guinea twice and has fond memories of the country.


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