Numbering some six million people, Papua New Guineans - comprising hundreds of ethnic groups - own 97 percent of the country’s land.
“This raises huge human rights issues,” Tiffany Nonnggor, a lawyer and human rights advocate, told IRIN in Port Moresby.
While the rest of the western democratic world has spent the better part of the past 50 years trying to restore indigenous property rights, this government “has just stripped its most vulnerable citizens, those in the remote rural areas where the projects are, of their rights with no consultation and debate, let alone compensation”, she said.
“It is obvious that the government has decided that development of any type is good and that any obstacles to resource projects must be swept aside,” wrote the country’s English daily Post Courier on 31 May.
On 28 May, the country’s parliament amended sections of the Environment and Conservation Act 2000, which rules on major resource projects in the Pacific island nation.
The amendments give the director of the Office of Environment and Conservation wide-ranging powers to grant various certificates relating to environmental plans submitted by investors, in addition to provisions that complying certificates issued by the director will be final and “may not be challenged or reviewed in any court or tribunal, except at the instigation of an Authorization Instrument”.
PNG Minister for Environment and Conservation Benny Allen, when introducing the amendments, said the “national interest” was paramount and therefore the law needed to be changed.
The opposition is up in arms over the amendments, saying the changes were open to legal challenge to determine their constitutionality.
“The new laws [are] meant to protect the interests of investors at the expense of the environment and the resource owners. The new laws [are] selling [out] the rights of the people,” deputy opposition leader Bart Philemon told a press conference.