“Don’t Californicate Oregon [or Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Washington, Montana etc]” was a popular slogan in the western United States during the 1960s and ‘70s. It was a repudiation of the mindless, haphazard development of land that had, by that time, already transformed southern California into “the world’s biggest strip mall”.
A similar groundswell of sentiment now seems to be spreading across the jungles and villages of Papua New Guinea. The developmental demon in this case, however, is not California-style urban sprawl, but Indonesia-style forest exploitation.
At issue is the widescale transfer of title to millions of hectares of densely forested land from customary local ownership to the state through a mechanism known as lease-leaseback. The land is then put into the names of landowner companies, who, in turn, contract developers to construct roads and develop “agro-forestry projects”.
This mechanism has triggered public outrage and expert alarm. A commission of inquiry has been established to investigate charges that most of these leases are merely a front for unregulated logging.
As such, Papua New Guinea appears poised to repeat the experience of Indonesia’s logging boom of the 1970s, 80s and 90s. During this time an estimated 64 million hectares of tropical forest – roughly 40% of the country’s total forest cover – fell to the chainsaws and bulldozers of rapacious crony conglomerates.