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Land is life in Papua New Guinea


I have just returned from Papua New Guinea where the struggle for control of the country’s natural resources is raging.  Communities are quite literally fighting for their lands, environment, livelihoods and culture – all of these are at risk from logging, palm oil and other so-called developments.

Land is life, as they say in PNG.  Yet those who try to defend their land are often intimidated and harassed by the companies who want the land and the logs.

I spent a week working with Oxfam partners learning about community rights to decide what happens on their land, and about how Oxfam partners are supporting communities to understand and defend their rights.  We focused on the right to ‘free, prior and informed consent’ (FPIC).  The right to FPIC is articulated in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and in other human rights instruments.

FPIC represents the highest standard possible for the involvement of communities in decision-making about large scale projects including logging, palm oil and mining.  FPIC requires that communities must be adequately informed about large projects in a timely manner and given the opportunity to approve, or reject, projects before operations begin.  This includes participation in setting the terms and conditions that address the economic, social and environmental impacts of the project.

Importance of human rights

What became clear during our conversations that week was how important human rights – and human rights language – is.  The right to FPIC is not an abstract concept, it is being used by communities to prevent being exploited.  As one of our partners who lives in a community directly impacted by logging said to me, “I have the right to decide what happens to my land because the law tells me so.”

When communities understand their right to FPIC they stand together and demand their voices are heard.  I learned that FPIC really does empower local communities to make decisions about the use of their land so that their interests and rights are protected. FPIC ensures that customary land rights and traditions are respected by project developers.  Communities are using FPIC to protect their livelihoods and local environment because for many Papua New Guineans a sustainable livelihood is only possible if natural resources are used sustainably.

FPIC is not just about stopping large projects.  FPIC can also be used to ensure that women and men benefit from these projects.  For example, we talked about how communities can benefit from project-related infrastructure and services, and small business opportunities, but only when communities are involved in decision making.

Our week together finished with a picnic lunch at the local beach.  To get there we drove through mangrove forests – which are important fish breeding grounds – to arrive at beautiful Wom Beach.  This was a fitting reminder to us all of the importance of natural resources for the people of PNG.

By Oxfam Mining Advocacy Coordinator Christina Hill

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