The Papua New Guinea government is proposing to give ownership of the country’s vast mineral resources to landowners.
The proposal comes from Mining Minister Byron Chan who says its time for landowners to share in the nation’s wealth.
PNG is undergoing a resources boom not unlike Australia’s with high commodity prices and new exploration finds encouraging foreign investment.
But the industry says the Minister’s proposal comes as a shock that will create chaos and scare off investors.
Correspondent: Karon Snowdon
Speakers: Dr Colin Filer, Australian National University, Convenor, Asia Pacific Resource Management program; Simon Ekanda, landowner representative from the Highlands; Greg Anderson, Executive Director, Chamber of Mines and Petroleum
SNOWDON: There’s an election due next year in PNG. And the economy is booming with growth this year expected to reach 11 per cent. The mining industry which employs 30-thousand people and supplies an astonishing 80 percent of export earnings is pushing into new territory. Newcrest Gold for example announced this week it needs more time to explore the vast resource of its new Wafi-Golpu project because it’s larger than first thought.
Mining Minister Byron Chan says his proposed legislation will hand ownership from the government to land owners and affect new projects. He says not enough of the country’s wealth reaches the people who remain often in poverty.
CHAN: We’d like to replace that, possibly, almost immediately, to revert the ownership back to the land-owner, then relinquish the state from owning anything, from six foot below land and sea. That’s what we’re looking into, right now.
SNOWDON: The minister doesn’t think there will be problems or that existing agreements will be be thrown into chaos, under a dual system.
CHAN: We’re proposing an amendment that will look into future licences, et cetera. The current agreements won’t be affected. All of these things are currently being undertaken now by the Department, so that there won’t be chaos. And the landowners will have more relationship with the mining companies themselves, the government stands just as a regulator.
SNOWDON: Greg Anderson, Executive Director of the Chamber of Mines represents the companies in the mining and petroleum industries. He says he will seek clarification from the government but in principle, opposes the plan which in his words is naive.
ANDERSON: I think it’s just going to be a nightmare. But there’re many questions that arise with that. if the landowners are under-resourced, and they’re going to be shareholders in the project, who’s going to pay for it? Where’s the money going to come from? What’s going to happen to royalties? How can you run a dual system? I don’t think it’s going to work, and if you’ve got a policy that’s completely ill-defined, uncertain, nobody’s going to invest on something that’s uncertain. You’ll scare off the explorers, like you wouldn’t believe.
SNOWDON: Simon Ekanda is a landowner representative from the Highlands.
SIMON: Constitution recognises the customary law. And the customary law gives the landowners that right. We already own it, and you’ll see how this country can move, the next five years, when this law has been changed, and people will money in their pockets. Now, the government has taken away that right. That is creating beggars in this country.
SNOWDON: PNG could be facing a controversy similar to one raging at the moment in Australia over the ownership of resources. Farmers don’t own minerals under their land, the government does, and can give miners the right to explore even when farmers don’t approve.
With strong commodity prices and miners aggressively taking up options, the battle is heating up in some areas over farming verses mining. The similarities between Australia and PNG lie with the assumption that underground and seabed resources are owned by the state, even where customary law recognises landowners’ surface rights.
Dr Colin Filer, Convenor of the Asia pacific Resource Management program at the Australian National University says it’s difficult to change the law.
FILER: Ownership of customary land is well-entrenched in legislation and in the Constitution and everybody recognises that. The question about stuff under the ground – there’re only two countries in the world at the moment, where landowners can be the owners of sub-surface mineral resources, and that’s in the United States and Canada, to a certain degree. There’s no country in the world that I know of, which grants ownership of sub-surface mineral resources to customary landowners, whose rights, it must be said, have not yet been established anyway, because nobody knows who they are, until such time as the process of land owner identification takes place.