By MULAI ROBBY
GOVERNMENT lawyers have been instructed to take up the issue on Woodlark Island in Milne Bay with the aim to appeal a National Court decision to quash actions of the State to give back the land on the island to the customary landowners.
The matter concerns the land ownership on the island between the State, a foreign company and the local people.
The State, acting through the Minister for Lands and Physical Planning had in 2016 forfeited the government lease and declared the land on Woodlark Island as customary land.
But a decision of the Waigani National Court early last year had granted Carter Holdings Limited, formerly Vitroplant Limited of Malaysia, right of ownership of the land on Woodlark Island.
The Lands and Physical Planning department is yet to say what next course of action it would be taking or otherwise, on the matter.
Deputy Prime Minister and Attorney-General, Davis Steven, says however he has advised lawyers from his department to take the matter up on behalf of the Government and the State for the Woodlark Islanders.
Steven says the Government’s position is clear and that is to go back to the court and ask for the opportunity to make corrections.
“I think the decision comes down to procedural error and omission, and so it’s a matter of just reversing the decision, taking the right steps and we will make sure the decision of the Government stands. The reason is this Woodlark people deserve to be recognised. That’s their land, that’s their island,” Steven says.
Member for Samarai-Murua, Isi Henry Leonard, after voicing his concern about the present status of the Woodlark Island land in Parliament, went on social media saying he would take lead to help his constituents get their land back.
Muyuwa United Lands Association, formed by the educated people of Woodlark Island to represent the islanders, is weighing up its options.
Chairman Jimmy Morona, says “the entire population is frustrated with the turn of events and that we are unable to take any action straight away as we lack necessary resources. But we are seriously weighing our options.
“People of Woodlark will have to be consulted and the next course of action would be taken based on a general conscious of all the
people,” he adds.
Isand of plenty
Prior to and after colonisation, Woodlark Island was and is regarded as a land of plenty for local inhabitants as well as those from the smaller islands to the east, southeast and the west as far as the Kitava in the Trobriand Islands.
Woodlark Island had been one of the first inhabited places in this part of the Pacific, foreigners had landed during the exploration era and later settled on following the discovery of gold on the island. The island being sparsely populated enabled easy access to land and resources on it by both locals and settlers.
Whether the islanders understood or not the impact of their action to trade their land for the needed or wanted foreign goods to the colonial administration in the early 1900s was a decision they made in their wisdom alone. As ignorant as they were the people sold their entire island in a space of 49 years to the Crown of England.
It all started in May 1903 when the Crown Administration on the island bought the first parcel of land from five men, who represented their clans, with 40 sticks of twisted tobacco, 10 yards of cloth, five tomahawks, five long bush knives, five chisels, five hammers, 10 hand saws, five looking glasses (mirrors) and, 100 fishing hooks. The size of this piece of land is 19.16 hectares. This piece of land was classified as Portion 138 and it covered the western half of the island.
The Crown Administration then went on to buy the remaining land on the island and classified it into two portions and identified them as Portions 138 to the west, Portion 138 to the north east and Portion 140 to the south east of the island.
Between 1903 and 1952, a total of 18 deeds of land transfers were entered between the people and the Crown Administration. The people received similar goods as for the first parcel of land, but varying is quantity according to the size of the land and the number of people to share the goods. These goods were translated as payments for the land.
Moved to native reserves
The people, being dispossessed of their land were moved to camps then known as native reserves in four locations at the fringes of the island. However, most people interviewed say they do not remember their parents telling them about people being moved from the villages to live in the native reserves permanently. Some men did go to live in the native reserves and they were considered as work boys for planters, miners and loggers.
People remained in their traditional villages to garden and hunt on their customary land. They also continued to trade with other nearby islands and participated in the Kula Trade.
Over time some economic development projects prospered on the island in the areas of copra, small scale alluvial gold mining and logging, especially for ebony wood, prior to independence. The people saw these activities but knew nothing about their comings. Only small time loggers would approach locals to cut ebony wood were known to people.
In 1975, The Crown of England turned many ‘freehold interest of lands’ in the territory, including the Woodlark Island to the new state of Papua New Guinea as Independence gifts.
By this time a few educated islanders knew about the status of the land on the island while most remained ignorant of the fact. Nevertheless, with the help of their elected leaders, the islanders started the campaign to have their land back.
A kiap, Kade Gansen recalled that “it was about this time I found out that my people did not own the land. We were practically squatting on somebody’s land on our island.”
Bid to retake land
Twenty-three years in 1998 after independence, people made their first recorded demand to have their land return to them. They petitioned their Member of Parliament then, Titus Philemon, to take lead and have their island return to them.
In 2000, the Milne Bay Provincial Assembly accepted a ministerial statement stating the concerns of the islanders which then obligated the elected leaders, Philemon who had become Governor of Milne Bay and Samarai-Murua MP, Gordon Wesley, to take up the people’s plight.
Some information from the Lands Department had it that around this time then Lands Minister, Boyamo Sali, had declared some portions of alienated land around Guasopa area back to the customary landowners but this was not properly documented.
Then came Vitroplant Limited from Malaysia, in 2007, after having obtained leases of the freehold interest of land on the island, moved to start up huge commercial oil palm project. The project was set to take up a land mass covering more than 60,000 hectares and that is about the entire Woodlark Island less eight thousand hectares being occupied by government institutions and others including Guasopa station.
“The oil palm project was to cover the whole island and would have pushed the people off shores. The people who by now began to understand the real impact of losing their land, strongly resisted the project. The oil palm project was subsequently halted but Vitroplant Limited still held the land lease on the island,” Morona said.
Early 2016, the Minister for Lands and Physical Planning forfeited the State land lease given to VitroPlant Limited, and declared it as customary land and returned to the islanders.
In November of that year, Lands Minister then Benny Allan, accompanied by the then Milne Bay Governor, Titus Philemon and then Member for Samarai-Murua, Gordon Wesley, together with government officials travelled to Guasopa, the government station on Woodlark Island, and formally handed Woodlark land back to the islanders.
Minister Allan told the islanders it was the Government’s commitment to return all alienated lands in the country to the traditional landowners, and that included the Woodlark Island. Both Governor Philemon and Wesley, had commended the National Government for helping the Woodlark people to realise their dream in having their land returned to them.
Morona urged the people to plan wisely on how to use their land for their benefit and that of their children in future.
People from the outer smaller islands joined their relatives in the ceremony celebrating the historic event. They danced and feasted on the day, Nov 25, 2016. People from the smaller islands regard Woodlark Island as their source of food supply when in need.
Officers from the provincial lands division in Alotau were tasked to assist the islanders identify land clan boundaries.
However, having learned that the said land leases had been forfeited and declared as customary lands, Carter Holdings Limited, formally Vitroplant Limited, sought judicial review at the National Court in Waigani, of the actions of the Minister of State.
It contested that the minister’s actions were contrary to mandatory statutory process as stipulated in Section 133, subsection 5 (1), of the Land Act 1996. By that the minister failed to publish prior notice(s) of his intended actions for any interested party to put forward a claim if any.
Further the company had sought orders “in the nature of certiorari to quash the decision to forfeit the State lease, the company sought orders to quash the decision that the land was classified as “government land” and then later declared as “customary land”. They also sought subsequent orders to compel the Registrar of Titles to cancel the entry of the forfeiture on the relevant title deeds and reinstate the plaintiff as the registered proprietor.”
Presiding National Court judge, Justice Nablu, ruled on Feb 22, 2019 in favour of Carter Holdings Ltd quashing both the forfeiture of government leases on the three portions of land, as well as the declaration of the said lands to be customary land.
The court also ordered for the cancelling of the relevant title deeds and enter in, the relevant title deeds the name of the plaintiff and restore the plaintiff the State lease within 21 days of the service of this order.
In the meantime a major developer currently working on Woodlark Island, GeoPacific Resource Limited, says it is not aware of the land issues and is not affected. The Woodlark Gold Project is located about in the middle of the island.
Ron Heeks, managing director of Geopacific Resource Limited, told this author, the project, was working with the State and the people in as far as community services are concerned and has all along maintained a cordial relationship with all parties.
“We have a memorandum of agreement with the local community on where the money is distributed, that of course massive amount of employment opportunities, taxes being paid, build schools, churches and we’ll be putting up huge amount of money in building local area, a task for us to leave a legacy for a long term.”
On royalties, Heeks says it goes directly to the people through the Department of Mines. He announced at the recent 2019 Mines and Petroleum Summit in Port Moresby the Woodlark Gold project was ready to commence full operations.
There are some small-scale logging operations currently on the island. Woodlark Island also has rich marine resources, which attracts commercial fishing including beech-de-mar when the season opens.
- Mulai Robby is a former journalist.