Thursday, 8 November 2007

Villagers Call For Halt To Palm Oil Project

Villagers Call For Halt To Palm Oil Project

By Alexander Rheeney in Port Moresby
Thursday: November 08, 2007

Disgruntled villagers have urged authorities to scrap plans to set up a 60,000 hectare oil palm estate on an island.

Woodlark Island in Papua New Guinea’s Milne Bay Province has a total land area of 85,000 hectares, driving fear into villagers that the project would trigger the extinction of the island’s flora and fauna as well as result in employees of the estate overrunning the local population, which is only 6,000.

Over 100 Woodlark Islanders and supporters gathered at the Milne Bay provincial government headquarters in Alotau and demanded that their land be returned and the project scrapped.
They gave a petition to Milne Bay deputy governor and Samarai-Murua MP Gordon Wesley to pass on to the PNG national government.

“We staged a protest and gave the petition to the deputy governor Gordon Wesley. He promised he’ll raise it in Parliament as he did in the last Parliament. We’ll wait for the member (Wesley) to table the petition and for him to come back to us,” said Dr. Simon Piywes, a doctor and a Woodlark Islander who has taken up the fight on behalf of his people.

The proposed oil palm estate is part of a project by Malaysian firm Vitroplant Ltd. and includes the building of a US$300 million (K886.26 million) 100,000-tonne capacity oil palm methyl ester plant in Alotau.

The plant, which will get palm oil beans from Woodlark as well as Abau district in the neighboring Central Province, will convert palm oil into bio-diesel for sale in both the PNG and international markets.

But the sticky issue is at least two former lands ministers in previous PNG governments had promised the islanders that their land – which became “alienated land’’ in the 1880s and was taken over by colonial powers at that time – would be returned to the customary owners.
Dr. Piywes said former ministers Boyamo Sali (1978-1980) and Charlie Benjamin (2003) declared the land would be returned to his people.

Despite the assurances, the provincial government of then Milne Bay Governor Tim Neville announced plans early this year to set up an estate on the island.

Speaking during the project’s ground-breaking ceremony in March, Neville said foreign exchange earnings and spin-off benefits from the project would be enormous over a five-year period.

Speaking to Pacific Magazine recently, Wesley said he has been in the dark on the issue after tabling a petition in Parliament on the eve of the 2007 general elections.

“The national government gave the lease (but) I petitioned the government and (despite that) they went ahead and gave the lease. Previous governments made promises to give the land back but it hasn’t happened, previous governments also gave an undertaking to give 80 percent (of the land) back to the people,” he added.

Attempts to contact the Alotau office of Vitroplant Ltd. were unsuccessful but it is understood the project, which was suppose to start last month, is behind schedule.