Apolitical storm is brewing in the Pacific nation of Papua New Guinea (PNG). On 3 November serious new allegations of corruption by logging giant Rimbunan Hijau (RH) were made by a whistleblower cop. Royal PNG Constable Emmanuel Bani told Australian TV programme Dateline that for years he had effectively worked as an enforcer for the company in Western Province, where most of the logging takes place. The story broke amidst growing concern with the government of Sir Michael Somare – on-again, off-again Prime Minister since independence in 1975 – and his government’s links to the transnational Malaysian logging company. As we go to print, a parliamentary vote-of-no-confidence has been proposed, although it is currently held up by legal challenges. The Somare Government also detained the Australian journalist responsible for the story for two days, though she was released when they found she had done nothing wrong and had a valid visa.
This is not the first time that RH has been accused of corruption but the scale of the allegations – suggesting that the company runs Western Province like a private resource colony – are new. The programme details how the mobile police squad to which Constable Bani once belonged worked as on-call enforcers for RH’s business and received field allowances in return.
Speaking of the company’s local manager, known to some as the ‘Governor’ of Western Province, Constable Bani said: ‘He paid us appreciation money… I’ve got money worth about 300, 400, 500 extra to my allowances and this is when I’m trying to come back to Port Moresby and when he hands this over to me hiddenly, he gives it to me and tells me that I’ll see you back again next weekend (sic).’
RH Company Secretary JK Balasubramaniam strongly denied that the company in any way condones violence at its operational sites, telling Dateline that: ‘It is inconceivable that a large multinational like Rimbunan Hijau would pay large lump sums to the independent Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary to suppress and conduct police brutality against the peaceful citizens of Papua New Guinea in Western Province.’
Forestry accounts for only four per cent of the country’s gross national product yet destroys as much as 120,000 hectares of ancient forest per annum. RH controls the majority of operations as well as several retail businesses and the national newspaper.
The police officer’s testimony added evidence of gross human rights violations by RH; his story was corroborated by traditional landowners and even by a company doctor.
According to the whistleblower, any community member opposing RH’s operations in the area is susceptible to attack. He told Dateline: ‘We handled those suspects good and proper. We bashed them up, we hit them with huge irons and when we mobilized in there we made sure that these people who complain against the rights of their benefit were manhandled you know. I became violent because of their actions, because of their instructions.’
Rimbunan Hijau controls industrial logging operations in at least eight countries and operates across three continents as a conglomeration of hundreds of companies, all owned and controlled by the Tiong family in Malaysia. RH dominates the logging industry in Papua New Guinea and has significant logging interests in Malaysia, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Cameroon, Indonesia, Vanuatu, New Zealand/Aotearoa, Brazil and Russia.
In March, Greenpeace International published a report, The Untouchables, suggesting that the operations of this Malaysian conglomerate are characterized by a blatant disregard for the law. RH threatened to sue for defamation in the Netherlands but has so far failed to take legal action.*Danny Kennedy*, Greenpeace Australia Pacific