The order came from a woman: a person you couldn’t ignore. Energy seemed to flow from her – the type of energy that could mobilize people and stop bulldozers. ‘You follow me. I want you to see something,’ she said. So the law student obeyed. Following the woman on to her land in Wawoi Guavi in Papuan New Guinea’s Western Province, the fledgling advocate – Annie Kajir – was shocked by what she saw. River waters had been sullied by both soil loosened by logging and chemicals used to preserve the felled trees. Logs had been ploughed into the earth and now stuck out of the denuded surface. This was sacred ground – a sago-making area. But it looked like the aftermath of a volcano. ‘The way that they are logging my land, I won’t have anything to feed my children,’ explained the woman.
Annie Kajir felt helpless. She explained that she was still a university student with not one law case before a court. But Annie’s protestations fell on deaf ears. ‘The woman turned to me and said: “You’re a lawyer. You stop the logging.”’
So Annie did as she was told. Back in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea (PNG), the lawyers told her that the case was too difficult for them to take on. Undaunted, she sent the brief to senior barristers in Brisbane who said she had a case. On behalf of the traditional landowners, she filed a claim. There was a technicality. The case was withdrawn. Annie persisted. By the end of her first year as a lawyer, she’d successfully defended a precedent-setting appeal in the Supreme Court of PNG, forcing the logging industry to pay damages to the traditional landowners in another part of the country (Warangoi in East New Britain province). Nine years later, the Wawoi Guavi claims are still before the courts. Of the woman who started her on this journey for justice, Annie says simply: ‘I can’t walk away from her. I see her all the time.’
Consequently, Annie is now the CEO of the Environmental Law Centre that she helped to establish. It’s work that regularly brings her into contact with her uncle, Patrick Pruaitch, the PNG Minister of both Finance and Forest – but in courtrooms, not kitchens. Through a stream of cases run by the Centre, she is successfully challenging the corruption of government officials who have for over two decades continued to concede PNG’s rainforests to the ‘robber barons’ in the timber industry.
Around the world, forest the size of a football field is lost every second. In PNG – where illegal logging is nurtured by governments’ long-standing lucrative relationships with sections of the timber industry – as much as 46 per cent of the forests have already been sold as concessions to the logging industry. The Malaysian timber company Rimbunan Hijau dominates: through some 60 separate companies, it controls timber rights in an estimated three million hectares of PNG forest. The company figures prominently in the cases being brought by Annie and the Environmental Law Centre – cases that challenge licences on the grounds that they have been given to the company unlawfully and bring trespass claims for illegally logging indigenous land.
At first glance it’s the dream of every progressive young lawyer who is straining to right the mountain of wrongs so efficiently bypassed by the legal system. Yet it has required the stamina of a championship boxer. Annie has been threatened many times. Having her boarding pass ripped up by a stranger at an airport is comparatively mild. She has been kidnapped, for which she’s received therapy. (‘I can’t talk about it. It’s under police investigation.’) She has had her laptop computer and bag removed from her dining-room table and stacked neatly on the balcony of her home as she slept. She’s got the message: ‘They’re saying: “Who do you think you are? There’s nowhere you’re going to hide!” That’s why my children don’t live with me. They are living with my parents. [But] their threats will not stop me. If that means they will take my life, then so be it.’
No wonder her bravery has been acknowledged this year with a prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. As persistence builds her credibility, the doors to international politicians are opening so that she can put her present case: ‘A lot of the illegal timber is bought by China and Japan, then converted to products that are sold in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. It’s coming from areas that are destroying livelihoods – destroying people. So by buying these products you are buying into genocide.’
The Europeans are paying attention. After steady campaigning by Greenpeace, there’s been a significant drop in the EU market for products made from illegally obtained PNG wood. Now Annie is off to China to deliver the message. Just how difficult will it be for a woman from PNG to get an audience within the Chinese Communist Party? Annie’s response is typical: ‘I have no idea yet, but I’m going to try.’
Annie Kajir talked with Chris Richards