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Message from Tavolo villagers to Government: “We did not sign SABL agreements”

"What answers does the government have for the shortage of land that we will face?"

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Pepetua Marangona

Tavolo village in Pomio, East New Britain,   is a place not many in Waigani know about.

It’s tucked away along a patch of sandy beaches in between rocky shorelines that mark the border of East and West New Britain.

The people go on with their lives knowing very well not to expect any help from the National or provincial government.   On the maps held by the Department of Agriculture and Livestock, Tavolo is part of a Special Agriculture Business Lease (SABL) in the Melkoi Local Level Government area.

Those who are pushing for the SABL to be implemented on Tavolo land, have probably had no contact at all with the people who own 18,000 hectares of land. They don’t understand the people’s aspirations and they will probably defend the SABLs as a sound development option needed for the Tavolo people.

The Tavolo community is small. They have a population of 600 men women and children.

The ward councillor, Peter Kikeleng and another senior community member, Pepetua Marangona, asked me to take their message to those who authorised the Melkoi SABL.

The people don’t want a 99-year Special Agriculture Business Lease over their land. They don’t want the logging and the oil palm that is expected to come with it.   They say that if any development is to come, they must remain in control of their land and that they have to receive direct benefits from the project… NOT the crumbs.

“When the police come, they beat the landowners because we speak out a lot about  land issues,” she says in Tok Pisin. “What answers does the government have for the shortage of land that we will face?”

They have seen the situation in Pomio where large tracts of land have been logged and land taken away from customary landowners through SABLs.   They know about the communities that are being broken by the greed and court battles against each other.

They don’t want that.

But they also know that without a legal battle, their cry will remain in Tavolo and will not get the national and international attention that it needs. So they have begun raising the K10,000 needed to pay for a lawyer to challenge the proposed SABL.

K10,000 is a huge amount for this community. They already have school fees to pay. They are struggling with high fuel costs.

If anyone in authority has ears to listen, they want you to know that they didn’t sign up for the Melkoi SABL.   Pepetua Marangona said all this at the SABL inquiry headed by Alois Jerewai. She also made it explicitly clear that she didn’t sign any agreement.

Tavolo has a window of opportunity to make that known to the Government. The bulldozers have not come yet. But they will come and this they know.

To the bureaucrats who signed off and gave the authority for the SABLs, I don’t expect you to be sympathetic to this call from the Tavolo people. You are probably living the rewards of this decision.

But you must know that the choices you made is destroying the future of thousands of children.

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