Goldman Environmental Prize Winner Anne Kajir of Papua New Guinea

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This is one in a series of profiles of previous winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize. Founded in 1990, the prize is given annually to six grassroots environmentalists working for change around the globe. This year's prize winners will be announced on April 14.

The winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize 2006 for Islands and Island Nations was Anne Kajir, a 32 year old lawyer, and CEO of the Environmental Law Centre in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. She won it for her legal advocacy and defence of indigenous peoples' rights. Kajir took a case to the Supreme Court to try and stop illegal logging and deforestation by foreign companies.

Papua New Guinea received its independence from Australia in 1975. It is one half of the world's second largest island (Papua, Indonesia is the other half). Most of the 6.7M citizens of this small country are indigenous people, with 80% living in rural areas and having little contact with each other. Seven hundred different dialects are spoken. The country, which is about the size of California, is rich in natural resources, the biggest being the rain forest, with its obvious logging potential.

Given this scenario, it is not surprising that huge multi-nationals have identified it as a lucrative source of money and are involved in major corruption to obtain logging rights: legally, or illegally.

The country's constitution guarantees the land rights of traditional communities living in the forest, and the indigenous people and their clans are the owners of the land. They are the traditional custodians of the ancient rainforest.

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However the reality is that the government has long-standing financial relationships with timber interests and a long history of corruption. In return for massive pay-offs, it has allowed foreign companies to act as a law unto themselves, ignoring the terms of the government-issued timber permits, and terrorizing the local communities into signing over their land rights.

RH (Rimbunan Hijau) is the largest logging company in Asia. In PNG (Papua New Guinea) it has a virtual monopoly with its control of more than 80% of the logging there. Through some 60 separate companies, it controls timber rights in an estimated three million hectares of PNG forest. Forestry experts consider Rimbunan Hijau one of the most damaging and irresponsible global logging companies. They use coercion and violence to force local communities to sign over their land rights. Often local landholders were threatened and terrorised in efforts to make them do this. To make matters worse, RH also owns one of the country's two national newspapers and is fully supported by the government.

Anne Kajir has been a brave advocate for the indigenous peoples' land rights. As Chief Executive Officer of the Environmental Law Centre, she was the lead lawyer in taking a crucial case to the Supreme Court. She wanted to stop the foreign timber companies' illegal practices and make them follow the rules of the land. Kajir has faced considerable personal risks in her nine years of posing legal challenges.

She continues to fight, building on her early legal success in representing communities and landholder groups against the timber companies. A current case alleges that the PNG Forest Authority, the state, and RH repeatedly violated federal law by issuing and using illegal logging permits. The case includes evidence of logging company representatives refusing to get informed consent and timber rights from landowners, and villagers' personal accounts of extreme intimidation, including having to sign documents at gunpoint and physical abuse and humiliation.

In 2006 five community groups from Australia and Papua New Guinea filed a formal complaint against the ANZ (Australia New Zealand) Bank over its financial support of logging companies that are engaged in human rights abuses and environmental destruction in PNG. Kajir claims that the bank is "actively facilitating and supporting" the PNG operations of RH, which is a "long-standing" bank client. Anne Kajir argues that "banks can play a constructive role by supporting sustainable, community-based forestry in PNG. Compliance with basic human rights and environmental standards should be a strict condition of doing business with a reputable bank like ANZ."

She has also been involved in mounting a constitutional challenge against industrial logging in the western provinces. Her work will help to set precedents for how all logging permits are handled in Papua New Guinea. Kajir is challenging the government to uphold its promise of democracy. She is fighting to ensure that fair compensation for land is upheld as a democratic value. More power to her. :: The Goldman Environmental Prize

Tags: Forestry | Goldman Environmental Prize

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