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Asserting Traditional Rights: Community Conservation in Solomon Islands

For many years the South Pacific islands have had indigenous systems for administering and allocating land and sea resources. For Pacific Islanders, land above water and land that is covered by fresh-water of seawater are one and undivided - albeit with some form of seaward limit, often the outer edge of the outermost coral reef. There is a close interdependence among an individual, his or her descent group, and the land and sea with which that group traditionally is associated.

Many of the world's indigenous peoples face severe difficulties in the face of economic development. In most affected countries, these groups exist as marginalized minorities. In the Pacific islands, however, where the majority of island societies now are politically independent, government is by members of the indigenous societies themselves. This might lead to a conclusion that indigenous land and sea rights are safe and secure, but this is not necessarily the case.

The Lessons from Bougainville

At the end of British rule (imposed from 1893 to 1978), Solomon Islands achieved independence as a nation. Today, its population of more than 300,000 is spread over many islands, 347 of which were inhabited at the time of the 1986 census; Guadalcanal, internationally known as the site of decisive World War Ii battles, is the largest of these islands. The country has an aggregate land area of 28,370 km together with large areas of coral reefs, lagoons, and open ocean.

Although the Solomons' constitution makes only weak reference to traditional rights, it has been generally understood that these rights would always be respected; indeed, some legislation is written so as to make special provision for tradition or to exclude the application of certain legislation to land and sea areas held under customary tenure. Such is the case, for instance, with the Provincial Government Act (!(*!), which includes the wording: "Nothing in this section shall he construed as affecting traditional rights, privileges and usages in respect of land and fisheries in any part of the Solomon Islands."

Obviously, making special provision for traditional systems of land and sea tenure while introducing modern forms of economic development is a political necessity. Yet the type of economic development pursued often conflicts with traditional arrangements, a dilemma that creates difficulties both for the government and for those who have traditional control over natural resources. Government agencies are growing increasingly frustrated and impatient, and pressure is mounting to introduce legislation that will override customary tenure and associated rights.

Will such moves succeed? In the past, some customary landholding groups had been persuaded to allow their land and resources to be transferred to government authority. For example, the colonial government pursued a program of land acquisition some 20 years ago in order to establish a national forest estate; today such a program would not be possible due to the growing awareness and assertiveness among those who have customary control over land and sea resources.

Although this new consciousness of land and sea rights has been developing for some time, recent developments of Bougainville island, in neighboring Papua New Guinea, have strengthened customary landholder resolve. The seeds of "the Bougainville problem" were sown 20 years ago when what was once the world's largest open-cut copper mine was planned, opened, and operated with inadequate reference to, and little respect for, the concerns and needs of those who had customary land rights in the area. A crucial chance for a renegotiation to ease the residual resentment was fumbled in the mid-1980s; the subsequent political strife broke out in May 1989 in the form of an armed insurrection. The island of Bougainville is now under the control of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, and militant action has been experienced in the Solomons' itself. The equipment and housing of a logging camp at Enoghae in North New Georgia were destroyed in 1982 by a group of customary landholders frustrated at being excluded from development decisions involving their forests.

Asserting Land Rights

Despite the ominous warnings sent out by the events at Bougainville and Enoghae, a widespread feeling remains that customary land tenure is a "major impediment" to development. This is no longer an essentially foreign view. Some Pacific Islanders themselves now perceive their ancestral systems ad impediments to a "progress" they believe only "Western" forms of development can provide. These individuals have become party to attempts to force changes in customary land and sea tenure - they want to make the traditional systems conform to the "Western" way.

Yet others see opportunities to work with, rather than around, those with ancient customary land and sea rights. In some parts of the Solomons today, new forms of customary landholder groups are emerging, intent on participating in economic development, but in ways that are more meaningful for them. In particular, frightened by what their members have learned about the environmental and social disruption that has accompanied many so-called development projects, they are anxious that the use of their land and sea resources be sustainable.

Community Initiatives

In the 1970s and early 1980s the village communities of Marovo lagoon in the western Solomons came under a veritable barrage of economic development proposals - in agriculture, fishing, mineral prospecting, logging, and tourism. Debate over these proposals exacerbated differences within the community and opened up new areas of social tension. Although few of these proposals panned out, the community became restless and uncertain. In 1984 the local government organization, the Marovo Area Council, decided to seek the help of Western Province in forming a more systematic approach to and a greater say in development in the area, and out of these concerns a Marovo Lagoon Resource Management Project was established in 1985. The objectives of the Marovo project are: * to define and describe the resources and environment of the Marovo Lagoon and its islands, with particular reference to their close link to Marovo society. * to describe and explain the various current and proposed development activities, their benefits and shortcomings, and their environmental and social consequences. * to assist in developing local community involvement in assessing, monitoring, and sustainable using the resources of the people of Marovo. * to build on traditional arrangements and assist landholding groups in devising management plans for their land and lagoon areas. * to foster, through focusing on environment and resource use and how they relate to tradition and socio-economic development needs, the concept of "Marovo community." * to encourage and support women in gaining more recognition for their contributions to development, and to assist them in further developing their understanding and skills in this area. * to offer knowledge and understanding gained from the project to other communities and agencies of the Solomons and the South Pacific island region.

Other Solomon Islands communities are making similar moves. The richly rainforested land belonging to communities in the `Are' area of South Mala'ita, for example, has been targeted by a Malaysian logging company; some of these communities are resisting by developing their own conservationist organization, the `Are'Are Ruhahihanua, which is active in locally mamaged, small-scale commercialization of forest timber. Elsewhere, the people of the island of Vella Lavella, concerned that their customary natural resources be better managed for development and aware that their population is growing rapidly, have chosen the year 2000 as their deadline for being fully involved in managing these resources. (Cultural Survival is considering support for the Vella Lavella 2000 Program.) These organizations, and others like them, are a special from of community conservation for which cultural survival is a key objective.

Indigenous Community Conservation

Community conservation, one of the four themes of World Wildlife Fund International's (WWF) recently launched South Pacific Conservation Program, managed through WWF Australia, addresses the call of customary landholder groups for assistance in managing their resources. WWF's objective here is to improve prospects for conservation in the Pacific islands by assisting indigenous groups in utilizing their resources in a sustainable way, which will maintain biological diversity and ecological processes. Recognizing the vital sociocultural dimension to this activity, WWF aims for its work to help indigenous Solomon Islander societies follow the course of development that they themselves choose.

The first two communities to receive support through WWF's community conservation program have been particularly active in the Marovo project: the Vahole Association of South New Georgia, and a group on the neighboring island of Vangunu known as the Kavakasama Association. Both groups have rich rainforests, reef, lagoon, and mangrove resources. They have faced development issues when pressured to permit logging, mineral prospecting, and commercial fisheries development. Now, wishing to better control their destinies, they are moving to discover for themselves the true nature of their resources and of prospects for sustainable development.

Because these associations maintain the traditional arrangements derived from kinship, the authority of their chiefs is not diminished. Traditional chiefs receive advice from committees composed of those whose education and experience make them better suited for changing circumstances. Yet these associations of customary landholder groups still lack much of the knowledge and skills required for natural resources planning and management for sustainable development.

The two associations have long had rules regarding the use of and access to their land and sea areas. Their neighbors follow these rules, but agents of economic development - be they government officers, investors, or development assistance agencies - are unaware that such laws exist. The WWF project is documenting unwritten environment and natural resource management policies of each group; documented policy, then, can be read by those in government, helping them to determine what types of economic development will be acceptable to a customary landholding group. This simple documentation device serves to bridge a considerable gap in understanding between the customary custodians of natural resources and agents of development. Other benefits arise, too, not the least of which is a sense of customary group pride and confidence. This goes a long way toward encouraging participation in national development while maintaining cultural identity.

These policy statements are one step toward preparing resource management plans for each of the areas embraced by the two associations. Collecting information for these plans, and considering options for sustainable development, different ways of allocating resources, and identifying critical areas for protection, are all the responsibility of the customary landholder associations. WWF is answering their call for assistance by providing the required specialists - such as a rainforest ecologist and a land-use planner - to work in support of the groups' efforts. WWF also is providing modest levels of financial assistance to strengthen the indigenous institutions and to make it possible for them to organize and conduct activities in conservation and cultural awareness.

WWF's experience in this innovative area of conservation effect shows that success is dependent on: * choosing to assist only those community groups that have, through their own actions, clearly demonstrated a commitment to conservation. * working with the customary landholder associations as partners rather than "donors." * avoiding an inevitable temptation to "improve" the associations; these evolved in the context of complex social considerations that visitors are unlikely to ever fully understand. * nurturing a patient, understanding approach that encourages learning as much as possible about the culture of each community and realizing that rapid social and economic changes have affected attitudes to conservation - sometimes for the better, sometimes, worse. * building in to all project activities an element of continuing education, and provisions for training in areas identified by the community groups concerned. * providing quick feedback of the results of studies undertaken by visiting investigators in support of community conservation. * demonstrating respect for a community's traditional knowledge of environment and resources, and making an effort to document this for local use in conservation education and as a base for any scientific research or survey required to provide information for resource management planning.

Growing numbers of customary landholder groups are looking to assume more active roles in resource planning and management in the context of sustainable national development. Working on this exciting marriage between the ancient and modern in the Pacific islands can be immensely rewarding and extremely frustrating. Other organizations interested in assisting these groups must not underestimate the social and sometimes political complexities of the circumstances under which these landholder groups are developing.

A stable and peaceful future for Solomon Islands depends to a large extent on accommodating the essence of customary land and sea tenure and rights in a framework of social and economic development shaped by, and suited to, Solomon Islanders themselves. Indigenous community conservation associations are paving the way.


Baines, G.B.K.

1989 Traditional Resource Management in the Melanesian South Pacific: A Development Dilemma. In F. Berkes, ed. Common Property Resources: Ecology and Community-Based Sustainable Development. pp. 273-295. London: Belhaven Press.

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