Logging Disrupts Solomon Islanders' Customary Way of Life

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In northern New Georgia Island of the Solomon Islands, the Levers Pacific Timbers Company is presently cutting about half of the 50,000m(3) of rain forest logs that are exported annually from the Solomons. On Kolombangara Island, all accessible lowland rain forest has already been cleared by Levers, a subsidiary of Unilevers, the world's sixth largest company. In the clearing process, about 60 percent of the island's archeological and historic sites were destroyed. Shipped to Japan whole, the cut logs provided a minimal return to the local villagers in spite of a Solomon Islands law that requires a minimum of 20 percent of exported timber to be locally milled. Reforestation schemes in the area are mainly cosmetic and, where attempted, are paid for by foreign aid agencies, effectively subsidizing the multinational loggers. Due to a blatant disregard for the topsoil during the logging process, reforestation is slow and difficult. Even after years, most cleared areas remain a tangle of vines.

With most of the royalties now dried-up and the forests largely cut, the customary way of life that 93 percent of Solomon Islanders still practice has become extremely difficult. While most Islanders are subsistence farmers, they rely on the forest to provide them with a host of products ranging from lawyer vine for lashing their buildings together to certain trees from which they carve their canoes. Customary medicines, as well as many wild fruits and animals, which are part of their diet, are also found in the forest.

If the present rate of deforestation continues, all accessible forests in the Solomon Islands will be cut in less than 15 years. Many customary landowners want the royalties - one out of every seven families has no cash income whatsoever - and have no understanding of the consequences. Royalties are short-lived and once these are gone, so are the forests that not only supply necessities for the villages, but are also particularly important to other species due to the high rate of endemicity. Of the 163 species of land birds that breed in the Solomon Islands, for example, only 18 percent are found elsewhere. Some communities, which have traditionally "owned" the land collectively, are beginning to realize the destructive and unsustainable nature of the present logging in their forests and are now resisting the multinational loggers. But government officials and some members of Parliament see no alternatives to this extractive mode of development.

Government Waives Some Logging Regulations

The Solomon Islands are a double chain of quiescent and extinct volcanoes east of the island of New Guinea. Lying either side of latitude 10°S and surrounded by some of the deepest oceans in the world, the Solomon Islands have spectacular shorelines varying from extremely deep sounds through coral reefs to some of the biggest lagoons in the world. Large volcanic craters, some at sea level, are still hot to walk on with boiling mud pools and jets of sulfurous gas. Twenty-four different types of forests, ranging from tall lowland tropical rain forests to moss forests in the high mountains, cover the islands from the seashore to the highest peak at 2,450 meters.

Isolation and a small population have maintained the natural beauty of the Solomon Islands. Although "discovered" by the Spanish in the 1500s, it was almost four centuries before further contact when Australian blackbirders captured 30,000 Islanders to work as slaves on the sugar plantations in Queensland, Australia, and in Fiji. The single biggest development came when Lever Brothers took over coconut plantations for their soap factory in Sydney, Australia. By 1907 Levers had leases on more than 300,000 acres of the Solomon Islands and had persuaded the British Colonial Office to extend these leases from 99 to 999 years.

Fortunately for the local people. Levers developed little of this land. However, in 1961 Lord Cole, chairman of Unilever, visited the Solomon Islands. He decided to "remain one jump ahead" of the Islanders by logging the forests before the customary owners demanded their land be returned. Unilever prevailed upon the Colonial government to waive regulations that required logging companies to process 20 percent of their cut locally and to replant after logging. To this day Unilever, which trades in about 90 countries and has an annual turnover of more than $10 billion, exports only whole logs. As a result local employment is minimum and overseas aid agencies in countries such as Australia and New Zealand have had to fund reforestation programs. For Unilever, this waiver is sound corporate strategy: socialize the unprofitable section of the industry (i.e., reforestation) but keep the profitable section in private ownership. For the Islanders, however, the waiver is particularly damaging since Unilever owns more than half the annual logging quota for the whole Solomon Islands, a massive 225,000m(3).

Islanders Raid Logging Village

Many customary landowning groups express the desire to preserve their forests for customary uses if alternative sources of revenue can be found. However, education and finances are lacking. "We need money for taxes and to educate our children. We have nothing else to sell," they say. But more and more the Islanders are beginning to realize the destructive and unsustainable nature of the logging operations.

Last year, about 200 villagers on New Georgia Island sacked and burned a Levers logging village and the equipment, causing a million dollars worth of damage. The following two accounts about the raid were described by two men from the village Paradise on New Georgia Island. Subsistence farmers aged about 45 and 60, the two men grow sweet potato, taro and cassava. To pay the $10 annual head-tax they also grow coconuts, which are dried for copra. Vincent Vaguni, an executive member of the Western Solomons Provincial Parliament, translated the accounts from the Roviana language. While the two accounts vary somewhat, both confirm there was a raid and some arrests.

Forty of us from Koroga tribe chased the LPT employees who were bringing in materials to start a new logging camp at Enogai. After chasing the workers away, we took all of LPT's properties in our canoe and transported them to the company's ship that was floating nearby.

The white man who was there asked us to go to the other side of the bay, so we all went across. Suddenly, 12 policemen came and started asking us questions. One of the policemen asked, "Who told you to come?" The Chief of Koroga, Reuben Gambule, answered, "It is our own wish to come and chase the LPT workers away. This land where LPT is trying to put up the camp is not LPT's land either. This land is Koroga land and it's for us, the Koroga tribe." After bits of talking and questions, the police then ordered us to go to Temarae and to wait for them there.

When all of us arrived, the police continued investigating the matter. The big man of the police said that we had gone against the law, so we would have to go to court.

After three days or so, a boat of policemen arrived, arrested us and took us to the Munda court hearing. The court told us, "You are wrong. You made a mistake so you will go to prison." All 40 of us were charged with unlawful assembly and were sent to prison in Honiara for two months.

After being in prison for two months, we all returned home to see our families. While we were in prison, LPT had gone back to Enogae and actually put up the camp. Houses, employees and logging machinery now occupied the whole area of land where before we had stopped them from doing so.

We had gone to prison for our land and LPT had actually started logging. We felt that if we just kept quiet, LPT would ruin our land and spoil our forest. We decided to take a second action which we had warned LPT and the government about - that was to spoil and burn LPT's properties. The warning has gone. We don't hide these things.

It happened that very early in the morning after walking in the bush all night, 210 of us from Paradise and Jericho within Koroga tribe went to Enogae and started to wake people in their houses. We warned them to bring their belongings to somewhere that was safe. We told them that we were going to burn the houses, bulldozers, cranes, trucks and that nothing would be left except Koroga land.

Some women were very frightened, but we told them that we were not going to kill them or do any bodily harm to anyone, except LPT's properties. Then the workers weren't afraid. Everyone was burning houses. LPT's workmen also helped us to burn the houses and machines, which was very amazing to see them doing that. We were glad because some of LPT's workers helped us and also advised us how to burn the Caterpillars.

Two policemen there couldn't do anything to us. They just watched the flames up in the air and then ran away into the bush to Munda. We chewed betelnut with the LPT workers and watched everything burn. Then we returned home.

Very early in the next morning, the Field Force arrived holding guns and went around Paradise Village asking us who was at Enogae. No one was talking to the policemen. We just stayed quiet.

Those of us who raided Enogae were not afraid of the police with guns, because we wished to die in serving our trees and lands. The Field Force investigated the matter. They stayed about two days. They couldn't get anything from us, except they arrested seven who appeared in a list forwarded by someone from Enogae who recognized them.

The seven were kept by the police in Gizo for some time waiting for a legal advisor. Then the court decided to send the seven to prison for two years, so our seven people went to prison. Our wish was to all go to prison for the sake of our lands and forest. We don't like those seven to go by themselves.

A week after the raid, the Western Solomons Provincial Government passed a motion (without dissent) calling on all Unilevers subsidiaries to get out of the province. The company has yet to respond and LPT continues to export more than 200,000m(3) of rain forest logs annually from New Georgia Island to Japan. Despite the first farmer's account, it appears that the company has not attempted to return to Koroga land, and the clearing at Enogae has now been resettled by Koroga people who have planted gardens and orchards there. The seven arrested will soon return to their families (whom the tribe has looked after) after 14 months in jail.

Strategy Developed to Protect Forests

Though Levers claims to have changed their logging practices since the raid, most of the land that they have logged in the Solomon Islands during the last 20 years lies derelict, eroded and useless, an eerie graveyard covered in vines. The Honiara News Drum, in its story about the raid, mentioned that Studies showed that it would cost three times the amount set aside annually [from royalties] to replant forests, mainly because of the cost of brushing or clearing the pesky merremia vine eight times a year lest the trees be choked. And logging along skidder trails leaves little topsoil left from the normal four to 10 inches. Studies have said it would be difficult to grow any commercially valuable product in such soil. Following four weeks of discussions, both in the villages and in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, a twofold strategy involving distribution of educational material and alternative development emerged to protect the rapidly disappearing forests. The educational material was to be printed in Pidgin for distribution to the villages, and in English for government officials and members of Parliament. In addition, material was to be disseminated through the media. Possible alternative development options included a portable sawmill used in conjunction with boat-building and logging on a sustained-yield basis; local processing of coconuts, the main agricultural crop; production of fuel from cassava; or turtle and crocodile farming. Good contacts have been made at all levels of Solomon Islands society and funds are now being sought to educate people and to establish the pilot projects coordinating sustainable development with protection of the rain forests.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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