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Solomon Islands

Logging Takes its Toll

The accelerating rate of logging by large-scale commercial operations in Melanesia has alarmed even the World Bank. Melanesia, which includes Papua New Guinea, Solomon Is., Vanuatu, Fiji and Kanaky (New Caledonia), has witnessed escalating conflict over its rich natural resources. Landowners are fighting for their rights and their future against corrupt governments and destructive companies. Melanesia's "logging fields" are the latest arena where these bitter conflicts are being fought -- nowhere more than in the Solomons Islands.

Community tension over government-supported logging of disputed lands on Pavuvu Island has lead to one murder, one suspicious death, and escalating violence. Maving Brothers Ltd, a Malaysian company, has logged half the remaining forest already, and is planning to move in on the rest. The indigenous landowners are fighting to regain control of their lands and establish small- scale village-based "ecoforestry". In the Solomon Is. logging continues at three times the estimated sustainable level, with production forests predicted to be logged within the next ten years. Logging practices by the mainly Malaysian and South Korean companies are uncontrolled and destructive, and supply the Japanese and Korean log market. With more than 60% of government revenue derived from log export levies, forest depletion means a looming disaster for the economy.

Solomons Logging

The Solomon Is. lie to the northeast of Australia and east of Papua New Guinea. A land area of nearly 30,000 square kilometres is spread over some 992 islands. It has a population of around 340,000 that is growing at 3.5% per year. Although a former British colony, approximately 90% of the land in Solomon Is. is customarily owned by family groups. Around two-thirds of the Solomon Is. is covered with tropical forest, and many of the people still live in villages that depend on the forest for their survival.

The last 10 years has seen a wave of foreign logging companies sweep through Solomon Is. The current level of official production of 830,000 cubic metres, mainly whole log exports, is running at nearly three times the sustainable level, according to the 1994 Annual Report of the Central Bank of Solomon Is. Considerable concern has been raised over this situation, from within the Solomon Is. and in the wider Pacific region, and also in the international financial institutions the IMF and ADB. With more than 60% of government revenue coming from tariffs on log exports to Japan and Korea, the country's economy seems locked into a spiral of resource depletion and unsustainable development.

The Solomon Star newspaper reported on 10th November that US$2.2 million was paid in bribes from the logging company Integrated Forestry Industry Ltd, a subsidiary of Malaysian company Kumpulan Emas, to Ministers and other government employees. This revelation has shaken the country, with many calls for the resignation or sacking of the Ministers concerned. A large protest march occurred in the capital, Honiara on 29th November, called by the Union, Churches and Non-Government Organisations.

The journalist Duran Angiki, who reported the story for the Star was sacked following pressure from the government and logging companies. He is now taking legal action against the newspaper for his dismissal. However, on 4th December, three of the seven Solomon Island Government Ministers charged appeared in the Central Magistrates Court in the capital Honiara on corruption charges.

Russells Islands

Some of the logging companies come with a record of destruction from the Malaysian state of Sarawak. Logging by Malaysian company Maving Brothers Ltd has been at the heart of a controversy in the Russells Is. over corruption, land rights, and environmental destruction. Violence in the Russells Is. is escalating as logging divides communities into those who support the logging and receive payments from it, and those who oppose it.

With the long-standing armed conflict on nearby Bougainville and tension between mining companies and landowners elsewhere in Melanesia, logging is a major threat to the stability and security of the region. Revenue from logging is huge, but less than 5% of the profits actually stay with the resource owners. The companies and government take the lion's share.

Until recently, the only opportunity for landowners to make a financial income from their forest resources, was through logging. It was part of a dilemma that many face: they need cash for education, health, housing and consumer goods but want to protect their natural resources for the future. However, a tide of small-scale alternatives is rising to challenge destructive foreign logging. One of these landowner alternatives is `ecoforestry', or harvesting timber in an ecologically and socially responsible way. Greenpeace has been working with the Russell Island communities and with the New Zealand Imported Tropical Timber Group (ITTG) to establish these initiatives.

Pavuvu Island Logging Turns Bloody

The controversial government logging of Pavuvu Is in the Russells Group has divided a peaceful community, with the recent murder of anti-logging leader Martin Apa. He was brutally killed on 30th October as the Malaysian company Maving Brothers was making a push to log the rest of Pavuvu Is. It has been claimed that both the company and the Solomons government are implicated in the murder, the government doubly so through failing after a month to send an investigative team to find his killers.
Previously, in July this year, tensions reached a high point as frustrated local landowners set three company bulldozers on fire. The Russell Is. lie 45 km northwest of Guadalcanal in Central Solomon Is. The 12,427 ha Pavuvu Island is the largest of the 20 inhabited islands of the Russells group. Few people currently live on Pavuvu, because late last century missionaries, traders and developers forced the indigenous people to move to outer islands.

Considerable areas in northern Pavuvu have been cleared of rainforest for coconut and cocoa plantations. The 1000-metre strip encircling the lower half of the island was not developed (it has been logged now), and since the late 1980s Levers, who have leased much of the forest since colonial times, have been unable to clear the forest due to a corporate policy that prohibits clearing rainforests. Levers Solomon Island Ltd. still has a current lease over most of these areas, though Levers International sold their interests in the company last year.

In the 1960s and 1970s the indigenous landowners of Pavuvu (known as the Lavukal) began a campaign to have the lands leased by Levers, or what is known as the `alienated lands' returned to customary control. They have been fighting ever since, with the 1990s seeing this intensified under the threat of logging. The main avenue to have the land returned is via legislation that covers the Alienated Lands, where a requirement is that the indigenous communities must have a viable development project for the land.

An Australian aid-funded forest assessment in 1992 found that Pavuvu contains more than 130,000 cubic metres of harvestable logs, worth more than US$20 million. However, the landowners have ideas other than logging. They have developed their own resettlement scheme that involves establishing a landowner company, Lavukal Resources Development Ltd, and includes small- scale ecoforestry and ecotourism. As of November 1995, a total of 12 Russell Islanders had been through a six-week ecoforestry training course, with several now completing management plans in preparation for harvesting on their customary land on Pavuvu Island. They are very near to harvesting and marketing timber. The ITTG-supported ecoforestry training has received funding from the New Zealand government.

Malaysian Loggers

Into the picture in the early 1990s came a Malaysian logging company, Maving Brothers Ltd. The Maving Bros company directors include Solomon Islander Robert Belo, and Malaysians Hii Kiong Mee and Hii Yew Mee. Working with politicians, they have secured a licence to log the alienated lands to pave the way for a proposed government "development" and resettlement scheme. They tried to start operations in 1992 but were forced to back off after landowners threatened to burn their machinery. They returned in 1995 with the support of the recently returned Mamaloni government, and the government paramilitary defence force.

In February 1995, the ousting of Central Province premier Nelson Ratu by pro-logging provincial members, allowed the final 'approval' to be given for logging to start by Maving Brothers. When the logging equipment arrived the landowners began a peaceful protest at the logging camp. The government responded by having a Paramilitary Field Force (PFF) move in and make arrests. The PFF has been stationed there ever since in support of the company and vested government interests. Landowners have tried every peaceful means possible to have the Solomons government halt the logging and address their concerns, including many meetings, a petition and peaceful rallies.

Government propaganda claims that all the landowners now support logging. Alan Kemakeza, Minister of Forests, Conservation and Environment claims that "the Pavuvu alienated lands are owned by the government, not the people of Russell Islands". Yet he also says the reason for the logging is for resettlement and return of the lands to the customary owners. Since April 1995, the trees have been falling at a rapid rate. The only fresh water source on southern Pavuvu has been polluted with silt and many shipments of logs have already been shipped to Japan.

With the "alienated" lands almost exhausted, the company is now pursuing logging of the actual customary lands. It is expected that bogus "landowners" will sign agreements to log these areas, pitting the actual landowners in further direct conflict with the company and government.

Illegal and Destructive Logging

An investigative mission by the opposition party in Solomon Is. recommended that the logging be halted immediately and the land returned to the customary landowners. A recent investigative visit by Greenpeace to Pavuvu confirmed local reports of illegal and destructive practices. According to Greenpeace Solomon Is. Forests Campaigner Lawrence Makili, both the government and the company are guilty of lies and destructive practices.

"We found that more than half the logs at the Pavuvu camp were undersize, there was illegal logging on customary-owned land, and destructive practices such as cutting next to a stream and hauling the log up the stream bed. Yet before logging started in April, the government promised landowners that the operations would be controlled and monitored by government forestry, lands and agriculture officers. None of this has happened. There's only destruction," he said. "When a company representative was asked about the undersize logs, he said`they came from when large trees have fallen onto small ones, but this does not account for the large proportion and we observed free-standing small trees that had been felled."

Despite widespread public condemnation of the logging, the government has refused to halt it and address the concerns of the landowners. A public opinion poll in Honiara in June found that 85% of people agreed that landowners should have the first say over any development of their land. "This failure of the government to respect customary land rights threatens the very foundation stone of Melanesian culture. It is not government for the people but basic profiteering for a few people," Makili said.

What You Can Do

* Don't buy tropical timber from Solomon Is unless it is from a certified ecoforestry source

* Send a letter to the Prime Minister of Solomon Is., Solomon Mamaloni, urging him to halt the logging immediately, return the Pavuvu lands to the customary owners and fully investigate Martin Apa's murder. Use the following letter as a basis but make changes.

Model Letter:

Prime Minister of Solomon Is.
Rt Hon Solomon Mamaloni
Prime Ministers Office
Solomon Is.
Fax: 677 26088

Dear Prime Minister ,

Logging of your country's forests has been in the news a lot lately. I was shocked to read that your government is supporting a Malaysian company to log forests on Pavuvu Island when the landowners strongly oppose it. Of even more concern is the brutal murder of a local man who was opposed to the logging, and that your government has failed to investigate his death. From the outside it seems that your country is slipping further towards violent conflict similar to neighbouring Bougainville, and that the foreign logging companies have more say in the running of the country than the people of Solomon Is..

I have been told that customary rights to land and resources is the cornerstone of Solomon Is. and Melanesian culture. The lesson the world over is that abuses of indigenous peoples' rights haunt and burden future generations, as they have to redress the injustice at some stage. Is this the legacy you wish on your grandchildren? Also, with the excessively high rates of logging occurring in your country, surely it would be better to support local village people to use their forest resources in a way that is sustainable, such as the small-scale timber production plans by the Russell Islanders.

I urge you to halt logging on Pavuvu Island immediately before further blood is shed within the Russell Island communities, and return all lands alienated from the customary owners back to those rightful owners. I urge you also to immediately start an investigation of Martin Apa's death and ensure that justice is carried out.

Yours sincerely ... (: your name :)

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