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Illegal Logging in the Solomon Islands

By Chin Ching Soo

31 August, 2004
Countercurrents.org

The Voko people of the Iriri village have been an inspirational development story for Solomon Islands and community development workers world-wide. For over the past 20 years the Voko people have pursued sustainable development and have rejected exploiting their timber resources for the sake of protecting their environment. Currently, a Malaysian logging company, Delta is illegally logging their land and the Voko people are desperate for them to stop.

This is not the first time that the Voko people have had to face the pressures from international logging companies, in the mid-70s the Voko people resisted against foreign logging company threats and set their own “sustainable community development” agenda. With the assistance of UNIDO, AUSAID and APACE-VFEG, The Voko people built and developed a micro-hydro system that has been community owned and managed since 1983. Using their renewable energy system the Voko people built a primary school, kindergarten, teachers’ houses, 10 new permanent buildings, a sustainable timber milling enterprise, a carpentry project, a women’s bakery, a community store, a copra centre, a community hall and re-established their community farm. From the extra income generated the community was also able to pay taxes for its residents and subsidise 50% of school fees and health expenses. Their development story has been widely respected and has become the topic of numerous videos, TV programs, university research and a national commemorative stamp.
The Solomon Islands is considered a Small Islands Developing State and a Least Developed Country (LDC, the official status designated by the UN to the poorest countries in the world). With these many inhibiting factors, including the recent conflict in Solomon Islands (2000 to 2003) the Voko people have surmounted huge challenges to be able to implement and pursue their own sustainable development agenda. Their hard earned achievements will now be in jeopardy with the continuation of illegal logging. Already 20 000 cubic meters of their timber is gone. The present logging threatens the community’s drinking water, food supplies, building materials and future income possibilities, not to mention the immediate environmental consequences of soil compaction, severe erosion and reef delusion.
Below is an extract of a report by Peter Lynch, who traveled to Iriri in August 2004. Peter reports on the logging practices of Delta and its devastating effects. Peter is the Managing Director of Pelena Pty Ltd, which specializes in rural and remote energy systems.
Visit to Kolombangara Island Western Province, Solomon Islands by Peter Lynch Managing Director, Pelena Pty Limited
On Monday this week (9th August 2004), I visited Vavanga & Iriri Villages. These villages are located on the island of Kolombangara in the Western Province of Solomon Islands, approximately 350km from Honiara, and 15 km from Gizo, the capital of the Western Province.

When I arrived, I was physically embraced by tearful members of the community. Such physical affection is rare in Solomon Islands, and the first I have witnessed in the 14 years of involvement with the people of this nation. These were not tears of joy – they were tears of fear, distress, and a complete sense of loss & inability to control their own lives.

The reason for the tears was that a foreign logging company had invaded their land and continued to remove “round logs” without the permission of the land owners in accordance with the laws of Solomon Islands.

The logging had started earlier this year. In April, a visit was made to these villages by members of the Australian NGO, APACE. They reported back to their Australian colleagues who in turn contacted RAMSI (Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands).

One of RAMSI’s main objectives is Law and Order. On 12th April 2004, we received news that RAMSI had indeed visited the villages and that the logging had been suspended pending a court case. There was much relief and thanks to RAMSI’s swift approach.

However, my visit this week could not be further from the truth today. The logging has continued at a ferocious rate, a member of the community was charged with damaging equipment – equipment illegally on his land – and is now locked up in jail.

Other members of the community are fearful:

If they fight the loggers, RAMSI may come and remove them from their family, land, and ability to fight further theft & destruction.
If they don’t fight, their access to food, building materials, clean water, & future income will be lost.
The situation is atrocious and reflects poorly on illegal logging practices and RAMSI’s particular ability to deliver law and order to 85% of the Solomon Islands population – those that live in remote villages in rural areas.

The result at these villages is that RAMSI has effectively stopped the rightful resource owners from protecting their assets and their property. As a result, illegal logging operations by the foreign company (Delta of Malaysia) has continued & in turn allowed the continuation of “back-handed” payments between the logging company and “bought” un-representative members of the community.

Logging the rural areas in Solomon Islands is more than simply the removal of logs. The forest is the resource area for villagers to get:

Food
Fresh water (the mass logging turns the rivers to mud)
Building materials (often trees are marked when a child is born so that when that child becomes an adult, there are trees ready for their house)
Medicines
Income generation
Mass removal of the logs – as is occurring in the area of Iriri & Vavanga – is seriously jeopardising the future security of the local people, and can only result in a deterioration of living standards and a likely population drift to town centres – not a preferred situation when 85% of Solomon Islanders live in such rural areas.

When the loggers arrived early this year, a large landing barge delivered a bulldozer to an area near the villages. The local people attempted to stop it but were unsuccessful. The loggers then proceeded to build the tin-roofed houses, install their satellite television and phones, deliver the new 4WD, cranes, and various earth-moving equipment to undertake the rape of the land.

The first logs were then loaded onto the landing barge whereby they were transported to a large ship anchored off the coast. The logs were loaded and shipped out of the country.

No wharf facilities required, allowing a direct export from the village, bypassing all the agencies of the Solomon Islands Government. A no-win situation for the local landowners or the newly emerging-from-bankruptcy Solomon Islands Government.

Diesel fuel is used to power the bulldozers and associated equipment. Huge oil stains could be seen on the ground where “engine oil changes” had occurred. At the time of my visit, the logging operation had temporarily ceased, as the roads were too muddy for logging.

The loggers moved inland from Vavanga, bulldozing a web of mud tracks as fast a possible to extract the logs. They then moved north until they reached the Pepele River. The landowners from Iriri met the loggers at this point. They set up a camp on the other side of the river to the loggers’ work. The villagers built some small lean-to huts and maintained a 24-hour watch. The loggers also set up a camp where they stored their bulldozers waiting for the “advance”.

The loggers eventually advanced through the river, changing the course of the river and commenced building an interlaced log bridge.

One of the signs of the loggers’ attitude was how they then dealt with the camp of the Iriri people. Instead of “simply” knocking down the lean-to buildings, they dug them up, leaving a huge hole in the side of the hill, or as it now is, the side of a muddy track.

The erosion was significant on the loggers’ road across the Pepele River – washing mud into the Pepele River and polluting the downstream villager’s source of water. Logging has an impact well beyond the “round log”. The erosion caused by the loggers’ roads is in addition to the erosion caused by the removal of the trees.

How does the future sit for the kids of Vavanga and Iriri villages when their assets are stolen, their food supply is diminished, their drinking water is turned to mud, and the internationally recognised law and order police force locks up anyone who resists defending such a future?

Time is the issue here, and the loggers know it. By the time the court case is heard, the loggers will have likely moved on to another island and bribed another person claiming to be a representative of the landowners.

As for the villagers, they are likely to receive compensation – of course; it’ll probably be what some other villagers received recently on the nearby island of New Georgia - S$5.00 per head, or about A$1.00 per adult member of the community.

The people in the rural areas of Solomon Islands – 85% of the population – are grateful to RAMSI for bringing law and order to the capital and some localised areas. However, their views are rapidly changing when events such as the above occur. The only way these people can view RAMSI’s position is as a facilitator to the illegal logging practice.

Some video of the operation also exists. It was recorded on the DVCAM/miniDV format by a semi-professional video camera.

Peter Lynch 12th August 2004.

Please go to http://www.apace.uts.edu.au/docpublish/si005.html for Peter’s full report as well as for photos the logging effects in Iriri and Vavanga. If you would like more information or would like to assist the Voko people, please contact Donnella Bryce, Program Manager APACE-VFEG at apace@uts.edu.au Chin Ching Soo can be contacted at chinching_soo@yahoo.com



 

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