The Solomon Islands, the site of battles during World War II, has again become embroiled in turmoil. Once under the rule of Great Britain, the Islanders became self-governing in 1976 and gained independence on July 7, 1978. Gaining independence did not bring peace and harmony to the Solomon Islands. Presently, the Solomon Islands are experiencing both ethnic conflicts within their country and environmental conflicts with foreign countries.
The Solomon Islands are a group of islands in the South Pacific Ocean, east of Papua New Guinea and northeast of Australia. The 992 combined islands, about the size of Maryland, are divided into ten administrative areas; nine are provinces and the tenth is the capital, Honiara, on the island of Guadalcanal. Numerous tiny islands form each province. Only Solomon Islanders own the land itself. Customarily, fathers or mothers deed their land to younger generations, not outsiders. Many of the people of the Solomon Islands depend on the land for their survival. Over two-thirds of the land is covered with tropical rainforest.
Ethnic disputes within the borders of the country have erupted. Most of the population of Guadalcanal, a main island, is Gwale. Armed militants of Gwale people, calling themselves the Isatabu Freedom Fighters (IFF), have killed six people and forced between 15,000 and 20,000 of the minority Malaitans living in Guadalcanal to flee to Honiara or to go back to their homeland island of Malaita. Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, is populated mainly with Malaitans. The Malaitan villagers, therefore, are seeking refuge with friends or relatives; others are being forced to live and sleep on the streets. The city of Honiara is becoming overcrowded and cannot support its already poor population of farmers and fishermen.
The dispute is not new. For decades, there has been tension between the Gwales and Malaitans. During World War II, the United States captured an airstrip in Guadalcanal from Japan. Many people from Malaita moved to Guadalcanal and worked for Americans to build the airstrip. After the war, the Malaitas stayed in Guadalcanal, becoming the island's business and political elite. When the Solomon Islands gained independence in 1978, Malaitas continued to move to the island of Guadalcanal to secure jobs in Honiara. Many Malaitan people have now resided in Honiara for two or three generations, a constant irritation to the Gwales. Many Gwale people want to keep the islands segregated. Jobless Gwales attacked Malaitan villagers during the summer of 1999 after feeling that the Malaitas were given special employment treatment.
Not only do the people of Guadalcanal resent the Malaitan people populating and taking job opportunities away from them in Honiara, but the Gwales dislike the Malaitas taking their land. The Malaitan population has bought land in Guadalcanal, sometimes from tribal chiefs with questionable authority to sell it. Other Malaitas have simply squatted on the land. Some Malaitan people are benefiting financially from allowing foreign companies to log the rainforests on the area of the islands where they now live.
Besides ethnic turmoil within the Solomon Islands, disputes over natural resources in the region are intensifying. Over the last 10 years, foreign logging companies have preyed on the Solomon Islands. Pavuvu Island, part of the Russell Island group, has been hit the hardest. The logging companies, mostly Japanese, are not concerned about environmental issues and native rights. At an alarming rate, thousands of acres of forests are being demolished. The logging companies defend themselves by advocating that they practice sustainable logging that will not destroy the forests. Yet, landowners indicate that these foreign logging companies infringe on conservation practices by cutting on steep slopes, which causes soil erosion. The companies also pollute waterways by cutting trees too close to streams. Furthermore, investigations reveal that many of the logs cut on Pavuvu Island were undersize. Company representatives testify that the undersize logs are harvested when large trees have fallen upon small ones. This explanation, according to investigators, does not account for the large number of free standing small trees that had been severed. At the present time, authorities indicate that logging in the Islands is running at three times the tolerable level. Experts suggest that within 10 years the entire forest of the Solomon Islands will be depleted. More than 60% of government revenue is derived from logging exports, so the economy will be affected too.
Furthermore, some logging companies are being accused of bribing government officials and some of the landowners of the Islands. An island newspaper reported that Integrated Forestry Industry Ltd, a subsidiary of the Malaysian company Kumpulan Emas, paid $2.2 million in United States currency in bribes to Ministers and government officials of the Solomon Islands. Maving Brothers Ltd, another Malaysian logging company, is also at the center of one more controversy. The logging company has been linked to one murder, one suspicious death, and increasing violence. Maving Brothers Ltd had logged over one half of the rainforest of Pavuvu Island and was pushing to continue logging the area when an anti-logging leader was brutally murdered. The company and some government officials have been implicated in this murder case. In retaliation, angry landowners set three logging company bulldozers on fire. This violence is accelerating as villages divide between those who support the logging companies and receive money from them, and those landowners that oppose it.
Efforts are being made to solve the present conflicts affecting the Solomon Islands. Sitiveni Rubuka, a former military strongman, has been appointed as British Commonwealth Special Envoy to mediate between the Gwales and Malaitas in the ethnic dispute. Some progress has been made; the Malaitan people have been forced from Guadalcanal in exchange for the disarming of the Isatabu Freedom Fighters. Strong penalties also are being imposed on squatters in Guadalcanal, hopefully to discourage the Malaitas from returning to Honiara. The agreement furthermore states there should be equal and fair representation in the national civil service. This provision will provide more jobs, of course, for the people of Guadalcanal and fewer ones for the Malaitan people.
Attempts to resolve the environmental conflict are also being made. Investigators from Greenpeace, an organization to protect the environment, have visited Pavuvu Island. They discovered that government officials implicated themselves when the officials neglected to send a team to investigate the murder of an anti-logging leader for over a month. After also reviewing the practices of the logging company involved, Greenpeace found that both the government and logging company guilty of lies and destructive practices. Seven government officials appeared in court on corruption charges. Soon they will again appear in court and are expected to make their pleas. Greenpeace is also training the landowners to overcome the destruction caused by the foreign logging. One alternative is called ecoforestry, or harvesting the rain forests in an ecologically and socially responsible way.
Both ethnic and environmental conflicts plague the Solomon Islands. Although attempts are being made to solve the problems, friction is still evident. The ethnic dispute solution seems to discriminate against the Malaitan people. Greenpeace, on the other hand, appears to have made more concrete progress in solving the logging controversy. Both disagreements, though, are far from ending. These small islands may become as newsworthy as they were during World War II.
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Sarah Overley, November 5,1999