I recall reading a very comprehensive document on land reform in the Solomon Islands some years ago which was entitled “Building a Pathway for Successful Land Reform in the Solomon Islands.” The author of the Report was Siobhan McDonnell with substantial contributions from Joseph Foukona and Dr.Alice Pollard.
The Report contained some sound advice for the Solomon Islands Government to consider when considering land reform and ‘unlocking’ or ‘opening up’ land for development.
The author, in one paragraph, wrote – “What is more important when we discuss land reform is making sure that all landowners receive equitable returns from development on their land.”
The Report went on to say (quote)
“Solomon Islands is dominated by logging and now by the gradual shift to mineral extraction.
“Landowners have high rental expectations from these sectors. However, the history of logging, mining and land dealings shows how corruption and conflict of interest have contributed to the increase in land contestations in recent years.
“ Middlemen involved in brokering these economic activities as ‘trustees’, ‘logging licensees’, ‘land consultants’ or government agents lack capacity and some of them act dishonestly when representing different landowner interests.
“Often when landowner groups are not happy, they dispute these deals or refuse consent for development activity on their land.
“Government agencies have too often played a role in promoting investor interests rather than looking after landowners. The experience of legal processes for land acquisition, logging licensing, natural resource extraction agreements, land dealings either on customary or state land in urban areas shows that the current trustee model, embedded in these legal processes, can easily be manipulated by mainly powerful male actors. These experiences point to the need to review legal processes and engage in land reform that is based on the needs of landowners and investors.
“This should be led by the Solomon Islands government, pulling together talented Solomon Islanders to drive land reform. In my mind, such an approach would help to create not only a space for developing ‘thought leadership’ but also inter-generation capacity building of Solomon Islanders to better manage and deal with land issues.
“This Report highlights the need for a step by step development process for land reform efforts. Based on land reform experience in other Melanesian countries, it shows that a successful land reform process requires clear policy direction. The amending or writing of new land laws should be the final step of this land reform process, rather than the beginning. This report is a useful discussion document that we can draw on as we constructively engage in dialogue to create our own unique pathway for a successful land reform in Solomon Islands.”
I have often wondered whether the Report was considered in detail by the government following its publication and I confess, as one now distant from the Solomon Islands, that I truly do not know the answer but continue to read, as in two instances this past week, of land disputes on Customary land that have impeded developments or hampered air services by grievances raised by landowners.
In the first incident, it was reported by the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation (SIBC) that a Small Malaita road construction project was being halted as a result of a dispute with landowners.
The road survey from Rorongo to Tawaro is ready to begin, pending the tribal landowners’ decision.
In the second incident, the outcome proved to be more successful following the personal intervention of the Solomon Islands Prime Minister.
The provincial airport at Parasi has been closed for seven years due to a long running land dispute involving landowner groups. The airport is now said to re-open in March 2018.
Prime Minister, Rick Hou, discussed with landowners other projects that have long been affected by land disputes, including the construction of a regional hospital, a new police station, new court house and new power and water supply plants for Afio Substation.
Last October Moody’s Investor Service in a report evaluating the Solomon Islands local and foreign currency rating commented on the SI economic growth prospects (quote)
“On the downside, the economy’s growth potential could weaken materially in particular if the structural decline in the logging industry, weak competitiveness and low quality infrastructure hinder investment more significantly than we currently assume. In turn, a prolonged economic slowdown or sudden negative economic shock, combined with lower donor funding and depleting government’s cash reserves, would undermine fiscal strength.”
It is not too difficult to realize that the nation’s economy will suffer if land disputes continue to hamper development and raises the question in my mind, once again, to what extent has land reform taken place in the Solomon Islands since the Report and recommendations I have referred to by Siobhan McDonnell?