Commissioner of forests misled by subordinates and others

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By Alfred Sasako

DESPITE denials and accusation of misleading reporting, there is evidence the Commissioner of Forests, Reeves Moveni, has been misled by subordinates and others into signing a felling licence without timber rights hearing, a special investigation by Island Sun has uncovered.

The investigation also points to the alleged involvement of a company called ES Suba Enterprises Ltd, a company whose close relatives hold key positions in the Ministry of Forest and Research.

The Ministry of Forest and Research last week denied there was anything wrong going on and accused Island Sun of misleading reporting.

But our continuing investigation has also found that Deputy Commissioner, Fred Pitisopa, used statutory powers which he may not have to issue a felling licence while he was supervising Commissioner of Forests.

“By law, an officer in a supervising role does not have the statutory powers to do something that only the Commissioner is allowed by law to do. A supervising officer may have administrative powers, but that does not necessary mean the administrative powers translate or extend to statutory powers,” an observer told Island Sun.

The case in question began in June last year. It involved a former Choiseul Provincial Government Minister for Forest, who allegedly told a senior licensing officer in the Ministry of Forest and Research that all was now in order for a felling licence to be issued for the Subavalu Customary Land in South Choiseul.

The felling licence was subsequently issued in September, four months later, according to documents obtained by Island Sun.

Commissioner Moveni who at the time was traveling to Germany signed off on the Form B, authorising the issuance of the felling licence, Licence No. A10185, before he left on the overseas trip, unaware that no timber rights hearing had taken place.

The senior licensing officer appears to have deliberately withheld the information on timber rights hearings from the Commissioner. By law Timber Rights Hearings are mandatory and a prerequisite requirement to a felling licence being granted.

The five-year licence took effect from 14th September 2018. It is over the Subavalu Customary Land, South Choiseul in Choiseul Province.

“The Commissioner was obviously misled by his subordinates to endorse the issuance of the licence by signing off on the Form B. His subordinates knew full well there were no timber rights hearings but told the Commissioner that everything was in order and that he should sign off on the Form B. He did,”

The Commissioner is said to be very angry after he found out that the licence was issued without a timber rights hearings. It is not clear whether he has taken action to revoke the licence.

The case is one of many which involved many players in the forestry industry, including the Attorney General’s Chambers.

Take for example, High Court Civil Case (HCCC) 246 of 2018. The Attorney General’s Chambers reportedly released all the funds kept in a trust account in accordance with a seizure notice issued by the Commissioner of Forest.

These funds included royalties, according to those familiar with the case.

What the Attorney General’s Chambers overlooked is the fact that there was a pending case, HCCC 246 of 2018 from which the seizure notice was based.

So while the Commissioner of Forest has done the right by referring the matter to the Attorney General’s Chambers for counsel or advice, the Attorney General’s Chambers has erred by ignoring HCCC 246 of 2018.

For by releasing the funds from the Seizure Notice vide HCCC 148 of 2019 Consent judgement, HCCC 246 of 2018 was still pending. It does seem that the action by the Attorney General’s Chambers is in fact in contempt of an Interim Ex-Parte Court Order dated 31st July 2018.

Island Sun has obtained a copy of the Ex-Parte Order.

The Island Sun investigation has also established that the Commissioner of Forests and the Attorney General’s Chambers have been knowingly misled by a Philip Bavare, a former Choiseul Province Minister of Forest, on the Babatana House of Chiefs’ decision.

A spokesman said there was a Varisi House of Chiefs decision in favour of Billy Tudubatu, the customary landowner who initiated the HCCC 246 of 2018.

“But a leading law firm representing Mr Bavare wrote to the Varisi House of Chiefs to prevent its hearings intended to determine the ownership of Kubangava Customary Land.

“This is wrong. The law firm does not have any power over the Varisi House of Chiefs,” the spokesman said, adding the action of the law firm is tantamount to intimidation and or coercion.

The spokesman explained that the Kubangava Customary Land is situated in the Varisi House of Chiefs’ jurisdiction and not within the Babatana House of Chiefs’ jurisdiction.

“As such Babatana House of Chiefs does not have the powers to decide Kubangava Customary Land matters, including the issue of land ownership,” he said.

The spokesman said Mr Tudubatu had appealed the decision by the Babatana House of Chiefs and the hearing began in the Customary Land Appeal’s Court (CLAC) in Gizo yesterday.

He also pointed out that there was “no timber rights” covering Kubangava Customary Land.

“Definitely, some of those logs have come from Kubangava Customary Land. In this regard the Commissioner of Forest must exercise caution not to be in contempt of (the) Interim Ex-Parte Court Order dated 31 July 2018.

“What we are doing here is merely reporting these matters for the attention of the Commissioner and not to challenge his authority. We will continue to do this as we believe law-abiding individuals must help the Commissioner in carrying out his difficult job,” the spokesman said.