-Choiseul gov’t and landowning tribe decry operations by company without provincial business licence
-Company says its actions based on ‘verbal agreement’
BY IRWIN ANGIKI
A logging company has landed and is operating in South Choiseul without any business licence from the province’s government.
A tribe in Choiseul Province is making an urgent call on responsible authorities to probe and halt this “illegal logging operation” on its land.
And, the Choiseul province government has condemned the company for what it says is a clear breach of its ordinance and laws.
The company, Sonic Phase, has denied any wrong-doing claiming that it was given the “verbal” greenlight by the Choiseul provincial government to land and start operations despite not having a business licence.
On October 5, 2023, Sonic Phase landed its machinery at the Magara beach in South Choiseul. Five days later, its makeshift logging pond at Magara beach was filled with logs.
Kibi Sopere (Roqepota) tribesmen of Kakaza village in South Choiseul, close to Magara beach, and Pangoe village in North Choiseul have rallied to oppose this logging operation.
This tribe lays claim on lands in which the company is operating, including Magara beach.
A Kibi Sopere spokesperson, who requests anonymity, says they are calling on the government through its responsible ministries including the ministry of forestry (MOFR) and the police (RSIPF) to step in and help settle the matter.
The land on which Sonic Phase is operating is under dispute and the locals who have led the company there do not have any right to do so, the Kibi Sopere spokesperson said.
“The tribe is appealing to the Commissioner of Forests, the Commissioner of Lands and the Registrar of Titles to look into their case with urgency.”
Operations first, licence later – a ‘reverse order’
The company landed on October 5 without any provincial business licence, and without having carried out any survey nor submitted any plans according to the country’s forestry laws, the spokesperson adds.
“These licences and plans are requirements under the country’s forestry laws and provincial ordinances.
“The logging company should have completed all these plans and obtained the relevant provincial licence before it even landed its operation within Choiseul Province’s jurisdiction,” the spokesperson added.
Reports received by Island Sun say workers of the company began carrying out an inventory survey three days after their machinery were landed at Magara beach.
Sonic Phase is trying to fulfil requirements for a provincial business licence in reverse order, the Kibi Sopere spokesperson said.
“It landed and began operations before it began seeking out how to meet requirements for a provincial business licence,” the spokesperson said.
Reports claim that the sequence of the company’s actions are as follows:
-The company landed on October 5.
-It carried out a survey on October 8.
-It began felling on October 10. (The company has denied this, saying they started harvesting on October 24)
-Following this, it began pursuing the Annual Harvesting Plan (AHP).
-It received its Coupe Plans on October 26 from MOFR.
-It is still without a provincial business (operational) licence and is reportedly trying to get one.
The AHP and Coupe Plans are meant to guide harvesting within concession areas so that taboo sites, environmental concerns, gardens, etc are avoided.
The AHP and Coupe Plan are granted after a physical survey is carried out, and is basically the approval to begin harvesting.
Illegal operation, says Choiseul government
The Choiseul provincial government has also condemned the company’s action in landing its machinery and starting operations without a provincial business licence.
Speaking to Island Sun last week, Deputy Premier Harrison Pitakaka said the company does not have a business licence to operate in Choiseul province.
Therefore, it should not land its machinery, clear any log pond or harvest trees for logs, he said.
“The company is operating without having acquired any business licence from the Choiseul provincial government, therefore this company’s operation here is illegal. This is the stand of the Choiseul provincial government.
“The Choiseul provincial government had reached out to the company to satisfy the process of getting a business licence but the company has not responded.”
Deputy premier Pitakaka says the Choiseul executive is aware that the company is using documents endorsed by MOFR which involved a statement of approval from the province’s Treasurer, which is not the correct channel of process, therefore is deemed illegal by the provincial government.
“The correct channel is that this approval must come from the provincial executive after it has deliberated on any application by the company. But, to just simply say that it had received approval from the provincial treasurer, we totally reject that and therefore any document from the MOFR stemming from it are null and void.
Not doing anything wrong – normal practice
Island Sun interviewed Sonic Phase management and locals who are supporting it at the Glen Grow Solomon Islands office compound in Ranadi this week.
The company rejects the idea that it is acting illegally.
It admits however that it does not have a provincial business licence. It also admits that it is currently harvesting trees and stockpiling logs at its Magara log pond despite not having a licence. And, it admits that it is pursuing a business licence via reverse order.
The company justifies its actions saying it had received “verbal approval” from the provincial finance minister of the Choiseul government allowing it to land its machinery at the site and start operations before pursuing a business licence.
The finance minister for Choiseul province could not be reached for comments before this article went to print.
The company explains that it had sought permission to land first before obtaining a business licence because it was wary of the risks involved.
“This particular area in the past has experienced strong disputes to logging operations,” says a Malaysian company official who preferred to be called ‘Jimmy’.
“So, in the company’s interest, it would be less risky to land first and observe the reactions by landowners before we proceed with formalities. We don’t want to pay fees and land our machinery then face opposition which could force us out, then we end up losing money.”
The company adds that it has all the legal documents from the Ministry of Forestry.
It also alleges that the Choiseul provincial government is not communicating with it.
“After we land and operate we expect the Choiseul province government to reach out to us and tell us where to pay our fees, provide us information such as the bank account to pay to, the amount of money that we should pay, etc,” says another Malaysian company official who requested anonymity.
“But it has not,” he said. This has not been verified by the Choiseul provincial government.
Representatives of landowners who support the company said as far as they are concerned, there is nothing wrong with the company’s operations.
“It is normal practice in all logging operations for logging companies to land their machinery, start operating then pay the provincial business licence fee later,” the landowners said.
“Apart from that, Sonic Phase has all the required legal documents from the authorities to operate.
“Lastly, the tribe disputing the company is from North Choiseul, and we are in South Choiseul. We do not recognise them.”
According to Company Haus records, Sonic Phase was registered in September 2008, and re-registered in March 2011. Its directors are Malaysians Yien King Shou and Yien Chin Sing.