Looking at vexing land issues in SI in the context of ensuring peace

IN his traditional New Year message to the people of the Solomon Island, His Excellency the Governor General, Sir Frank Kabui; spoke yesterday on the general theme of “peace”.

The message was published today, January 2, 2018, on the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation (SIBC) website, from which I quote.

“A keyword in Governor General Sir Frank Kabui’s 2018 New Year’s address to the nation was ‘peace’.

“Peace is fundamental to the country’s future and is needed to pursue development goals,” he said.

“Although the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands left the country last June, Sir Frank said citizens should not be alarmed or disappointed.

“We can look after ourselves if that is our objective,” he said. “The future of this country is in our hands — you and me.”

“In the new year, the Ministry of National Unity, Reconciliation and Peace will continue its work on programs to help maintain peace in Solomon Islands.

“I think we now have to think hard to find ways of ensuring that we have lasting peace in our country,” Sir Frank said.

“He said there must be efforts to reduce conflict, including identifying and addressing flashpoints, instead of wishes for peace without action.”

The Governor General expressed his support for the new government until the upcoming general election and mentioned land issues concerning Honiara and other parts of the country.

Sir Frank thanked all Solomon Islanders for being good citizens despite trying times and encouraged them to tackle the issues facing the country with determination.

“We have to think outside of the box,” he said. “We have to be visionary.”

The part of the Governor- General’s message which referred to “land issues concerning Honiara and other parts of the country”, was of particular significance to me because in 2017 I made several references to land issues and land disputes being a source of conflict, or potential conflict and especially in specific instances where I had occasion to write about disturbances involving landowners and logging company employees.

I even went so far to suggest the police service should have clear standing orders providing for codes of conduct when dealing with land disputes that were always potential flash points in the Solomon Islands.

In terms of land tenure in the Solomon Islands, the majority of the land (86 percent) is held under customary tenure, whilst the remaining 14 percent is alienated land.

Most of the remaining forest area is still to be found on customary land and, from all accounts of recent date, foreign logging companies are keen to exploit those remaining natural timber resources, evidence having surfaced most recently in Temotu Province.

Not so very long ago, The World Bank observed that in communities where logging has occurred there has often been a particularly high level of disputes, and that these can be frequently be traced back to the payment and distribution of royalties, rents, or access fees. Benefits are often captured by a small number of elite individuals, typically senior males, who may assert tenuous claims to land and forest ownership.

Under the Forest Resources and Timber Utilisation Act (Cap.40), resource owners are responsible for their own organisation and management of logging revenues at the local level – but this has been highly problematic.

Concerning myself over the legal frameworks in the Solomon Islands that governs the control of forests and supposedly protects the interests of landowners the myriad changes in the law and the legal apparatus paint a very confusing picture and leaves one with the view that the lack of clarity in the legal framework is not adequate.

Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka in his well-researched paper entitled “Paths in the Jungle: Landowners, Deforestation and Forest Degration in the Solomon Islands,” expresses my concerns more succinctly by saying (quote).

“Despite the legal apparatus that supposedly protects the interest of landowners, the changes in the state system often fail to address questions such as; do landowners have the ability and resources to enable them to take control of the forest resources? Does the state have the capacity to perform its coordinating and observer role?

“This is not to imply that landowners are either not ready or not capable. Rather, it is to say that the institutions and services landowners might need in the process of exploiting forest resources may not be available. For instance, legal representation for landowning groups are limited and in many cases nonexistent except for the over worked public solicitors in the provinces and Honiara.”

“The complications of the above issues are often exacerbated by socio-cultural factors relating to land, in particular the question: Who is the landowner? Answers to this question are made complex by confusions over notions of ownership and rights and conflicts emanating from these.

“The logging industry in Solomon Islands demonstrates that landowners have significant authority to determine forestry outcomes. They could influence the fate of forest degradation and deforestation. However, they have been unable to do so because of a lack of power. This lack of power emanates from the fact that they do not have access to appropriate and much needed legal counselling, they do not have access to government forestry advice.

“Furthermore, many landowners have been motivated by the desire for income generation. They will continue to accept logging and, therefore, contribute to deforestation unless alternative means of income generation opportunities are provided. Landowner acceptance of logging is merely a pragmatic response to their changing needs and increasing influence of a cash economy.”

As I understand the current situation, the main law regulating forest use in Solomon Islands is the Forest Resources and Timber Utilisation Act (Cap.40)

“Originally designed in the 1960s to facilitate logging on government land, the Act has clearly been inadequate to regulate logging on customary land.

“Despite being amended extensively over the past 30 years, the Act is still incomplete and very outdated. Numerous attempts to repeal and replace it with legislation to enable the sustainable harvesting and management of forests, including an open and transparent process for obtaining landowner consent, have failed. The Act has also been very unpopular, triggering excessive disputes and extensive litigation between customary landowners, administrators and logging companies.”

The Public Solicitor’s Office (PSO) is established under the SI Constitution to provide legal aid, advice and assistance to persons in need (Art. 92).

The Landowners’ Advocacy and Legal Support Unit (LALSU) within the PSO provides free legal advice, education and representation to customary landowners on issues regarding land, conservation and the sustainable management of resources including forestry.

The current view is the PSO and LALSU are not coping due to the prevailing heavy demands for legal services and advice from landowners seeking help when dealing with the many alleged intrusions on their customary land by logging companies.

A case in point in 2016 when Six landowners, needing advice, withdrew their consent to log their land at the November 2016 timber rights hearing in Noipe.

Since the meeting, 12 additional landowners rescinded their permission for logging on their land, and they are challenging the Temotu provincial government’s decision to approve the timber rights hearing with the Customary Land Appeal Court. They submitted their protest to the Lata Magistrate Court on Feb. 18, 2017, on the grounds that the meeting gained the approval of the provincial government despite protests from landowners and because attendees did not arrive at an agreement at the meeting, which the forestry act requires.

As payments aimed at convincing landowners to sign over the rights to log their land are commonplace, sources say.

“Bribes” typically represent “more money than landowners dream of really, just to say yes or no,” making it clear how someone might hand over their most precious resources in exchange for a one-time lump sum, and all the more reason why landowners should be able to readily access free legal advice before giving up the rights to their resources or succumbing to bribes and, in the process, perhaps incurring land disputes and threatening public order and peace.

Yours sincerely


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