Minister for MoFR putt off postponement of felling license A10112 pending ownership dispute resolution
BY EDDIE OSIFELO
MINISTER Dickson Mua Panakitasi of the Ministry of Forest and Research has issued a response to the appeal made by Southern Enterprises Sawmilling Company Limited (the “Appellant”) regarding the suspension of their felling license A10112.
Southern Enterprise Sawmilling Company Ltd is a licensee of Graceland Logging Company Limited that encroached and carried out illegal logging on customary land on Sulukoko in Small Malaita.
Minister Panakitasi’s decision comes after a comprehensive review of the case and a careful examination of the facts.
The suspension of the felling license was based on allegations of breaches of license terms and conditions, as well as violations of the Forest Resources and Timber Utilization (Felling Licenses) Regulations 2005. The Appellant had appealed the decision of the Commissioner of Forest, and Minister Panakitasi, exercising powers under Section 39(2) of the Forest Resources and Timber Utilization Act, considered the appeal.
The Minister noted that the Respondent had issued a ‘show cause’ notice on June 30, 2023, to which the Appellant responded on July 6, 2023. However, the Respondent remained dissatisfied with the Appellant’s representation, leading to the suspension of the felling license on July 17, 2023, citing breaches of Regulation 10(c) and (e) of the Forest Resources and Timber Utilization (Felling Licenses) Regulations 2005.
In the appeal submitted on July 31, 2023, the Appellant argued that the Respondent had erred in law by suspending their felling license despite the representation made on July 6, 2023. They claimed to have entered into an access agreement with George Kio, who had been appointed as the ‘care taker’ of Sulukokolo customary land by Chief Marawa, the only Chief and traditional leader, in the absence of the Complainant party.
Minister Panakitasi, however, found a lack of evidence to support Chief Marawa’s appointment and authorization of George Kio as the ‘care taker.’ Chief Marawa himself denied granting any consent, authority, or appointment to George Kio to act on behalf of the Sulukokolo tribe. The Minister concluded that the signing of the access agreement, leading to encroachment and tree harvesting within Sulukokolo customary land by the Appellant and Grace Logging (SI) Ltd without proper authorization, could potentially constitute trespass and illegal felling.
Regarding the ownership of Sulukokolo customary land, both the Appellant and the Complainant disputed each other’s claims without providing concrete evidence of ownership. However, the Minister pointed out that Chief Marawa’s denial of appointing a ‘care taker’ over Sulukokolo customary land indicated that there was no dispute over ownership, as the ownership had been clearly known by the parties concerned.
In light of these findings, Minister Panakitasi has decided to exercise his powers under Section 39(2) of the Forest Resources and Timber Utilization Act to defer the suspension of the Appellant’s felling license A10112. His orders are as follows:
[a] The appeal made by the Appellant is acknowledged, and the decision over the Appellant’s appeal is deferred, subject to the outcome of the settlement of the encroachment into Sulukokolo customary lands.
[b] The Appellant and Grace Logging (SI) Limited are urged to settle the issue of encroachment and trespass on Sulukokolo customary land without the permission of the Sulukokolo tribal landowners.
[c] In the event that the above conditions are settled, the suspension order issued by the Respondent may no longer have any effect, and the license may be reinstated accordingly.
Minister Panakitasi assures all parties involved that this decision is made with the utmost consideration of fairness and justice in mind. The deferment of the suspension allows for the resolution of disputes and ensures that the interests of all parties are taken into account.
This decision is seen as a balanced approach to a complex issue and aligns with the provisions of the Forest Resources and Timber Utilization Act. The Minister’s commitment to a just resolution of the matter has been commended by stakeholders.