BY ALFRED PAGEPITU
Communities in Solomon Islands are worried that lack of effective monitoring mechanisms and safe environmental practices by stakeholders are preventing authorities from understanding the full extent of environmental damage brought about by the rampant logging industry in the country.
The logging industry in the Solomon Islands is a huge revenue earner for the country, it is also a curse to the environment.
In 2019, the State of the Environment Report released by the Ministry of Environment, Climate Change, Disaster Management and Meteorology found that unsustainable forestry harvesting rates are at 12-14 times the established sustainable level.
Among the most notable logging destruction highlighted in the report includes forestry depletion and its knock-on negative effects on biodiversity, pollution of water bodies including rivers, streams and coastal waters remain recalcitrant for the past 27 years
The concern over environmental damages and the ineffectiveness of monitoring mechanisms was raised by communities on Isabel province, the longest island in the Solomon Islands archipelago, an island that features forest cover that has drawn a lot of companies vying to take control of the resources that are available.
Many of these companies are illegally getting license to operate on customary land through bypassing business license from provincial authorities.
For most communities in the Solomon Islands, very little has come by since gaining independence in terms of development, hence, availing land to logging companies as a way out of the meagre economic situation they are in seemed a worthy enough incentive.
Yet, not much has been done to ensure communities are protected and informed of the environmental impacts such operations pose to the ecosystem.
Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Environment, Climate Change, Disaster Management and Meteorology, Dr Melchior Mataki in a recent interview with local journalists’ points out that the forestry sector, especially logging is carried out almost unfettered with clear disregard for environmental safeguards.
He said there is the lack of priority given to environmental management by stakeholders involved in natural resource extraction.
He said there is a need to significantly invest in the environment sector to strengthen safeguards, and enforcement and compliance.
“Safeguards whether enacted under laws or captured in relevant policies and administrative processes need to be enforced and complied with, without fear or favour and supported with requisite level of resources,” he stressed.
And landowners like Charles Tabiru are worried that prolonged absence of an effective monitoring system to safeguard the environment could lead to irreversible damage to the environment, especially to coral reefs, mangroves, rivers and biodiversity in whole.
Mr Tabiru from Talise village, on West Bugotu, Isabel Province points out that the problem lies with the Solomon Islands Ministry of Environment and Conservation and the Ministry of Forestry.
“I want to know if there are plans the government to monitor damage to the environment due to logging in my province and in nearby communities.
“As a local resident, we do not have the capacity in terms of really monitoring all those logging operations in very remote locations,” Tabiru said.
“Our rivers are not safe for drinking. When we experience heavy rainfalls, most of our rivers are polluted and this poses health risk due to our reliance on it for drinking and cooking.”
He also mentioned that contaminated water run-off from a logging camp close to nearby Lelegia village could possibly be the link to a recent health crisis where people got sick drinking from water sources near the village.
Lelegia village mother Olivia Bako said years of logging activities within their area has had negative impacts on the village , some of the impacts has seen water sources drying up or becoming murky and not suitable to drink.
She said women in the area used to collect seashells from the mangrove area close to a logging camp close to Leleghia village.
“Our mangroves were untouched and abundant for many years.
“Back then, some of us would follow the cascading streams uphill during afternoon hours and come back with mud shells (dovili) and mangrove fruits for dinner,” Olivia recalled.
“It is a big concern for us now that the mangroves have gone because it is the place where we found food.
“We used to go there to find food, but not anymore.
“On Isabel, a matrilineal society, women are highly regarded as the custodian of land. Their role in society is important, but with the logging industry, it is men who are making decisions and getting royalty benefits from the proceeds.
“Even if the logging goes out, we will not be able to use that area anymore. Our fishing ground here is destroyed. This is a big problem for us mothers,” Olivia said.
A senior officer from the Ministry of Environment confirmed that there has been a lot of environmental impact caused by logging within West Bugotu and Isabel Province in particular.
He asked not to be named in this report over fears that he would lose his job.
“The monitoring and compliance of the logging industry is in the hands of our Ministry and the environment Division of the Isabel Provincial government. I must honestly state that monitoring has been minimal over the years,” he said.
“As of last year, we created a division in the department to take care of environmental compliance of the logging industry in the country, nothing has happened.”
But Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Environment, said the Ministry has been challenged every year financially to carry out its monitoring and compliance and enforcement responsibilities because of consistent low budget allocation towards his office by the Ministry of Finance and Treasury.
Mataki also said there is the lack of priority given to environmental management by stakeholders involved in natural resource extraction.
He said this is evident in the conduct and environmental performances of extractive industries.
“The attitude is often supported by government authorities both national and provincial and leaders, who actively support such undertakings.
He stressed that the pursuit of economic profit supersedes ‘environmental profit’ and this is directly supported by the prevailing political economy and amplified by the economic concept that assigns environmental outcomes of an economic activity as externalities.
According to an academic publication called “Dynamics of Logging in Solomon Islands: The Need for Restoration and Conservation Alternatives”, Solomon Islands academic, Dr. Eric Katovai teamed up with overseas researchers to look at the effects of logging in the Solomon Islands.
The report mentioned that poor monitoring of logging activities in Solomon Islands has resulted in excessive logging subtly carried out over several decades
“Forest authorities have insufficient funds and human resources to conduct effective monitoring.
“Furthermore, remote areas are often difficult to access due to lack of transportation, and therefore are frequently neglected by authorities. Yet these areas contain some of the largest timber stocks in the country.
“Resource owners may work alongside loggers by providing support to the logging operations, and their lack of knowledge of logging codes-of-practice may limit their ability to identify illegal practices.”
* This feature story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN) under its Asia-Pacific Project 2020.