By Alfred Sasako
RUSSELL Islands Plantation Estates Ltd (RIPEL), once described as the “jewel in the crown” in the nation’s economy, is once again in the news.
The interest appears to have been triggered by the visit to Marulaon Village in West Russell on Saturday 4th August by none other than businessman, Patrick Wong and his RIPEL and Levers Solomon Ltd (LSL) directors.
It was Mr Wong’s first visit in 15 years since he last set foot on this idyllic outpost, ringed by white sandy beaches of indescribable beauty. Russell Island is potentially a tourist mecca, waiting to be discovered.
But discovering or unmasking this potential foreign exchange earner for the landowners and indeed Solomon Islands has not been easy. It was dogged by on-going tribal ownership rivalry which has kept potential investors at bay.
Since 2002, the foreign-exchange earning capacity of this once-flourishing coconut and cocoa plantation, had stopped, some workers repatriated and Mr Wong, as a foreign investor was barred from setting foot on Russell Island.
In 2015 Mr Wong came close to exiting the scene when the then Government led by Danny Philip offered to buy him off for $26 million. It was a desperate effort by the government to free up RIPEL on Russell. Intervention by the Central Bank of Solomon Islands threw the scheme out the window.
Finding a way forward was made even more difficult when Philip’s successor, Gordon Darcy Lilo, assumed the leadership. His was largely because of a personality clash. His government had even slapped a persona non gratta status on the Fiji-born businessman.
The ban was lifted by a High Court Order, which allowed Mr Wong to return to the country to attend RIPEL cases and related matters. The High Court Order made by Judge Rex Faukona even barred the Minister of Commerce, Industries, Labour and Immigration from interfering with Mr Wong’s presence in the country. Some sources, who are aware of this situation, said that there is Penal Code attached to these Court Orders; meaning if the Minister or the Director of Immigration ignore these Orders, they could be fined or worse imprisoned.
The Government, under former Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, appointed a Cabinet Sub-Committee, chaired by Savo/Russell MP, Dickson Mua Panakitasi. The Committee is helping the government to find a way out.
Today, resolving the RIPEL issue on Russell is as elusive as ever. That, however, did not stop Mr Wong from looking at potential opportunities to work with local landowners including the Lavukal Trust Board and others to put an end to the impasse, which has cost the government tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue in export and pay-as-you-earn taxes.
Mr Wong’s idea is to let the “by-gone, be by-gone” and to find a way to move forward.
It was this urge on moving forward that he and his joint Boards of LSL and RIPEL accepted an invitation by Lavukal Chiefs to travel to Russell last weekend, not by boat but by a helicopter at USD1,000-an-hour hire.
Up to 500 people were said to have gathered there. The crowd included about half a dozen of ex-employees, who were keen to hear what Mr Wong had up his sleeve on the future of RIPEL.
Some, who have opposed Mr Wong’s return to Russell, have put the number of people at a much lower figure, adding many of the people who gathered there were not Lavukalians but curious on-lookers.
One of these people is outspoken tribal landowner, Silas Selo, who despite his opposition, had reportedly received a share when Mr Wong paid out some $498,000 in dividends to the landowners on the weekend. When Island Sun approached Mr Wong about what the opposition were, Mr Wong simply said,
“I don’t know. No one raised any opposition, on Saturday. However, I am aware that one to two Chiefs are being influenced and used by Van Vlymen plus John Whiteside, and are being persuaded otherwise.
“Whiteside and Van Vlymen convinced them to pursue court proceedings in the name of Lavukal. Interestingly, they use the good name of Lavukal, but have no guts to start a case in their own personal names,” Mr Wong said.
“One question asked was, why they are using Lavukal’s name. Maybe because Van Vlymen and Whiteside lost their court case in Australia and are now using the local (Lavukal) name.“
Mr Wong said, when he asked the crowd in Marulaon, if there were any further questions, only one Lavukal man responded: “No more questions. All now clear”.
Mr Wong told the gathering, Lavukal must take proper advice on this matter.
“You must decide what you want, what Lavukal wants and must always act in the best interest of Lavukal. When deciding, never act on what is in best interest of Van Vlymen; not even in the best interest of what Wong wants plus not what Whiteside wants. Instead you must put Lavukal first, forget about Van Vlymen, Forget about Wong plus forget about Whiteside.”
Each individual from the Lavukal individual from two years up was paid $130 each, according to director Oliver Salopuka.
A further $1.5 million in dividends is tied down with an appeal case. Mr Wong made an undertaking to pay the remaining dividends within two weeks of the appeal by some disgruntled landowners is withdrawn.
“Your story on “Wong Touches Down” raises more questions about the visit than it answer,” Mr Selo told me midweek, referring to a front page story Island Sun has published on Monday.
The 800-word article also carried a photograph of the bundles of cash being witnessed by the traditional landowners.
“Has Mr Wong, for example, declared his profit/loss statement to authorities? Because to pay dividends, means you must have been trading. Everyone knows RIPEL has been on a standstill for more than 15 years,” he said.
Mr Wong who was in Honiara earlier this week made it clear that the interest of his Board is to work with authorities in resolving the RIPEL issue.
When asked whether he was aware of alleged move by the Minister to re-impose the ban to stop him from coming to Honiara, Mr Wong simply said, “I hope the Minister and his officials have read the Court Order.”
It would seem that until RIPEL on Russell is resolved, the Government will continue to miss on much-needed revenue for the public coffers.
Given that revenue from the logging industry is wanning, it is in the best interest of the government to resolve RIPEL as soon as possible as there could be other potential investors eyeing this jewel in the crown investment.