From April 2021, a team comprising specialists from many different fields started a journey that would eventually take them months.
Led by Dr Morgan Wairiu and Community Engagement specialist Nancy Kwalea, the team from the USAID funded SCALE-NRM project were on a mission to share information with rural tribes, resources owners and farmers of Malaita Province in the Solomon Islands about an ambitious program, SCALE-NRM, that seeks to work with them to protect, manage and reap benefits from their natural resources.
People of this most populated province were already aware of the USAID funding that was in the pipeline but had not yet been oriented to the benefits the project will offer them.
The team’s mission was to help resource owners and local populations to understand how the funds can be utilized to help people regain control over their inherited resources, which are at risk of being despoiled by uncontrolled natural resource exploitation.
Logging activities have already ravaged and devastated the Island’s forests for decades.
Solomon Islands has been logged at an unsustainable rate.
With logging activities so far beyond sustainable levels, much of the country’s lowland forests have gone.
In its push to re-engage with the Pacific, the United States of America through USAID have decided to support Malaita Province to not only restore and protect its natural resources but to find alternative economic benefits for Malaitan people.
Naturally, the people of Malaita have high expectations from the new project.
The population is accustomed to financial support being provided from ‘constituency development funds’ for relatively short-term initiatives.
Therefore, when the term ‘project’ is used, people think in term of cash grants.
It was going to be a daunting task to convert mindsets to refocus on long term activities and benefits – the SCALE modality.
The team realized that transforming people’s mindsets was not the only challenge they will encounter.
One of the more daunting tasks was accessing remote rural villages.
Poor road conditions and lack of proper infrastructure around the island rendered the mission challenging, but the team was committed to ensure the SCALE program is rolled out.
One sunny morning in May, the SCALE-NRM team set off on one of their awareness raising expeditions.
Leaving Malaita’s capital Auki mid-morning they first had to complete a four-hour truck ride through mountainous terrain.
After braving the rugged road from Auki across the island to East Fataleka, the team arrived under the cover of dark and rain, dripping wet. People from surrounding communities that converged at Bethel village had waited for the arrival of the team since afternoon.
The preparations and anticipation by the villagers were a clear indication of the high expectations the team knew they would need to address across the many villages in the forthcoming days and weeks.
Dr Morgan Wairiu, supported by the project’s team leaders, wasted no time to set out SCALE-NRM’s objectives and key messages.
The team spent almost two weeks in the eastern region of Malaita, holding awareness talks and collecting data at 14 different centers, attracting hundreds of villagers from four different wards. Wards are local authority areas, typically used for provincial and national election purposes.
The team collected data on intact forests, tribal ownership, community establishments and commercial crop types communities are dependent on, in order to inform proposed project activities.
The team met large gatherings and received overwhelming commendation from villagers who expressed the need for more information and clarity regarding the SCALE-NRM program.
“How do we apply for small grants under this project to help us implement our plans” was the most frequently asked question.
This inquiry confirmed the team’s understanding that a direct support approach has become a norm and that other approaches would be a departure for rural dwellers, requiring sensitization and effective communications.
The team engaged villagers using practical examples on how properly planned and designed interventions are crucial for long term results. For example, the team pointed to the rapid growth of the population against the exploitation of the fast disappearing forest and other natural resources.
Villagers did not find it difficult to agree because many rural associations have made failed attempts as well to conserve their resources.
“We have made several attempts in the past,” Hainorae tribal leader in East Malaita Chief Andrew Gwaitalafa admitted.
Mr Gwaitalafa said the challenge is lack of by-laws to deal with villagers who break the conservation rules, “but again it is difficult for everyone because there were no alternatives for villagers who depended entirely on forest for survival.”
SCALE-NRM focuses on ensuring increased community economic benefit for resource owners and communities from their forests through a combination of income-generating activities and conservation concessions.
The project will strengthen models of local conservation economies around opportunities for the pursuit of sustainable livelihoods and development of conservation markets that provide communities with viable alternatives to logging and that incentivize conservation.
The SCALE-NRM team visited the central regions of Malaita thereafter, splitting into two teams to accelerate the awareness process and data collection.
The two teams headed to the northern and southern regions of Malaita.
The teams also held consultations with vocational schools in the province.
As part of the objective to collaborate and strengthen Community Based Organizations, the project also identified vocational schools to partner with in areas relating to natural resource management in Malaita Province.
The livelihood component of the SCALE-NRM project attracted overwhelming interest from farmers around the province.
“For us women, livelihoods activities are the foremost.
“That is what we do to earn little income to meet our families’ daily needs,” Everlyn Soela from New Konga in North Malaita said.
Ms Soela and her family runs a coconut milling business.
“We provide a lot of support to rural people by buying their dry nuts and providing people with cooking oil from the small-scale milling business,” she added.
SCALE-NRM under its livelihood component will work with farmers, particularly coconut, cocoa, kava and taro farmers to increase quality production in preparation for the proposed processing plants earmarked for Malaita.
The team found out from data collected and interviews conducted that the major existing cash crops that people have been depending on for years included cocoa and coconut. Kava and taro farming are also major emerging cash crops.
The challenges faced by the team in transforming the mindsets of people as well as accessibility across the province, were successfully overcome as the team concluded the activities by the end of August, winning the hearts and minds of Malaitans.
Many resource owners and farmers emotionally testified about dreaming of such project.
They openly expressed their eagerness to utilize their resources in order to derive beneficial results and pledged their readiness to work together with SCALE-NRM to fulfill these dreams.
The team successfully visited 30 of the 33 wards of Malaita, establishing community connections with traditional and tribal leaders as well as identifying active community associations.
Community, tribal and church leaders expressed readiness to work with SCALE-NRM in implementing the project activities.
The provincial-wide community engagement and data collection activity has created a firm foundation and relevant information that accurately informs the SCALE-NRM project to enter into implementation activities.
The national project, implemented by Winrock International, initially targets Malaita and is made possible by the generous support of the American people to develop and implement sustainable models for improved natural resource governance in Malaita Province and throughout Solomon Islands.
– By EDNAL PALMER, SCALE-NRM Communications coordinator