Under attack

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ASIAN loggers have launched an unprecedented attack on the Foreign Investment Board (FIB) as FIB officials venture out to check on the loggers’ operations across the country.

FIB officials were in Makira and Temotu provinces the last two weeks checking on logging operations there to ensure the loggers follow the law.

Since last year, the officials have visited Isabel, Guadalcanal, Malaita and other provinces.

A number of logging companies found to have violated forestry laws were issued show-cause notices and ordered to pay fines of up to $1 million.

Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Commerce, Industry, Labour and Immigration Riley Mesepitu said three teams from his ministry are still stuck at Makira and Temotu due to bad weather and flight cancellations.

Mesepitu said he is still to receive any detail report from the three teams.

He said the teams will impose fines and show-cause notices to companies that breach the fundamental aspects of the Act.

Mesepitu said under the Act, there are administrative fines where a person or company must pay if they breach the law.

He said the ministry had received a lot of complaints from other companies in the provinces that broke the law but valid and balance explanation was given to Caucus instead to clarify them.

Yesterday, members of the Solomon Forestry Association (SFA) issued a statement claiming that their operations are negatively affected as a result of fake allegations and improper fines imposed by the Foreign Investment Board (FIB) registrar.

SFA vice president Pau Kiew Hu says the “heavy handed and questionable approach” taken by the registrar of FIB against logging companies will likely cause companies to abandon operations.

Hu said the FIB registrar has issued show-cause letters to a number of SFA members and these show-cause letters contained allegations which are baseless and more surprising, the show-cause letters demanded unreasonable and questionable fines which irked law abiding SFA members.

Hu further reveals that the show-cause letters further demanded that companies are given 10 days to pay up fines and an immediate cessation of operation at the same time.

“If the companies ceased operation as ordered by the FIB registrar, government will loss out multi- million dollars in taxes and foreign earnings, and thousands of Solomon Islanders will be without jobs inevitably causing many social problems for the country as a whole,” he said.

But Hu explains that a show-cause letter is supposed to give the opportunity for logging companies to respond to whatever perceived discrepancies raised by FIB.

The SFA vice president reveals that instead the FIB registrar also demanded hefty fines for allegations of illegal operation.

However, Hu says the allegations of ‘illegal operation’ are highly questionable because these companies have been following the laws of the country since each of them started operation.

An outspoken member of SFA and General Manager of Galego Resources Ltd (GRL) Wong Hook Ping says it is apparent that the registrar of FIB is taking prior draconian actions against members of the logging industry without providing proper platform to clarify issues as that should be the purpose of a show-cause letter.

“As a foreign investor and like all other SFA members, we respect and comply with the rules of the laws of this nation and abide accordingly,” Ping stated.

He said the registrar should have consulted legal advice before issuing a show cause letter as it stands now the FIB registrar is causing a disrepute to the image of logging companies and most importantly the registrar’s demand for cessation of operation will be too costly for the country as a whole.

Ping further reveals that without providing chances for show cause to clarify the allegations against his company the FIB registrar outlines the following as basis for fine:

–           the company is running a canteen,

–           ailure to notify registrar of the change in location,

–           failure to comply with NPF registrations and compliances,

–           failure to pay provincial business license,

–           failure to pay up relevant felling and logging license,

–           failure to obtain business operational licenses and development consent and environmental impact assessment and also failure to notify registrar of conducting other business.

Ping says all these allegations are baseless and false and the company with its legal counsel are in the process of submitting all its documents of compliances to FIB to repudiate these allegations.

The Galego Resources Ltd boss says since starting operations in 2014 in Vanikoro, Temotu Province, his company has complied with all the letters of the laws governing the logging industry.

Ping says he has paid up business license to Temotu Province and it is valid until 31st March 2021.

Ping also added that according to his company’s certificate of registration Galego Resources Ltd’s location of business is Honiara but that the company also has operations in all provinces.

Ping says regarding the canteen, it is not true that his company operates a canteen.

“In Vanikoro- which host one of my operations- it is the most furthest and remote place of operation and so we have to stockpile food rations to ensure our workmen are fed and well kept,” Ping stated.

Ping adds that company sends rations once every three months only to Vanikoro and most times during special events or occasions landowners often ask for assistance and the company has no hesitation but just to assist them with items that are available at the site.

“To interpret that as canteen business is mind blogging as the company has the social responsibility to assist resource owners and those assistances are done based on humanitarian grounds as well,” he says.

Ping further states that company has a valid felling license which has a life time of three years and it will expire on 20th July 2021.

Ping reveals that his operation in Vanikoro was ordered by the FIB registrar to pay up a staggering figure of $3m plus based on the alleged anomalies mentioned.

“The fine is stated in the show cause letter I received from my camp manager on the 26th January 2021, and it is truly shocking because the show cause letter should give me the opportunity to respond to the allegations against my company.

“To pay up fines means my company is already found wanting or guilty of these alleged allegations,” Ping added.

Ping says the FIB registrar might be confused with her responsibilities and should she exercised due diligence she should have consulted legal advice.

Ping further pointed out that if his company has been operating illegally for the past six years or so, then why would the government accept the taxes the company paid to the state.

“Would that mean government is colluding with me? It does not add up at all!” Ping stated.

Ping, however, explained that should there be technical errors or oversights due to negligence on either our part or the responsible government authorities, then we would accept government authorities including FIB to institute reasonable fines and penalties but such fines and penalties should be imposed on the basis of awareness and compliance.

The Galego Resources Ltd General Manager also added that it will be a costly repercussion on the government if companies stopped their operation and after 10 days the companies are able to repudiate and nullify all the allegations, the loss of business days will then have to be met by government.

“It will be in the interest of the government and us as well to not to go down that path, so we hope an amicable win- win situation will result in the issue that we are being faced with now,” Wong Hook Ping stated.

Meanwhile the Solomon Forestry Association (SFA) vice president, Pau Kiew Hu says all SFA members are compliant to the laws of the country and SFA as the regulatory authority of logging companies has been keeping a close tab on its members to ensure their conformity to the letters of the environmental, forestry and investment laws of the country.

Hu says if government has changed its policy stance regarding the logging industry which resulted in our current situation then SFA as the regulatory arm of the logging industry should be duly informed of the change.

“But as it stands, all the logging companies operating under SFA are in danger of winding up operations due to the unreasonable and harsh approach taken by the FIB registrar,” Hu claimed.