BY ALFRED SASAKO
MY one day trip to Rennell last week was never intended to investigate logging and mining operations on the island. But with a bit of time on my hand, it was pretty hard to pass up such a golden opportunity.
It’s what seasoned journalists the world over often faced: making on-the-spot decision, particularly if the issue they are on to will satisfy the bosses in terms of producing a good story for their newspaper or television and radio.
That was my dilemma two Mondays ago after arriving at Tingoa Airstrip on Rennell that morning. The controversies surrounding logging and mining operations on Rennell were too widespread and indeed and too inviting to ignore.
A recent letter which Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare wrote to one of the mining operators on the island added fuel to the controversies. It made it a candidate for a good story.
That letter gave bauxite mining there, at least for one of the two companies operating there, a rather odd twist. Despite on-going complaints by landowners, Mr Sogavare appears to have ignored the people there and their complaints.
Instead, he spoke in glowing terms of what the mining company is doing, particularly the delivery of its social responsibility to communities and people of Rennell, particularly those who live in the mining tenements area, including at Tingoa.
As a result, landowners in the Tingoa area have clamped down on further mining on their land. At one point, they seized a mining truck, which tried to enter their area. That truck remains in the custody of landowners today just outside Tingoa airstrip.
And so I set out that Monday afternoon on a hired open back Ute. My intention was to visit Lavangu, West Rennell. Lavangu, I was told, is where large stockpiles of bauxite are stored, ready for export. It is here that overseas bulk carriers would pick up the “red stuff” to take overseas for refining and sale for hundreds of millions of dollars.
I was told Lavangu was about two hours’ drive away each way. Because we didn’t have time, it was decided that Worldlink Resources mining operations around Lugigi, a domestic seaport used for loading bauxite, would be sufficient for my purpose.
“Their (Bintang Mining Company (BMC) and Worldlink Resources) mining practices and treatment of landowners are the same,” my guide said.
WorldLink Resources is the smaller of the two in terms of scale, he said.
“First, I want to show you how much damage these people have done to our land. They left huge areas that they dug up without covering them as they should have,” the driver/guide said.
As we turned off the main road, the clearings were clear. Further up the road, once used by loggers, there were more clearings. The destruction of the top soil on both sides of the road was unmistakably mining. The devastation of this once virgin forest was an eye sore.
Some of the sites were old, others were not so old. One thing they share in common is that the company has failed to cover the top soil by land-filling and tree-planting.
Can I get down to take some photos?, I asked.
“Yes sure. The people outside Rennell need to know what is happening here. The mining practice engaged here is destroying the future of our children. Land is their future but this kind of mining practice simply denies our children of any future.
“What the mining companies do is that as soon as they finished digging up the bauxite from the roadside, they simply left without covering the gaping holes they had created. They are doing that with ease because there is no one around here to monitor their activities,” he said.
My guide said landowners had repeatedly asked the government for help in two main areas.
“First, we want from the government to ensure the mining companies comply with the environmental requirements that they cover the top soil and start planting trees over the areas they dug up.
“Secondly, we ask the government to clarify to us other minerals which are being mined with the bauxite. We know that at least there are four other minerals that are being taken with the bauxite.
“Because if that is the case, the companies are robbing us substantial amounts of money. The government it seems has ignored us,” the guide said.
“Now I will take you to where they have their stockpiles before we visit their camp,” he said.
The makeshift stockpile of the raw materials covers a large area on both sides of the road. Some heaps are about five metres high and two metres deep. Lower piles are covered with large green canvas.
As we were turning to head to the Worldlink camp, the driver stopped the vehicle and pointed in the opposite direction.
“That’s Lugigi up there. But we are not going there,” he said as he cranked up the engine and drove off. Minutes later we arrived at the Worldlink camp. Mechanics were busy repairing some of the heavy equipment and machines.
As we left the camp, I put the question to him – that according to the Prime Minister the mining companies are exemplary in their work particularly in delivering social services such as building schools, water supplies and so on.
“No, no, no. That’s not true. These companies have been working here for many years now and there’s not a single project they have provided to villages in and around here,” he said.
“For sure those things were in the agreement. But there’s nothing tangible on the ground. In fact, they keep the money that is supposed to be used in these projects. It includes royalty payments,” he said.
“The reality is that payments are made into special bank account(s), which the company keeps. These are large amounts of money, but no one knows who takes the interest on the money in the accounts.
“In the case of royalty payments, they never pay landowners the full amount at one time. Instead, they simply make payments in small amounts. The largest amount they pay at any one time as far as I know was $150, 000 to be shared by landowners. The rest of the money simply stays in the account in the bank collecting interest,” he said.
“Just imagine how much money there is in royalty since the government raised the royalty rate to 6.5 per cent from a mere three (3) per cent. It’s millions but we don’t get to see any difference at all, he said.
“So our question is where does the extra money go?”
“These wakus (Chinese guys) are very, very clever when it comes to money. Apart from paying less, they made sure every single thing given to you as a landowner is taken off your payments,” he said.
As I was waiting for my early morning flight, I was introduced to a young man, who seems to have given up on the fight with the government and the mining companies.
“Alfred, the truth of the matter is that our rights have been removed from us. That’s the reality we face today. The government through its dealings with the mining companies has taken away all our rights … rights to ask questions and our collective rights as an ethnic group,” he said.
In Honiara, a spokesman for Worldlink Resources said the company never moved away from its commitments in mining agreement it signed with Rennell landowners.
“But we want to keep a low profile, so please do not publish anything about our activities there,” he said.
To date Worldlink Resources have made seven bauxite shipments including one which left about three weeks ago. Payments are made to landowners after every shipment
Bauxite is big money. It is estimated that each shipment contains around 80-thousand cubic valued at USD70 per cubic. In simple maths, each shipment is valued at around USD5.6 million in sales (about SBD43.68 million).
Based on the figures above, the company has sold about 560, 000 cubic of the red stuff, valued at roughly SBD306 million.
Values of other valuable minerals included in the “dirt” are not included in the sales figures because mining companies successfully argued that other minerals were too small to be included in the equation.