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Peace faces the axe

Solomon Islands

WHEN a delegation of over a dozen Solomon Island chiefs boarded the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior late last year they were seeking global support to save the Marovo Lagoon - dubbed 'the eighth wonder of the world'. They pointed to the forested hills around Marovo. They recounted stories from the 1990s when transnational logging interests came to their island with grand promises, but instead extracted the natural wealth of the land and left the local people with their forests destroyed. They remember how the fish stocks halved in Marovo Lagoon because of the run-off and pollution from logging operations. And they warn that it is happening once more.

Lobi (pronounced Lombi) is one of the few villages on Marovo Lagoon that practises sustainable forestry. Its portable sawmill returns good income to the community without destroying the forest. But just across the way a Malaysian company has set up shop and signed a large-scale logging agreement with 'landowners': people whose rights to the area the Lobi villagers dispute.

As a consequence the hills around Lobi - like those on many islands surrounding Marovo - are being rapidly denuded. In fact the Solomons are being logged at a rate faster than anywhere on earth: a rate driven by the demand for timber products from China and other booming Asian economies.

Investors who fled the country during the four years of civil unrest between 1999 and 2003 are now back in force. Now that a multinational police force led by Australia has rebuilt the local constabulary and taken guns off the streets in the capital, Honiara, logging companies feel safe to return for the plunder. The irony is that the last round of discontent and civil unrest was fuelled by the environmental destruction and the loss of sustainable livelihoods caused by large-scale logging and other resource extraction, like gold mining on Guadalcanal. Unchecked, logging activity can destabilize this country again.

Many new industrial logging concessions have recently been allocated in the Provinces. In the capital, some progress has been made to root out some of the corruption that was endemic to the forestry business before the crisis. However, it may be too little, too late. Back at Marovo Lagoon, the chiefs tell the story of a struggle on Vangunu Island. When landowners took matters into their own hands and blockaded a logging operation that they said was illegal, it was they who were arrested for disrupting the peace. In the international effort to stabilize the Solomons, the calls by these chiefs for community-led sustainable business models remain largely ignored.

Danny Kennedy

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