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Keeping Levers At Bay

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Keeping Levers at bay
Quick returns and possible devastation or steady togging ad infinitum? The people of Iriri chose steady returns rather than the temptation of the transnational carrot.

Two years ago, unannounced, American warships steamed through The Slot, a legendary wartime waterway between the islands of Guadalcanal and Malaita. The Solomon Islands Government was outraged. It wondered what kind of reception Solomon Islands' warships - if there were any - would receive if they steamed, uninvited, into New York harbour.

In February this year, Solomons government officials and staff members of a Pacific subsidiary of the mighty transnational corporation Unilever dropped in, unannounced, on the people of north New Georgia Island, ostensibly to do mineral surveys. They were driven off by angry villagers.

About 40 islanders soon found themselves behind bars - where they stayed until Prime Minister Peter Kenilorea, under pressure from 'good politicians', ordered their release. But within two months Levers Pacific Timbers, backed by police, was felling trees in north New Georgia

When about 200 villagers in 21 canoes tried to prevent the landing of a Levers bulldozer on the shore, police moved in to clear a way. Resistance was peaceful. There were no arrests. But the people's fears that their land was to be exploited by Levers against their wishes were confirmed.

Developments on north New Georgia were being carefully watched by observers from Iriri village, not far across the water on Kolombangara Island to the northwest. Iriri people have fought a running battle to keep Levers timber-fellers out for several years.

Levers has been active in the Solomon Islands since the turn of the century when it established coconut plantations. Now, as a major contributor of foreign exchange, the company has great influence with the central government.

Lever's founder, William Hesketh Lever (later Sir), acquired a concession in 1906 covering two-thirds of Kolombangara. Over the next 60 years only 1000 of the 46,000 hectares leased to Levers were developed. Meanwhile, the undeveloped land could not be used by the islanders.

In 1968 the colonial government of the then British Solomon Islands Protectorate put pressure on the company to do something with their concession. So they began to extract timber. Later Levers was granted permission to extract four million cubic feet of timber annually for 12 years.

The government negotiated on Levers' behalf with villagers on land not covered by the timber concession so that the company would have access to all timber on the island.

Each village was to receive about $28,000 for timber taken from their land. Ring and feeder logging roads were promoted by both company and government as great assets to the people of Kolombangara.

By 1978 most of the land covered by the lease had been logged. But the Iriri villagers were not impressed by the results. Tough vines were creeping over land once covered by dense rainforest. Once clear streams used for drinking water had become a murky grey with eroded topsoil. Rainfall over the entire island was found to have decreased since logging had begun. The much-lauded road had turned out to be a temporary haul road with a coral surface which was eroding quickly. And the 100 or so log bridges had a life expectancy of only five years.

The Iriri villagers' doubts grew. They had seen royalty payments evaporate in the hands of people with no experience in financial matters, leaving only a legacy of ill-will as a result of the desecration of village land. And they were worried that traditional earnings from timber sales would be diminished by Levers development plans. They could earn five times as much by selling sawn timber on the local market as they could by selling timber to Levers. They also feared erosion would destroy market gardens which, since the establishment of the Iriri community development project in 1976, had become substantial cash earners.

The project, the brainchild of Iriri village organiser Solomon Kana, was set up with the help of village leader Joseph Ghemu, business adviser Joini Tutua (not a native of Kolombangara) and Australians Joy and Clive Gerrard who had been running a practical training school, at the nearby Kukudu Christian mission, which had been closed down about that time.

Iriri villagers were soon deriving substantial benefits. Government taxes, school fees, church tithes, medical fees and general operating costs were covered by project revenue.

The pros and cons weighed, the Iriri people decided Levers would not set foot on their land. Although the land had been 'sold' back to Iriri for $32 in 1965, the government put pressure on by saying title could not be registered until a survey, costing more than $1000, had been carried out. With the help of the Gerrards, the money was found but the Lands Office would not accept it until Clive Gerrard intervened.

Soon after, the Gerrards' visas ran out. The government would not renew them so they had to leave the country.

Eventually a land title was prepared for signature. It gave Levers 'exclusive' rights to extract timber and to build roads. The trustees refused to sign.

The confrontation goes on between two extreme philosophies. Unilever, the transnational giant, sees quick profits. Its work will soon be finished on Kolombangara. As it moves on, behind it will leave a trail of destruction, the responsibility for replanting resting with the national government. Iriri's leaders see an opportunity to utilise their land and resources in a manner in which the people benefit and the environment is preserved. After all, the Iriri villagers are not planning on going anywhere. Like the people of New Georgia, they want to keep their traditional home a livable place.

Compiled from reports by Roger King who visited Kolombangara on behalf of Australian aid agencies Freedom from Hunger and Community Aid Abroad; the Gerrards; and the people of Iriri.

With no road through Iriri, Lever's have to barge it past. Photo: Roger King/Australian Freedom from Hunger
With no road through Iriri, Lever's have to barge it past
Photo: Roger King/Australian Freedom from Hunger

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