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The Shark's Children

Solomon Islands

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The sea is an integral part of life in Solomon Islands. The rich diversity and abundance of sea resources is seen by many as their wealth: providing food for communities and offering economic opportunities.

The shark's children

Fish don't trust the hook. Sharks no longer uphold
the law. Life becomes confusing when the Solomon Islands
break with tradition, reports Vicki Kalgovas.

'In the past the old people would go to a sacred part of the reef where they would enact ceremonies and make sacrifices,' says Posala Unusu of Simbo Island.

'The tuna would hear the messages and allow themselves to be caught. At the right time, the tuna would jump on to the end of bamboo fishing poles people used; the person would pull up the pole and the tuna would fly up and land straight in the canoe. As many fish as the villagers needed.

'At certain times the old people would not do the ceremony: when the fish had lots of eggs or when there were too many little fish. At these times, the elders respected the lives of the fish.

'These days people still know how to call to the tuna, but the tuna are not happy to come. They look at the bamboo lines and say: "Mi laes [I do not want to]." They see there is no respect any more. They have learned not to trust the hook.'

All over the Solomon Islands the sea and spirituality are totally integrated. For instance, on Malaita Island some people trace their ancestry to sharks and are known for their ability to be able to beckon them close to the shore. Sharks are believed to be the enforcers of traditional law - or kastom - and their human relatives hold special status. On Simbo, humans are said to come from whales and there is a special relationship between people and tuna. People and totemic animals enjoy a relationship of mutual care and from this relationship flows the right to use and manage the land and sea.

WWF project staff: in Solomon Islands WWF works with villagers to support community resource management and conservation. But in 1893, with the flourish of a signature, the Solomon Islands were brought under British common law as a British Protectorate. At this moment land and sea rights became separated. In a move that was unusual for the time, the new British law proclaimed that the traditional kastom rights could be claimed over the land and foreshore. But there were certain conditions - the claimants had to define the area on a map, prove 'uninterrupted use' of 'reasonable' rights since time immemorial (decreed as being 1189!) and demonstrate that the kastom rights were within common and statutory national law.

Since independence in 1978, the British legal system and concepts continue to underpin current law. This sits uneasily alongside kastom which is not a codified set of rules but flexible. Rules are argued over when a particular issue becomes important; all members of the butubutu - a core of decision-makers - have the right to participate. In contrast to formal law, kastom rights are more inclusive, offering varying levels of rights of use and control based on ancestral links, marriage and permanent residence. Many land and sea disputes have been and continue to be resolved traditionally.

Many villagers do not know that their traditional rights to the seabed have been extinguished under formal law. They approach a conflict over fishery resources with their traditional thinking and will try to resolve the disagreement through discussion - with the fishing fleet, the mining company or the national Solomon Islands Government. But justice is often not obtained through formal channels and so a more traditional method of airing their grievances is taken - islanders exact 'payback' or retribution.

People and totemic animals enjoy a relationship of mutual care, and from this relationship flows the right to use and manage the land and sea

Increasingly payback is taken for abuse of marine resources. The Solomon Islands are rich with tropical and commercial fish - used for both export and local consumption. But as this abundant fishery is 'discovered' by more and more Asian ships moving ever southward, locals are noticing the impact of large fishing ships on their catches. A fisher of Lengana village explains: 'The Japanese fleet gets permission from the [Solomon Islands] Fisheries Department. The boats come right close to the reefs where our people usually do their fishing. They don't ask permission in the village; they just go there. And villagers are asking: "Why are these people fishing in our sea?" They do not know that the sea is open and that Fisheries can just let anyone fish anywhere.'

He also objects to the way the outsiders fish: 'The Japanese take thousands of fish of all kinds. They do not worry that in their nets are sharks and dolphins. There is nothing left for village people to catch. And the Japanese fleets do not want to share anything with the villager people. Normally if you fish on that reef, you must share your catch with the villagers. The village elders spoke strongly to them and pointed out their mistakes. So the Japanese people just give a bit of fish, not much. Locals are still angry, though. You know what happened? Some boys went out and cut the buoy lines so the Japanese could not find their fishing areas again. Others spoil the nets. I know. I have done it too.'

At the flourish of a signature in 1893, Solomon Islands was brought under British common law. Under this system, land and sea rights are separated. Land rights cease at high tide mark; the sea and foreshore become public domain. Throughout the Solomon Islands, stories abound about villagers' frustration with a national system they do not understand, do not want and that undermines their lifestyle. Boats are vandalized, nets cut, resorts burned, developments trashed.

Some have turned to the formal courts but they face a barrage of obstacles to claiming their rights. The 'winner' of a hearing is the islander who can elegantly argue direct descent from the original inhabitants of the claimed area. But since many villagers are unfamiliar with English or Pidgin - the languages used in official courts - or with legal definitions of concepts such as ownership, the system is easily manipulated by islanders more educated and Westernized. Even people with high kastom status who are from remote areas find the national court system confusing and intimidating. They are not able to argue their cases well.

In the struggle for fisheries, traditional management of the sea's rich stock of fish is being overruled by the desire for economic gain. And this is fundamentally at odds with local attitudes and ideas.

'How can you own the land or the sea?' asks Bere Isuni of Harumou village on Malaita Island. 'They are like your mother; she will provide everything necessary for life. You should respect her, take proper care of her, and she will take care of you. But you cannot own the sea because it is forever. People are not.'

Click here to email Vicki. lives in Solomon Islands and works with
the World Wildlife Fund Community Resource, Conservation
and Development Project. [email protected]

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New Internationalist issue 325 magazine cover This article is from the July 2000 issue of New Internationalist.
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