KOLOMBANGARA ISLAND, Solomon Islands (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Illegal logging has fuelled the rapid disappearance of commercially viable forests and threatened indigenous livelihoods in the southwest Pacific Island state of the Solomon Islands. But against the odds, local communities are coming together to fight unscrupulous operators through the courts – and winning.
“The power here is from the people. We have come together as an island to strive for the sustainable management of our resources and that is our strength,” said Ferguson Vaghi, coordinator of the indigenous landowner-led Kolombangara Island Biodiversity Conservation Association.
Nowhere is the destruction more visible than on the striking 15-kilometre-long volcanic island oF Kolombangara in Western Province, one day’s travel by boat northwest of the capital, Honiara. Here relentless extraction for nearly half a century has depleted more than 50 percent of the island’s forests.
“We depend on our forest resources for everyday living,” Vaghi said. “When the logging companies came in, they destroyed about 91 percent of the forests’ value in terms of biodiversity, rivers, water, animals and food.”
The Solomon Islands has more than 2.2 million hectares (5.4 million acres) of forest covering approximately 80 percent of its land area, which is spread over 990 islands. Communities on Kolombangara Island, like the majority of the population, are rural and rely on subsistence agriculture.
FOREST LOSSES AND FEW LOCAL BENEFITS
For the past 20 years, the government’s economic focus on logging, which accounts for 60 percent of export earnings, has brought few benefits to rural communities, which have seen little improvement in their lives.
The majority of the logs are exported and local landowners receive 15 percent royalties. But deforestation has removed wild fruits and vegetables that are a local food source and destroyed the habitats of animals, such as pigs, which then plunder community food gardens.
“The stream which provides us with a water supply is polluted with oil from dirty logging machinery and our pipe has been broken by falling trees,” said Vezinia Danny, from the village of Kuzi, which has a population of 200. “So now we have to paddle our canoes for miles to get clean water.”
The small island developing state, which is on the frontlines of climate change, is now one of the world’s 10 most threatened forest eco-regions, while government revenues from timber sales are expected to quickly diminish ahead of the industry’s predicted collapse by 2015, according to the Solomon Islands Forest Management Project.
“Those involved in unsustainable or illegal logging are seeking short term benefit, responding to the needs and wants of today and not thinking of the long term consequences,” said Peter Mahoa, a forestry lecturer at the Solomon Islands National University in Honiara.
Illegal timber extraction, linked to high level corruption, has played a major part in the annual harvesting rate of more than 1 million cubic metres in recent years, compared to the former more sustainable rate of approximately 250,000 cubic metres each year, which resulted in just 4 percent forest loss over two decades, according to a presentation on Solomon Island forestry by the Public Solicitor’s Office, and a 2009 study by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
Much of the timber demand is driven by rapidly growing Asian economies.
Kelwin Roy, principal forester at the Ministry of Forestry in Munda, Western Province, recounted that even though companies have to submit detailed logging plans for approval, there are many cases of them breaching license conditions and felling trees beyond their entitlement.
“We do monitor and audit logging companies, but we have limited vehicles, resources and manpower,” he said.
COMMUNITY ACTION AGAINST LOGGING
Those who live with the devastation, such as landowner Lily Duri Dani, are taking action. Since 2007, she has been involved with six court cases that have culminated in illegal logging operations being halted on the western side of Kolombangara Island.
“It is quite hard for one woman in a male-dominated country to stand up and do all of this,” Dani said. “It has taken up my whole life in the last seven years and the bit of money I have saved has all gone.”
The Kolombangara Island Biodiversity Conservation Association has also won high court injunctions against Success Company in 2010 and Viuru Forest Enterprises last month. The cases charged that both logging companies, owned by government ministers, had not completed environmental impact assessments or obtained valid development consents from the Ministry of Environment.
The companies were ordered to cease logging operations on the land in question and remove their equipment.
“This is happening all over the Solomon Islands because many landowners are unfamiliar with environmental laws, so companies take advantage of local communities” Vaghi said.
A major part of the conservation association’s work is educating villagers about their rights, the law and the importance of protecting resources for future generations. This is particularly important in a Melanesian nation where the majority of land is under customary, not state, ownership.
“We are empowering our people because they must know the value of the forest before they make crucial decisions,” Vaghi said. He believes the organisation’s bottom-up approach has set a national precedent for effective community mobilisation.
Holding illegal extractors to account has helped to protect the last undisturbed forests on the island, located 400 metres above sea level and higher. As a result of the conservation association’s efforts, this area is now a 19,400 hectare (47,900 acre) conservation reserve, the largest in the country.
Experts say the health of the world’s remaining natural forests is crucial to tackling climate change and limiting further damaging carbon emissions.
But Dani says it is also time for indigenous communities to see their resources used sustainably, for their own development.
“I would like to see health and education services, and proper sanitation,” she declared. “I want to see the people benefit because they deserve better than what they have now.”
Catherine Wilson is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.
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