The damaging effects commercial logging has had on Solomon Islanders
This is Part 2 of a 3 part series William Kadi and Dirk Heinz have put together to explore the impacts that commercial logging has had on the Solomon Islands. In Part 1, they looked at the role the commercial logging industry has played in shaping the broader geopolitical landscape of the country. In this Part 2, they look at the damaging effects that commercial logging has had on Solomon Islanders at a more granular level.
A few years back, we spent 12 months together working as environmental lawyers in the Solomon Islands Public Solicitors Office (PSO). For several years, the PSO have worked to provide free legal support to customary landowners, local chieftains and other tribal representatives affected by commercial logging in the Solomon Islands.
To set the scene for those unaware, eighty per cent of land in the Solomon Islands is customarily owned. Land ownership is steeped in centuries of tribal and familial tradition and, in many respects, land can’t be allocated using principles of common law. Covering that 80 per cent of island landmass are dense tropical forests with huge old-wood trees. Theoretically, under most customary laws across the Solomon Islands (though there are some differences from province to province), if you own the land, you own the trees on that land. Solomon Islanders have always carried out small scale logging for their own purposes, but a deep connection with their land and understanding of its natural limits has meant that forests and ecosystems have been able to replenish themselves naturally to account for this. Large scale commercial logging in the Solomon Islands commenced with force in the 1970's when logging industry multinationals – predominantly from Malaysia and China – started canvassing local landowners across the archipelago for access to their land to take wood. Before this point, most logging had taken place on government owned land.
In the decades that have followed, logging and its sickly environmental and social effects have spread across the Solomon Islands like a contagion. As leaders in one village seemingly received bundles of cash, machinery and gifts (substantial in local terms but modest in real terms) by giving logging companies access to their land, nearby villages followed suit in the hope of improving their own livelihoods. Government officials charged with regulating the sector did little to keep the industry in check and handed out logging licences freely to international companies in the hope that it would generate positive foreign investment in the country, as well as in return for kickbacks of their own.
Fast forward to 2022 and you could comfortably argue that logging has delivered little in the way of long term economic benefit to the Solomon Islands. Sure, a small proportion of local people (predominantly senior men) amassed some wealth and power, but it’s not like logging money has delivered the schools, hospitals, roads and other basic infrastructure Solomon Islanders need. The industry is a sham, creating the façade that it is delivering the country wealth by making the rich and powerful more so, and behind this curtain of fake and ill-gotten wealth, destroying cultural, social and environmental pillars like a cancer. Instead, what it has delivered is a political system dangerously influenced by the interests of foreign logging companies, fractured communities where a culture of sexual abuse at the hands of international loggers on short-term visas has been allowed to exist and an island ecosystem collapsing on multiple fronts.
At a more granular level, once logging companies obtain the consent of landowners to enter customary lands, usually based on some level of misrepresentation or unrealistic promise of wealth, any mutual benefit promised by loggers is quickly doused by the unrelenting buzz of bulldozers grading shabby logging roads, chainsaws ripping through trees and a steady stream of trucks carting huge trunks of wood down to the nearest port to be hastily exported before landowners realise the sickening gravity of the loggers’ presence.
Logging “camps”, constructed near local villages, are essentially squatters’ quarters where prostitution and sex trafficking of local women and girls is well documented but inadequately addressed or prosecuted.
Poorly constructed logging roads usually result in the bulldozing of vegetation and follow local waterways, causing mud,
fuel and other human pollutants to enter water systems used for drinking and daily use by those downstream, with outbreaks of sickness and disease a common by-product.
Once felled logs reach the point of export, through a mix of bribery and lies, valuable timber which should normally fetch a lofty export value in a regulated market, is often marked as inferior product by customs so as to reduce applicable tariffs and taxes, allowing logging multinationals to maximise profits while they fleece landowners and the country at large. Probably around 90% of all wood exported from Solomon Islands goes to China, much of it used to make things like cheap furniture which is then shipped on to other markets for resale to unwitting consumers.
Even once logs are loaded onto ships, risks to people and property still persist. Poor loading practices and a shipping industry indifferent to marine ecosystems and the people that depend on them mean that pollution and damage to reefs and inter-island channels occur far more often than should ever be acceptable.
If all this sounds dire, it’s because it is. Ask any environmentalist with knowledge of the industry and they will tell you that it is a matter of accepted fact that logging in the Solomon Islands is unsustainable based on current levels. More scarily, if nothing changes and logging in Solomon Islands continues at current volumes, it is estimated there will be no trees left to log by 2037. The sad thing is, those with knowledge of the inner workings of this insidious industry have for years been saying how damaging these practices are to both the environment and society of Solomon Islands – but too few have listened.
But as the world begins to take more notice of the precarity of our natural world in the face of the looming climate crisis, whilst also recognising that Pacific peoples have been bearing the onslaught of that crisis for many years already, now is the perfect time to focus on reform of the logging industry and prioritise the preservation and reforestation of Solomon Islands forests. There are a lot of things that can be done to address the ruinous effect this industry has on the Solomon Islands. Through consultations with stakeholders in government, environmental groups, the justice system and the community, we have put together a list of measures which the international community can provide funding and know-how for to vastly reduce the crippling impacts the logging industry has on the Solomon Islands. As part of Part 3 of this series, we will look at some of those areas of reform. We hope you will continue to read on about this important issue.