The Solomon Islands is the biggest exporter, after Papua New Guinea, of round logs to China, where they are processed and sold as tropical hardwood products around the world.

To sate this demand, logging companies are clearing Solomon Islands forests at nearly 20 times the sustainable rate, according to an investigation by watchdog NGO Global Witness, published last October.

The Solomon Islands’ Ministry of Finance has also suggested its commercially viable natural forest will be exhausted by 2036, according to the Global Witness report. Observers say that not only is logging stripping the country of its primary rainforest, it is also having a toxic effect on communities and tearing up traditional ways of life.

Many were, therefore, hoping that last month’s national election would bring in new leadership to take a hard line on the systemic corruption commentators claim facilitates the forestry sector. But change doesn’t come easy in the staunchly traditional South Pacific nation, and those eager for it were disappointed when Manasseh Sogavare was elected prime minister for the fourth time, although not consecutive terms.

Sogavare. Photo: Wikipedia

With the new government comprised of two-thirds of the members of parliament who served in the last pro-logging government, pundits say it’s “business as usual” once again for the country’s weakly governed forestry policies.

Protesters took to the streets of the capital Honiara after Sogavare’s appointment on April 24. Anger was focused on the city’s Chinatown quarter, and on Chinese-owned businesses. The protesters vandalized the Pacific Casino Hotel, which was previously burned down in election-related violence in 2006. The hotel is a well-known enclave for untraceable logging money that sources on the ground say is laundered through its adjoining casino.

Although police said the rioting was opportunistic, some observers say it reveals the level of pent-up frustration of Solomon Islanders who feel powerless to change their circumstances.

Allegations of corruption

The destruction from logging is readily apparent from the air. In the Western province, one of the Solomon Islands’ most heavily logged archipelagos, atolls look like the eyes of peacock feathers: rings of green amid the blue of the ocean. But as the plane approaches, bald red patches appear within the dense green. Livid scars of logging roads snake toward log ponds on the shore, clouds of suspended sediment from rivers eroded by logging obscure the turquoise reef.

A logging road snakes from the coast towards the interior of Nende Island. Where it meets the ocean, a cloud of suspended sediment plumes out to sea. Photo: Alessio Bariviera.

Successive governments have been accused of being influenced by logging money, enabling Asian-owned companies to log with impunity. There is widespread suspicion among activists that, once again, the companies have covertly lobbied for the formation of a sympathetic government, thwarting much-demanded political change.

Sogavare defeated Rick Houenipwela, who while largely a pro-logging prime minister, also tried to bring logging rates down to a sustainable level without damaging the country’s stagnant economy. Sogavare also beat another contender for PM, Matthew Wale, an outspoken critic of logging and mining in the country.

“During this election many people voted for political change,” said environmental defender Edward Pae, who has fought a long-running battle against logging on his island of Vanikoro. “A lot of people are angry about the result, [and] there is suspicion that logging companies supported the returning MPs in their election campaigns,” he said.

The 2019 election appears to have followed the same patterns as previous leadership contests, whereby coalition parties are cobbled together after the national election in a period of horse-trading among MPs.

“Parties are weak, and politics is fluid in the Solomon Islands,” said Terence Wood, an academic in development at the Australian National University (ANU). “This means forming and holding together governing coalitions in parliament is hard. Money is a necessary ingredient as politicians try to build and form the government. At least some of this money comes from logging firms.

The island of Malaita has been heavily logged, with many areas of recent forest loss. Malaita was once covered with a large intact forest landscape, but it has been effectively wiped out by deforestation. Malaita is home to species found nowhere else in the world, such as a small bird called the Malaita fanbill (Rhipidura malaitae). Source: GLAD/UMD, accessed through Global Forest Watch.

“Unfortunately, money from logging firms means that governments do not adequately enact or enforce legislation in a way that curtails the damage logging causes to communities and the environment.”

Observers say conflicts of interest can permeate all aspects of the process that timber companies must go through to obtain permission to log. This includes timber rights hearings, which are tasked with determining who has ownership of a particular area of land and whether a logging company can clear it.

“Companies often take advantage of the country’s lack of governance,” said Beibei Yin, a Global Witness senior campaigner who led the Solomon Islands investigation. “One of the tactics is to take tribal leaders away from their communities to wine and dine them in Honiara and offer them bribes.”

Typically, hearings are held without clear delineations as to who owns the land intended for logging, which critics say leaves the system open to abuse. Incentives may be given to pro-logging landowners, while opponents are kept in the dark about logging plans. And some say the police are even paid to intimidate opponents at hearings.

A logging road cuts through primary rainforest on Nende. Photo: Alessio Bariviera.

Chris Bone, of New Zealand-based conservation NGO OceansWatch, which had been advising campaigners in the Solomon Islands of their environmental and landowner rights, said he had witnessed police intimidating logging opponents at timber rights hearings. “The police warned people not to cause trouble,” he said.

Inia Barry, of the civil society organization Development Services Exchange (DSE), added: “Those who are in favor of logging always win and those who oppose it never do.”

Lack of governance

Logging has been the mainstay of the Solomon Islands’ economy for the past two decades, accounting for about 20% of the government’s revenue in 2017, according to a confidential report by the Logging Sustainability Committee.

The Houenipwela government agreed to reform forestry policy based on the committee’s recommendations, including the establishment of a task force to improve scrutiny of the legality of operations and monitoring of exports, as well as measures to increase revenue from export taxes to buffer a global downturn in the value of timber. “The price of logging has come down and currently a lot of camps have closed,” Barry said.

The committee estimated logging exports would hit more than three million cubic meters (106 million cubic feet) by the end of 2018 – a 30% increase over 2017.

However, Global Witness investigations suggest the real amount may be far higher, as inspections of shipments are “rare, or non-existent,” allowing tax avoidance by under-declaring and misclassifying timber exports, and the duties that are paid are set well below the world market price.

Responding to the reform recommendations, Yin said a more “drastic approach” was needed. “The Solomon Islands desperately needs to find an alternative development model,” Yin said, “one that is not reliant on the unsustainable exploitation of its forest.” Global Witness is also calling for a moratorium on illegal logging.

Others expressed doubt that the government had the resources to effectively monitor all logging operations across its nearly 28,000 square kilometers, or about 11,000 square miles, of land.

Satellite data from the University of Maryland (UMD) visualized on Global Forest Watch show the Solomon Islands lost about 179 square kilometers of tree cover last year. While this is down from 2017 and 2016, it is the third-highest amount of loss recorded in a single year since measurements began in 2001. Preliminary data for 2019 suggests deforestation may again be on the rise, with levels spiking in February and March to well above numbers for the same time last year.

Guadalcanal, the island where Honiara lies, has been a focus of logging expansion in recent years. Driving along the cratered road west of Honiara on the northwestern coast, past woven leaf houses and palm forests, it’s not long before the signs of logging appear. On the bridge over the Poha River, timber is stacked up on the beach ready for shipping as logging trucks come and go.

Satellite data show a large logging front – one of several on the island – is pushing into Guadalcanal’s remaining intact forest landscape near Honiara. Imagery shows logging roads reaching ever-further into the island’s rainforests. Source: GLAD/UMD, accessed through Global Forest Watch.

The churning, ochre river spews silt into the ocean. From the air it can be seen drifting along the coastline, ruining both fishing grounds and once-popular beaches and dive sites that attracted international tourists and brought income to local communities.

On the other side of the bridge, logging roads zigzag up mountains into the forest-clad highland interior. Satellite data from UMD show logging operations encroaching on previously intact forest. These appear to be linked to the Poha River log pond, as well as other log ponds along the coast.

Logging roads disappear into the highlands along the Poha River. Photo: Louise Hunt.
As logging removes trees, the soil they stabilize readily erodes into nearby rivers. A flyover above the Poha River confluence shows a massive discharge of sediment into the sea. Photo: Louise Hunt.

Environmental activists say that even these operations, despite being close to the main port authorities, were unlikely to be checked.

“Barges come up and wait in the sea, they don’t get declared to the authorities,” said one activist who did not want to be named. Another source said it was likely mahogany was being shipped from a log pond at Kakabona, a mile down the coast.

This barge traffic is associated with other environmental ills in addition to deforestation. Last July, locals alerted the environment ministry to what they described as an “illegal” oil slick coming from a logging barge, as reported by the Solomon Star.

Missed opportunity?

Many see the election outcome as a missed opportunity to address these issues. Ruddy Oti, a political and environmental activist from the island of Nende, said he was particularly downhearted by the result.

He had run as the provincial candidate for Temotu as a member of the Green Party Solomon Islands, which had placed tackling logging and mining-related corruption and misuse of government funds at the core of its manifesto.

But the party, which launched in February, reportedly ran out of campaign funds before the election, according to party supporter Chris Bone of OceansWatch.

New parties and candidates are severely hampered by a system that awards each incumbent MP the equivalent of nearly $50,000 to use for the next campaign, while political newcomers scrabble to raise funds, Oti explained.

In addition, MPs receive Rural Constituency Development Funds totaling about $871,000, he said. These funds are widely criticized for being used to entice votes, often with empty promises of new schools, health clinics and roads. But development is patchy and there is a lack of accountability. Many blame the system for the Solomon Islands’ lack of progress.

“Overall, I don’t see there is prospective imminent change,” Oti said. “All sectors, including logging and mining, will remain the status quo.”

Satellite data show several deforestation fronts are invading the Solomon Islands’ northern island of Choiseul. Imagery shows the largest of these is dominated by what appears to be a network of logging roads. Source: GLAD/UMD, accessed through Global Forest Watch.

There is real concern that unless the nefarious activities of the logging sector are properly dealt with, they will transfer to the mineral extraction industry, which is ramping up to replace the diminishing opportunities for commercial logging.

Clearing an area of its forest can pave the way for mining – the Solomon Islands is known to have significant mineral resources, including gold, silver, bauxite, nickel and lead. Some of the logging operators have reinvented themselves as mining companies and are reportedly exploiting the same loopholes.

“The dangerous thing now is that the same practice in the logging [sector] is [moving] into the mining sector and these loggers are becoming miners and if you go to the Ministry of Forestry and Mining their middlemen are camped there,” said Ruth Liloqula, executive officer of Transparency International Solomon Islands.

In February, the country experienced its biggest human-caused disaster when a Hong Kong-owned tanker full of bauxite from the island of Rennell became shipwrecked offshore and leaked an estimated 100 metric tons of fuel oil into the UNESCO-protected reef.

Both the shipping and mining companies denied responsibility, while the islanders lost income and food security by not being able to fish.

The company behind the bauxite mining operation on Rennell, Asia Pacific Investment Development (APID), is reported to have been a former logging company.

Several commentators pointed out that APID and its associate, Bintan Mining Solomon Islands, have been enjoying a zero percent tax on bauxite exports that was introduced in 2016 under Manasseh Sogavare’s last government. Requests for comment from APID and Bintan Mining were unanswered by press time.

For loggers and miners, Sogavare and his Democratic Coalition Government for Advancement (DCGA) “represents a haven where a lot of their illegal activities can go unnoticed and unpunished,” said Tony Hiriasia, a politics academic at the University of the South Pacific (USP).

Sogavare promised to prioritize new mining legislation at a recent press conference, citing the Rennell oil disaster as a spur for action. Comment was also sought from the Solomon Islands government through its Ministry of Forestry and Research, but no response was received by press time.

As to whether another election outcome would have made much difference, the jury is still out. Sogavare’s rival in the leadership runoff, Matthew Wale, was seen as the “anti-logging” candidate, speaking out about the unsustainability of the logging sector during the launch of his party’s – the Grand Coalition – manifesto.

However, the differences between the two parties on logging reform may not be quite as stark, as a member of Wale’s party also had links to a logging company, according to an anonymous source.

Terence Wood, from the ANU, said the political problems are structural, rather than stemming from individual personalities.

“Regardless of who had been elected,” Wood said, “they would still have had to face the challenges caused by logging and mining money, and the challenges associated with a fluid and unstable parliament.

“A different outcome might have been better, but at very best it would have meant the first steps down a long journey of change.”

This story appeared first on Mongabay. The original report can be accessed here