Robyn James is a project manager for The Nature Conservancy working to build the resilience of communities and ecosystems to the impacts of climate change in the Pacific.
For better or for worse, most people in the Solomon Islands, one of our planet’s most wondrous places, have little idea how mining will impact their lives.
But after over three years of supporting The Nature Conservancy’s Solomon Islands program, I see that it is a pivotal time for the communities we work with there. The logging industry, once the nation’s biggest export earner, is diminishing and the government is rapidly moving to mining as the next big national earner.
With mining proposed across the country, how will the decisions and agreements made now shape the country’s future?
With 85 percent of Solomon Islanders living in rural areas, most have little access to outside information; there is virtually no access to the internet or television and many children, especially girls, leave school at a young age. As a senior tribal leader, Chief Ambrose Buguto, remarked: “Most have us have never seen a mine, we don’t know what it is, what it looks like, what we should expect…. how can we negotiate with these mining companies and make informed decisions for our future when we don’t even know what our rights are.”
As an Australian who has lived with mining as part of our country’s economy for all my life, the lack of awareness about these issues in the Solomon Islands coupled with the speed at which mining is moving ahead really worried me. The Nature Conservancy’s team all agreed that an important role for the Conservancy is to give decision makers and leaders, including women, access to information and lessons learned from other places. As one response the team worked to secure funding to support a study trip to Australia – a country where communities have experienced the highs and lows of mining for nearly 200 years.
After months of planning, which involved securing our Solomon Islands participants passports and visas (no simple task!) we were ready. In May 2013, our Nature Conservancy team in Australia greeted 12 Solomon Islanders, including government, tribal, church and community leaders, to Australia for a crash course on the realities of mineral extraction. Over 10 days we heard from traditional landowners, who live day-to-day with mining in remote areas of Northern Australia, and from industry experts during an international mining conference in Sydney.
For participants, most of whom had never traveled before, this was a trip of a lifetime – both eye opening and life changing. It gave them a new understanding of what mining is, and how it will likely impact their communities. It also gave them a new confidence that they do not need to face this alone; there are people in Australia and elsewhere around the world keen to ensure that Solomon Islanders benefit from the lessons they have learnt, both good and bad, over many decades.
During the trip we heard from all sides – mining companies, researchers, tourism operators, park managers, traditional owners and local community representatives. Despite the competing points of view, six rules of engagement emerged from stories from all sides:
- Stay united: have one strong community voice during negotiations with mining companies.
- Take your time: take as much time as you need (years if you have to) to make an agreement. Don’t be pressured into making quick decisions.
- Be informed: Seek as much advice and knowledge from as many experienced and knowledgeable people as you can. This includes independent legal advice.
- It is not about the money: Look beyond royalties to more meaningful and long-term benefits. Cash disappears; it is about looking for other benefits beyond the life of the mine.
- Natural resources, culture and land is important: We shouldn’t sign away our land. The natural landscape is an important part of our cultural identity and the future for our children: “The land owns us, we don’t own the land”.
- All stakeholders need to be involved: All stakeholders (including women!) must be involved in negotiating the best deal before a single hole is dug.
At the end of the trip all participants agreed their communities desperately need more information and access to independent advice.
“My only regret,” said the leader of Choiseul Province, Premier Jackson Kiloe, “is that I never had an opportunity to do a trip as important as this early in my leadership; I would have been a better premier.”
At the end of the trip, the Deputy Premier of Isabel province, Honourable Michael Meredi, commented, “This trip has changed my life. We need to get more people access to this information.”
As a result, community leaders have spearheaded a community forum on mining so everyone can benefit from the lessons learned in Australia. Once again the community leaders have unanimously asked for the Conservancy to facilitate this forum. This forum is being led by the three pillars of government in Isabel Province: The Isabel Provincial Government, the Church of Melanesia and the Isabel Council of Chiefs. A documentary of the Australian trip will be premiered at the forum and some of the best speakers from the trip will be coming to the Solomon Islands to once again share their lessons with even more people.
The Isabel Forum on Mining will be held 11-13 November 2013 in Isabel Province with support from The Nature Conservancy’s Solomon Islands program. It will include over 100 community representatives, as well as national government representatives, provincial leaders from Choiseul and Isabel, mining companies, community based organizations and overseas guest speakers. I am really looking forward to this as it is going to be the first time that all sides will be together giving communities a chance to discuss what this all means for them and their environment. There has already been overwhelming interest from community to national level as well as international media interest. It is going to be quite an event!
Personally, this trip and the development of this forum have also changed my life. I am seeing with my own eyes the power of knowledge. I see the profound impact of including women and giving them access to opportunities and discussions so often only accessible to men in Melanesia. By giving people access to information, The Nature Conservancy is helping communities make more informed and equitable decisions about their own development paths — whatever that may be.
Learn more about the Arnavon Islands, one of the Coral Triangle’s biggest Hawksbill sea turtle nesting sites and one of the Solomon Islands’ most inspiring marine conservation stories.
Robyn James is based in Brisbane, Australia and is currently managing a community based climate adaptation project with staff and over 15 partners in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Marshall Islands. Her work is increasingly focused on supporting gender equity in our programs in Melanesia. She is working with a number of local women’s groups in Melanesia to support their involvement in conservation and development activities and decision making.
[Images: Exchange trip in northern Australia. Image source: TNC]