Solomon Islanders tried to stop the logging of their forests – and may pay the price

  • A group of residents of Nende Island in the Solomon Islands claim corrupt government practices allowed a logging company to get a license to log the island’s primary forests, as well as cropland. Activists also allege the company, Malaysia-based Xiang Lin SI Ltd, logged outside of its concession area.
  • The “Nende Five,” as they’ve become known, say they were never given an opportunity to object to the logging of their land, and Xiang Lin proceeded without obtaining the consent of the majority of residents.
  • Seeing no other recourse, the Nende Five took it upon themselves to stop the logging, destroying logging roads and bridges. When heavy equipment was destroyed last year, the Nende Five were taken into custody. However, they say they’re innocent of the charges against them.
  • Their trial has been adjourned 29 times for lack of evidence, and was recently vacated after two days in court due to allegations that the police had not followed due process in obtaining evidence from one of the defendants. The trial is expected to resume in June. Meanwhile, deforestation is ramping up on Nende as logging roads multiply and displace the island’s old growth rainforest.

This is the second story in a two-part series on logging in the Solomon Islands. The first article, which focuses on the country at large and how its governance is affecting its forests, can be read here.

HONIARA, Solomon Islands — Sitting in a primary school classroom that had become his makeshift home in the Solomon Islands’ capital of Honiara, self-appointed forest ranger Titus Godfrey Meoblir told Mongabay how he and four others had wound up in the state jail for six months after they were accused of burning logging machines on their home island of Nende. It was just over a month since he had been released on bail in December.

“We have become like the environmental Nelson Mandelas of the Solomon Islands for standing up for our rights,” said the affable 43-year-old father of six with a chuckle.

But his wife, Maggy Godfrey, a teacher, didn’t see the funny side. She was desperate to return to their young children who had been left in the care of relatives. The couple were stuck in the garbage-choked, ramshackle port town where Titus and the other protesters had to report to the police twice a week until the final trial hearing that began on May 13.

“We have had many hardships, we have been separated from our children for a long time, and I am sorry for that,” Titus said.

Titus Godfrey Meoblir and Maggy Godfrey in Honaira. Photo by Louise Hunt for Mongabay.

The “Nende Five” case, as it’s become known, reflects the challenges many environmental defenders and landowners face in trying to stand up for their rights.

“Resource owners who try to oppose logging are fighting a losing battle, everything is stacked against them. Lots of protesters are sent to prison,” said Ruth Liloqula, executive officer of the anti-corruption NGO Transparency International Solomon Islands.

Corrupt practices in the logging industry make up the bulk of complaints raised with the organization. The majority of cases involve disputes over land rights.

Titus was part of a group of local environmental defenders who had been waging a long-running battle against commercial logging on Nende, one of the Santa Cruz group of islands in the country’s easternmost province, Temotu.

As Mongabay reported back in May 2017, several companies had been jostling to harvest Nende’s valuable old-growth timber, and they were caught up in allegations of bribing provincial government leaders to help them galvanize local support for licenses. Meanwhile, conservationists and islanders feared harvesting would wreak havoc on the remote island’s delicate ecosystem, affecting endemic and critically endangered species, as well as their livelihoods. They had already seen these impacts on the neighboring island of Vanikoro, where logging had begun several years previously.

Then, in October 2017, Xiang Lin SI Ltd, which has operations throughout the archipelago provinces, landed its logging machines on Nende, a move that the campaigners argued was illegal.

“When the company came in, they put logging machines at the [logging area] and made the logging roads,” Titus said. “There was no consultation with the community and landowners, and no timber rights hearing [in accordance with] forestry legislation. So we were angry, and we wrote letters to the company, but they didn’t respond.”

A network of logging roads snakes through forest on Nende. Photo by Alessio Bariviera.

Xiang Lin reportedly claimed it was given permission to log on land belonging to the government from the former provincial premier, Baddley Tau, through a “grant of profit” arranged while he was still in power in 2015. Nende landowners later tried to get the provincial executive’s original permission to log overturned, and a temporary injunction to halt Xiang Lin’s activities on the island was granted in November 2018. But in a recent civil case the Solomon Islands High Court ultimately ruled in favor of the company and allowed logging to proceed.

Operations allegedly spread beyond the boundaries of the licensed concession, something activists say happens often here, to affect parcels of land belonging to different tribes, known as customary land. Logging companies are legally required to hold timber rights hearings to obtain landowners’ permission to log their land, which, if granted, is then approved by the Commissioner of Forests. But the landowners claimed Xiang Lin had not held timber rights hearings for activities affecting their land.

Titus said he and his brother owned ancestral land that was cleared for access roads leading to the logging area.

“There was no opportunity to object,” Maggy Godfrey said. Grievances against logging operations must be made to a Customary Land Appeals Court within 30 days of a timber rights hearing, according to Solomon Islands’ law.

“Even though the majority of landowners did not give their consent, the provincial executive of Temotu recorded there was ‘overwhelming support’ for logging in its report to the national government,” Ruddy Oti, a political activist also from Nende, told Mongabay in an interview.

The Solomon Islands may be inching toward graduating from the United Nations’ Least Developed Country category, but observers say few people living hand-to-mouth existences, predominantly from farming and fishing, can resist the incentives timber companies pay to get what they want.

“It is normal for the logging companies to pay expenses to the provincial government executive members to hold the hearings; they get huge allowances,” said Inia Barry, from the civil society organization Development Services Exchange. Conflicts of interest permeate every level of these proceedings; multiple sources reported that police officers were frequently paid to intimidate logging opponents, which was said to be the case on Nende.

Destruction along a Nende logging road. Photo by Alessio Bariviera.

Watchdog group Global Witness also found a range of evidence that timber companies are routinely violating landowners’ rights.

“We believe this to be quite a prevalent problem, which casts doubts on the legality of many logging licenses,” Beibei Yin, Global Witness senior campaigner, told Mongabay.

The situation with illegal logging has gotten worse over recent years, said Transparency International’s Liloqula. “There’s a brazen attitude by loggers not to comply with existing laws,” she said. “We’ve got to the point where they land their machines in places where they didn’t even have a timber rights hearing, and they just don’t care because they know somebody at the top is looking after them.”

Titus said he did what he could to try to stop his land from being cleared.

“When the bulldozers came, I tried to put up a stop notice to say this is my area, this is the title to my land, but they destroyed it, and they destroyed my crops — grapefruit, coconut and betel nut trees — but they didn’t pay me compensation,” he said.

“I’m very affected because these crops support my family, I don’t have a job, so I sell the fruits of these trees at the market, this was my investment.”

To make matters worse, Titus says he’s related to the landowners who agreed to let Xiang Lin license the area where it operates the log pond where harvested timber sits before it’s transported to shipping sites.

“The licensees benefited, but I didn’t,” he said. “I asked for compensation, but they didn’t want to listen. We are living together in the communities, but when the loggers came in people were divided.”

Destructive repercussions

The majority of the 611,000 people of the Solomon Islands still live traditional rural existences on the 900 islands that make up the seven regional provinces. Communities are based on tribal lines and ownership of tribal land is passed on from generation to generation.

Commentators say the arrival of logging operations invariably upsets this kastom system, as it is called, and creates tensions and segregation between those who benefit and those who do not.

The corruption of logging money has also infiltrated the chief-led appeal system for resolving land disputes, making the process prohibitively expensive for most people, according to Transparency International. Liloqula says this corruption is felt throughout the legal system “from the traditional judiciary to the customary land courts, because there are hardly any lawyers who have not worked with logging companies.”

Loggers target high-value timber in old growth forests, which still cloak much of Nende. Photo by Alessio Bariviera.

Legal aid is available through the Public Solicitor’s Office, but Liloqula says this is vastly underresourced.

“Logging has reduced community leaders to tears, it’s broken up families and what they leave behind is nothing but destruction and mess. And that is something people have to live with,” Liloqula said.

From Liloqula’s personal experience of fighting a logging-related land dispute on her island of Choiseul, and others she’s met, the impact of losing land to corrupt judgments can be devastating.

“There should be no tribe in Solomon Islands that is landless,” she said. “If there is no land, that tribe might as well not exist, they lose their social standing, their worship places, they lose their identity.”

Many sources also spoke gravely about abuses from so-called “log pond marriages.” Young women, many underage teenagers, are reportedly lured into exploitative relationships with foreign logging operatives for little more in return than a bag of rice or roofing materials. There is mounting evidence that these relationships are coercive, and a source familiar with the issue says they’re happening on Nende.

“We know girls are passed from one man to the next. It’s slavery, but to the people in the village with nothing much, who’s going to say not to be involved in this?” said Liloqula, who added that she’s met victims in villages near logging camps on other islands.

This exploitation can have multi-generational consequences. Research indicates the children that result from these unions may not be fully accepted by the communities they’re born into, and may not be considered eligible for land rights when they grow up.

Then there are the environmental consequences of logging. Chris Bone, of the New Zealand-based conservation NGO OceansWatch, which has been working with the activists to raise awareness of environmental rights on Nende, said Xiang Lin never carried out the required environmental impact assessments, and was breaching the logging code of practice in several other ways.

“Satellite imagery shows logging is too close to water sources. It had polluted the river that is the island’s main fresh water source. You can see from the images that mud is going into the reef, which destroys fishing,” he said. This is also evidenced by photographs in Global Witness’s report. He adds that the company is also logging at an elevation of more than 400 meters (1,300 feet), which was banned by the government last year to protect rare tree species.

Piles of logs harvested in Nende’s interior await shipment on the coast. Nearby, a river spews sediment into the sea, likely caused by erosion due to logging. Photo by Alessio Bariviera.

Bone says companies that flout these laws are subject to penalties, but that the fines incurred are small — “beer money” — and rarely imposed. “The loggers just laugh at the government,” he adds.

‘The truth will be revealed’

In December 2018, Baddley Tau and two other provincial government leaders from Temotu province were arrested on charges of alleged acceptance of corrupt payments, which resulted in the corrupt transfer of a “Grant of Profit and Acquisition of Timber Rights” to a logging company on Nende between 2015 and 2016, according to police commissioner Matthew Varley, as reported by local media.

They allegedly received up to $24,500 worth of allowances, transport and accommodation.

Anti-logging campaigners managed to get a temporary court injunction against Xiang Lin to halt the operations. But they say the company just ignored the injunction.

“We tried to convince the police to enforce the injunction order, but they didn’t, so we can assume they are favoring the logging company,” Ruddy Oti said.

Satellite data from the University of Maryland (UMD) visualized on the monitoring platform Global Forest Watch corroborates local testimony that logging activity, likely attributable to Xiang Lin, is continuing on Nende. Between January and May, UMD recorded an average of 752 deforestation alerts per month on the island, mostly in primary forest. This puts 2019 forest loss on track to exceed 2018 numbers, which saw an average of 440 alerts per month.

Satellite data from UMD visualized on Global Forest Watch show several areas of logging have been active this year.

The activists took more direct action by trying to destroy bridges on the logging roads. Then, on May 28, 2018, two of Xiang Lin’s excavators and four bulldozers were found torched at the logging area. (Photos of burnt machines available from OceansWatch FB page)

“Because I had been doing the awareness raising of land rights, I was a suspect. I and four others were arrested in June [2018],” said Titus, who believes he was accused by his own cousins, the licensees who were paid by Xiang Lin.

Mongabay reached out to Xiang Lin and the Ministry of Forestry and Research for comment, but had received no response by press time.

The protesters maintain there is no proof they were behind the arson incident, and their trial was adjourned 29 times while they were in prison because of lack of evidence.

Against all odds, Titus Godfrey Meoblir and his co-defendants are hopeful the court will rule in their favor. As the Nende Five protesters were preparing for their final hearing this month, Philix Nina, who has been jailed alongside Titus, was cautiously upbeat. “Prison was hell, but we believe if we win our case it will be a bonus for our island and future generations.

“The logging issue is connected to provincial and national government, the corruption is starting to unfold,” he said, referring to the separate imminent trial of the three provincial government leaders, including Baddley Tau, which he hoped would help the protesters’ case.

“The truth will be revealed,” he told Mongabay in an April interview. “The police already have the evidence of corruption. People will see that these three leaders are the ones to blame for this mess and that will be a big victory for us, we pray that is the case.”

As this story was published, the Nende Five trial was vacated after two days in court due to allegations that the police had not followed due process in obtaining evidence from one of the defendants. The trial is expected to resume in June.


Banner image: Logging destruction on Nende. Photo by Alessio Bariviera.

Editor’s note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.

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Article published by Morgan Erickson-Davis

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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