Solomon Islands environmental defender faces life sentence for arson charge

  • Accused of burning logging machinery belonging to Malaysia-based firm Xiang Lin SI Ltd, the “Nende Five” were taken into custody in 2018.
  • In June 2020, three of the five were acquitted based on lack of evidence. However, in July the magistrate decided to uphold charges against the two remaining defendants.
  • Jerry Meioko was convicted on charges of larceny and unlawful damage while Clement Tauto became the only defendant to be convicted of arson, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. Their convictions were based on confessions, which advocates say were made under duress.
  • Meanwhile, logging continues to spread in the Solomon Islands in areas that are home to local communities and claimed as ancestral land, and in forest inhabited by unique, endangered species found nowhere else in the world.

In June, three environmental defenders from the remote island of Nende celebrated their acquittal from arson charges, along with the many supporters who had attended their trial. But the later convictions of two co-defendants mean their fights for justice are far from over.

The Nende Five, as they became known, were accused of burning logging machinery belonging to Malaysia-based firm Xiang Lin SI Ltd. When Mongabay met some of the accused last year in the capital Honiara they had already spent half a year in the state prison in 2018, and were experiencing many hardships separated from their families as they waited on bail for their trial to begin.

After two fraught years since their arrest and multiple court adjournments, the magistrate in the provincial capital Lata ruled that “there was no case to answer” as there was no evidence to link three of the accused to the charges.

“There were no witnesses to the burning of the machines, it was all just hearsay evidence,” said Philix Nina, who was acquitted on conspiracy charges, alongside co-defendants Titus Godfrey Meoblir and Simon Meabir.

Titus Godfrey Meoblir and Maggy Godfrey in Honaira in 2019. Photo by Louise Hunt for Mongabay.

“The charge of arson carries a maximum penalty of life, it’s just like murder, so we welcome the decision to acquit the defendants,” Lily Ramo, a lawyer who represented them, told Mongabay in August.

The verdict marked a rare victory for Solomon Islanders who try to stand up for their ancestral land rights against foreign logging companies that sources say have been allowed to operate with impunity by successive governments. Yet the convictions of the two remaining defendants have left many denouncing what they say is an unfair, corrupt legal system.

An uncertain fate

Both Nende and its neighbor Vanikoro belong to the Santa Cruz group of islands in the easternmost province of Temotu, and conservationists say both have been heavily impacted by commercial logging of primary forests that are home to critically endangered, endemic species. Freshwater streams have been polluted by felling too close to rivers, in breach of the forestry code, resulting in soil run-off and spews of silt onto the reef. The environmental damage and toxic social impacts of the logging industry on traditional rural communities are replicated across the archipelago provinces, according to anti-corruption watchdog organization Transparency International.

Tree cover loss data from the University of Maryland indicate most of the logging roads on Vanikoro were cleared in 2017. Since then, satellite imagery shows logging efforts expanded in the southern part of the island near Peau in 2019 and at several sites in Vanikoro's northern half in 2020.
Tree cover loss data from the University of Maryland indicate most of the logging roads on Vanikoro were cleared in 2017. Since then, satellite imagery shows logging efforts expanded in the southern part of the island near Peau in 2019 and at several sites in Vanikoro’s northern half in 2020.

The Nende Five case had gathered quite a following, nationally and internationally, as their story was picked up by inter-governmental agencies and media outlets.

“It was historical for us in Temotu, there have been no cases like this, the courthouse was filled with people every day,” Nina said. “It shows the concern they had for our fight. Illegal logging is an issue that affects the livelihoods of people.”

The activists were part of a long-running campaign to stop logging on their island, which began in 2017. They claim the operations are illegal because the provincial government of the time had allowed Xiang Lin a logging permit, known as a grant of profit, without consulting local landowners by holding timber rights hearings, a legally enshrined process for constituting timber agreements.

In protest, they had written to Xiang Lin and the provincial government, and obtained a stop-work order against the company for breaching the logging code. But the logging continued, and Godfrey Meoblir’s crops were destroyed to make logging roads. When burnt-out excavators and bulldozers were found at the logging site in May 2018, the five activists were taken into custody.

“These issues are not only affecting Temotu, but all over the Solomon Islands. When we were in prison, we met others who are also in prison on charges related to destroying logging operations. Things like this happen when the landowners are fighting for their rights,” Nina said.

Yet, he is optimistic that the growing awareness around their case can pave the way for change.

“Before, judges were only looking at the criminal nature of the offense, not the root causes; now there is more understanding that these issues are about land rights,” he added.

The acquittals have given hope to others who are trying to oppose logging, said Eddie Pae, who is also battling against logging on his island of Vanikoro.

“A lot of people were really afraid of standing up to the logging companies, but the acquittals have given light to people that they can defend their resources,” he said.

The Vanikoro flycatcher (Myiagra vanikorensis) inhabits the island of Vanikoro as well as Fiji. Image by Aviceda via Wikimedia Commons (CC 3.0).
The Vanikoro flycatcher (Myiagra vanikorensis) inhabits the island of Vanikoro as well as Fiji. Image by Aviceda via Wikimedia Commons (CC 3.0).

However, the magistrate’s decision in July to uphold the charges against the two remaining defendants Jerry Meioko and Clement Tauto dashed hopes for an outright victory and highlights the risks for those who stand in the way of the logging companies.

Tauto became the only defendant to be convicted of arson, while Meioko was convicted on charges of larceny and unlawful damage. This is despite the prosecution having accused the co-defendants of destroying the machines as a joint enterprise and the conspiracy charges against Nina having been dropped, lawyer Ramo pointed out.

The tight friends who have gone through prison time and the anxieties of the long bail period together were shocked by the ruling. “The day I heard about their conviction, I felt emotion for my brothers expecting they all should be free. But it was the opposite of what we expected,” Nina said.

“It was a real blow on our community,” said Ruddy Oti, an activist from Nende, who had been assisting the defendants with their cases. “The families of the convicted men are not on good terms with the decisions,” he added.

The differences in the verdicts appear to come down to what happened when they were first taken into police custody in Lata.

Sources said Tauto had confessed to participating in the burning of the machinery in his statement to the police, which was allegedly given under duress.

“All the prosecution relied upon was their admission statements [which were taken by the police after they had been arrested as evidence against them], but these statements were not obtained voluntarily,” Ramo said.

Sources said it is common knowledge that logging companies often bribe the police to act in their favor when disputes arise, sometimes falsifying evidence to wrongly charge their opponents, as well as coercing those arrested into making admission statements.

“They harass people when they are taken in, they don’t give them food or water and sometimes they use force to try to get them to make a confession,” Pae said.

Alleged logging activity on Temotu. Image by Eddie Pae.
Alleged logging activity on the island of Teanu, which is just offshore from Vanikoro. Image by Eddie Pae.

“This is a very disadvantaged community, you don’t have the means, you don’t have the power or the money to protect yourself,” Oti said. “The police tried to force all of them to make a confession, but not all of them had an idea how to act in that situation.”
The defendants’ legal team is appealing against the magistrate’s decisions on Meioko and Tauto. “I’m not satisfied with the reasoning at all,” Ramo said.

With arson carrying a maximum penalty of a life sentence, Mongabay understands that the legal team is pushing for mitigating grounds to reduce any potential prison term for Tauto, while Meioko’s convictions are considered more minor offenses, usually attracting a six-month sentence, of which he has already served four months on remand.

Corruption and inaction

While uncertainties still hang over the pending decisions, the Nende Five case has helped expose the injustices that Solomon Islanders face as a consequence of systemic corruption within the logging sector. NGO Global Witness found wide ranging evidence that the processes for acquiring logging licenses are influenced by bribery from the top levels of government, down to local officials and chiefs. The international watchdog’s “Paradise Lost” report, published in 2018, concluded that much of the commercial logging in the Solomon Islands is illegal and is contributing to deforestation of natural forest at nearly 20 times the sustainable rate.

And once logging has begun, it seems almost impossible to stop.

The legitimacy of Xiang Lin’s grant of profit was challenged by representatives of landowners on Nende in the High Court last year, but the judge ruled in the company’s favor. Meanwhile, the three former Temotu provincial government leaders who approved the license were charged with accepting corrupt payments for the grant of profit and are awaiting trial.

Now, the company is using its permit to expand operations beyond the two blocks of land in its original concession to an area northeast of the island, said activist Oti. Land cover change data from the University of Maryland accessed via World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Watch platform show a spike in detected tree cover loss in September, and satellite images reveal areas of recent logging.

Satellite imagery shows an area of recent road development on Nende.
Satellite imagery shows an area of recent road development in primary forest on Nende.

Because of the muddy basis of the grant of profit, new disputes are arising.

“In the absence of properly constituted timber rights hearings you cannot tell whether there is a timber agreement and who will be paid royalties, whether they are the right people or not,” Oti said.

“This is why people fight over logging issues or take the law into their own hands because the logging companies are giving rise to such volatile situations,” he added.

The people of Nende are once again trying to fight back by mounting a case for legal action against Xiang Lin for breaches of the logging code. The first action is likely to focus on a case of alleged trespassing in the Graciosa Bay Area, which is being used as a landing site for transloading timber shipments without the community’s consent.

“The loggers come into the bay and come into our waters, which is outside of their concession. Most of the loading is happening in this area, they didn’t ask owners of the customary area, which we are not happy about,” Philix Nina said.

Taking legal action against logging companies is prohibitively expensive for most islanders, so the residents have formed the Temotu Sustainable Development Association to rally support to pursue this case, as well as mentor rural landowners on their rights, Oti said.

Separately, Philix Nina and other freed members of the Nende Five are also trying to raise funds to take legal action against Xiang Lin for unlawful detention and the destruction of their land. “We want compensation for the damages,” said Godfrey Meoblir, whose crops were destroyed when Xiang Lin bulldozed through his gardens to make roads to the logging site.

Mongabay reached out to Xiang Lin for comment, but the company did not respond.

Nationally, observers say logging operations are slowly scaling down as commercially viable natural forests are becoming exhausted. But with demand still high from China, the biggest importer of tropical round logs from the Solomon Islands, there are concerns that the mostly Malaysian and Chinese logging companies are becoming more unscrupulous in their efforts to reach the last tracts of untouched forest.

Gallego Resources Limited, the Malaysian-owned timber firm that has extensively logged the main island Vanikoro, has recently set up a logging camp on the tiny offshore island of Teanu, according to activist Eddie Pae.

What appears to be a logging road and forest thinning appeared on Temotu in late 2019.
What appears to be a logging road and forest thinning appeared on Teanu in late 2019.

The forest clad island is described by the Rainforest Trust as “one of the most intact and pristine islands in the Vanikoro chain of Temotu Province.” It is recognized as a key biodiversity area and has been the focus of conservation projects to protect critically endangered and endemic species, such as the Vanikoro flying fox (Pteropus tuberculatus), a unique bat found nowhere else in the world.

“This logging will really cause environmental damage,” Pae said. “There were very big, old kauri trees that were preserved by the provincial government, but now these have been cut down. This will have an effect on wildlife, we have already seen this on Vanikoro with the flying fox, and other endangered species.”

Pae has intervened by securing an interim order to stop the logging. “The company is not currently logging, but it has not removed its machines,” he said.

Like this pollen-dusted grey-headed flying fox (Pteropus poliocephalus), Vanikoro flying foxes (Pteropus tuberculatus) play an important role in pollination and seed dispersal for the forests they inhabit. Image by Andrew Mercer via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).
Like this pollen-dusted grey-headed flying fox (Pteropus poliocephalus), Vanikoro flying foxes (Pteropus tuberculatus) play an important role in pollination and seed dispersal for the forests they inhabit. Image by Andrew Mercer via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Although the company has a license to log on Vanikoro through its local partner Vanikoro Lumber Limited, Pae alleges this does not extend to Teanu, and its operations on the small island are, therefore, illegal. However, Gallego Resources Limited told Mongabay that these allegations were “baseless.”

In a statement, the company said: “Gallego Resources Limited have complied and undergone necessary requirements and procedures required under the law [Forest Resources and Timber Utilization Act Cap 40] and Regulations, and established Technology and Management Agreement [TMA] which Teanu is part of with the Licensee [Vanikoro Lumber Limited].”

Pae is currently preparing a case to support his allegations, which will be heard in the High Court in Honiara in October.

Reports of government corruption and complicity pertain to previous administrations. But, as environmental activists take action against illegal logging at their own expense and risk, they say current authorities have remained silent, intensifying an already uphill battle.
“Temotu provincial government has done nothing to stop the logging on Nende or Vanikoro,” Pae said.

The Temotu provincial government did not respond to requests for comment.

 

 

Banner image: Vanikoro logging roads from Planet Labs.

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

South Africa Today – Environment


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