The extractive industry in Solomon Islands serves as a crucial catalyst for economic growth and development, tapping into the nation's abundant natural resources like timber, minerals and fisheries for export — mainly to China. But despite its promise for economic prosperity, the extractive industry poses significant challenges, requiring careful management to ensure sustainability and minimize adverse effects on the environment and local communities.

Bintan Mining’s bauxite operation on Rennell Island in the Solomon Islands. March 21, 2019. (David Maurice Smith/The New York Times)
Bintan Mining’s bauxite operation on Rennell Island in the Solomon Islands. March 21, 2019. (David Maurice Smith/The New York Times)

Logging: A History of Exploitation

The logging sector has long been the economic mainstay of the Solomon Island economy, historically exploiting forest resources for timber export. During the colonial era, the logging sector was initially dominated by European and American entities, albeit on a much smaller scale than we see today.

Post-World War II, control of the industry shifted to Japanese and Taiwanese entities. With this shift came a logging boom that has generated revenue and jobs — along with abundant criticism of unsustainable and severe exploitation.

Eric Katovai, an environmental biologist at the University of the South Pacific who has led multiple studies looking at the impacts of logging on forest ecosystems in the country, previously told Mongabay that “the intensity of logging in the Solomons perhaps is one of the highest in the Asia-Pacific region.” Across the country, logging activities are currently operating at 19 times the annual sustainable harvesting rate. And many locations, such as Guadalcanal and the Western Solomons, have already been re-logged on numerous occasions.

The rapid pace of logging has led to environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity and adverse effects to local communities that are heavily dependent on forest subsistence farming for income. In 2010, Solomon Islands had 2.72 million hectares of natural forest, covering over 96 percent of its land area. By 2022, 14.3 thousand hectares of natural forest were lost, equivalent to 11.1 million metric tons of CO₂ emissions.

Moreover, logging practices have given rise to reprehensible issues such as child labor — as well as the sex trafficking of women and children, particularly around foreign logging camps, commercial fishing vessels and local entertainment establishments.

Presently, many experts and officials view logging as a declining “sunset industry” that will fade out, with predictions indicating that all commercially exploitable resources will be logged by the late 2020s. During the COVID pandemic, there was a downturn in logging and some of the smaller operators left the country. In a twist, the larger logging operators are not leaving the country, but rather applying for mining licenses on Rennell Island, or acquiring land for real estate developments.

Mining: New Operations and Systemic Challenges

Mining is a vital component of the Solomon Islands' extractive industry due to the country’s significant mineral deposits such as gold, bauxite and nickel. While offering economic potential and job opportunities, the industry's history reveals a number of challenges.

Limited mining activities began around the early 1900s, mainly involving traditional communities engaged in small-scale mining for clay pots and shell money in the ocean. However, various European powers have explored the islands for potential mineral resources dating back to the early colonial period, with the first sighting of gold recorded at the mouth of the Metapona River by Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendaña in 1568 — a report that went on to inspire the country’s name, "Solomon Islands," in reference to the wealth of the biblical King Solomon.

After Solomon Islands gained political independence in 1978, overall mining activities increased, with major operations in Guadalcanal, competition over nickel concessions in Isabel Province, and more recently, the controversial joint operation between the Asia Pacific Investment Development (APID) company and Bintan Mining Solomon Islands (BMSI) to extract bauxite in Rennell Atoll.

The current Solomon Island government is trying to fast-track mining activities across the country, identifying potential mining sites in Isabel, Guadalcanal, Choiseul, Malaita, Temotu and the Western Province. Many landowners have resisted this through methods ranging from advocacy to sabotage, and women’s groups and international organizations have called for more inclusive decision-making. 

In an interview with me, local geologist and former director of the Ministry for Mines, Energy and Rural Electrification Nicholas Biliki said that the government used the COVID pandemic as an excuse to waive processes and requirements for new mining ventures, many of which were back by companies with little to no experience in the sector. The rush, he says, is because there is an estimated $59 billion worth of minerals “ready to be exploited in the next one or two years in this country. The chances of further discoveries are very high, if only the right investors are attracted.”

Controversies and Corruption in Extraction Operations

Government officials dealing directly or privately with loggers and miners — rather than through robust and transparent channels — is a rampant problem in Solomon Islands, leading to various conflicts and instances of corruption. The logging and mining industries in Solomon Islands have been plagued by bribery, fraudulent practices and resource misuse, which only further contribute to environmental degradation and social unrest.

One of the more glaring issues is that the process for issuing logging permits or mining licenses and leases has been susceptible to corruption. In the case of the previously mentioned APID/BMSI operation in Rennell Atoll, the venture enjoyed high levels of political support, but failed to pay millions that it owed to the Solomon Island government and local landowners.

Furthermore, the manipulation of official documents — including permits and environmental impact assessments — has allowed logging and mining companies to engage in illegal extraction without proper scrutiny or transparency regarding environmental and social impacts.

For instance, an oil spill just off the coast of Rennell Atoll during mining operations exacerbated environmental concerns. In Isabel Province, landowning tribes are fighting to protect the rare Tubi tree species from illegal extraction after numerous incidents were reported over the years.

In terms of social issues, women and children are more at risk of sexual exploitation around logging and mining camps, with a recent report by Save the Children in Solomon Islands highlights a dramatic increase in commercial sexual exploitation in fisheries and the logging and mining sectors over the years.

By circumventing transparency, logging and mining operations undermine the potential benefits for public services and leave local communities with grievances regarding inadequate compensation for land ownership and unpaid fines for regulatory violations.

When these grievances rise to the level of legal disputes, judicial corruption and stagnation can compromise the possibility of a fair resolution, allowing powerful entities to influence outcomes. In one case regarding the illegal acquisition of land in Rennell Atoll, delayed justice — even when the defendants were found guilty — still contributed to frustration among affected communities seeking restitution.

Land Rights, Accountability and Sustainable Alternatives

The extractive industry in the Solomon Islands holds substantial potential for economic development. However, prioritizing sustainability and responsibility in its management is crucial to mitigate any negative impacts on the environment and local communities.

Addressing multifaceted challenges in the Solomon Islands' extractive industry requires a comprehensive approach, including effective governance, regulation and policies that promote sustainable resource management. There are currently institutional strengthening and capacity-building efforts funded by the World Bank that are intended to make mining regulation more transparent. However, progress is slow, and officials from government ministries often complain about political interference in their work. Meanwhile, communities face difficulties getting independent legal advice on land access agreements. To date, regional efforts to increase standards in the extractive industries have been most effective in relation to fishing, while there is little regional cooperation on standards for mining, logging and the emerging issue of deep-sea mining.

Community engagement is vital to ensure local benefits from extractive activities and participation in decision-making processes. Recognizing and respecting customary land rights prevents conflicts and guarantees fair compensation. Concurrent investments in education and alternative livelihoods could reduce dependency on extractive industries, fostering economic diversification, more sustainability and ultimately less conflict.

Charley Piringi is an investigative and environment journalist from the Solomon Islands. He is the co-founder of a newly established investigative firm in the country, In-depth Solomons.

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