At Loggerheads with the Loggers

The Timber Rights Hearing was supposed to start a ten in the morning on Thursday, September 1 in the little village of Pala. It was now past 11:30 and we were waiting. We were waiting comfortably, very aware of the lazy flux of island time, under an ample shelter of corrugated iron roofing on a minimal timber frame. Around noon the government officials of the Temotu Provincial Government started to trickle in and sat their heavy weights down at the row of tables that had been set up for them. There were rumors that each one of them had been generously compensated with 6’000 Solomon Dollars (about US$770) by the logging company for their tremendous effort to be present at this public hearing. This by local standards is a good chunk of money.
The affected landowners from around the proposed logging area and their entourages, who surely must have paid for their transportation out of their own shallow pockets, had slowly materialized. Most of them sat down a careful distance away from the shelter alongside the houses of the village scattered around it. 

At a certain time in history, in the year 1595 to be precise, this same village at the bottom of Graciosa Bay on the island of Nendo, Temotu Province, Solomon Islands, had been the scene of the second attempt by Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendaña to establish a settlement in the newly discovered specs of land in the South Seas with the declared purpose to subjugate its inhabitants under the global reaches and aspirations of the Spanish crown. The experiment in colonization didn’t go down too well. Its life was terribly brief and it all ended in abysmal disaster, ripe with miscalculated murder, treacherous and petty thievery, deadly fevers of malaria and finally once proud ships miserably and helplessly sinking somewhere in an unrecorded emptiness. 

These days the village of Pala is once again torn apart by a new wave of invasive colonization. Malaysian logging companies have established fake companies in the Solomon Islands with fancy sounding names like: ‘Green Tree Company’, through which they try to negotiate lopsided contracts with local landowners to extract valuable timber for the hungry world market paying fat kickbacks to anybody willing to help them advance their greedy and destructive cause. 

Within the Solomon Island constitution there is a solid and almost progressive sounding legal framework in place, which on paper protects the locals from such abuse. But the real dealings are done behind gated fences and the good-sized kickbacks that find their clever ways into the local government officials’ pockets are creating tempting incentives to work around such legislation. While most landowners are clearly aware of the catastrophic damage logging operations would inflict on their still mostly virgin lands, there are a couple of bad eggs in town, who would like to get their hands on that quick and dirty cash. They are not the most amicable characters around, and we have been threatened one evening while walking the short stretch of dirt road from the village to the beach where we leave our canoe. A round face guy with a dark green T-shirt and a black Bolshevik cap had pulled up beside us in a white pickup truck and gave us a warning: ‘Hurry back to your boat now and go back to New Zealand. You are making the people here think the wrong thing!’ He was on his way to the ‘bottle shop’ down that same road to satisfy his tropical thirst for a couple beers. 

That same guy was sitting on a white plastic chair once the hearing had gotten under way, taking notes on a brown clip board. Behind him sat a decrepit looking Asian guy in impeccably white sneakers. He got up every twenty minutes to smoke a cigarette, which made him cough and clear his throat from the thick phlegm of conscience. As if that wasn’t enough for any gentle soul to feel intimidated, the police presence was heavy with mean faced agents in light blue uniforms standing stiffly all around the perimeter of the village square and throughout the procedure they would be staring sternly at anybody who mustered the courage to stand up and take a stance. 

We had waited until 12:30 for things to get started, when finally the last group of land owners had overcome the challenges of island transportation and settled down amongst the now probably a good two hundred strong crowd. It all sounded quite official with the hearing’s designated chairman, the deputy secretary of the Temotu Provincial Government, following to the letter the procedure prescribed by the legislation. Apparently many of the landowners had been coerced to sign a letter of consent, many without knowing the content and others even saw their names signed with other peoples’ signatures. Some of them now mustered enough courage to voice their concern about the environmental consequences and insisted in withdrawing their consent. Only a small group of speakers, which were quite clearly associated with our round faced friend, voted for a continuation of the negotiations with the logging companies. 

The hearing dragged on for over two and a half hours and was for us yet another crash course in Solomon Pidgin English. Using our acquired basics from Vanuatu’s Bislama, which is very similar in structure, we were able to follow the outlines of most of what was said, eloquently and passionately that is, by a people who seem to have been just very recently given the opportunity to express themselves freely in public. 

Once the procedural hearing had come to its long awaited conclusion, local food was served and the gathering relaxed. The village of Pala quite obviously had put a great deal of effort in the logistics of the meeting. Unfortunately we cannot yet be sure that the clearly manifested opposition to any form of logging at this hearing will carry its weight into the murky realm of reality. Any acknowledging of such at its closing was carefully avoided, we spectators cannot even be sure that everything was duly recorded. No protocol was published and rumors soon started to float about, that the loggers had received the go ahead to start their ugly business in certain areas. Since we have taken a seat in the same boat as our local friends, we are in a state of limbo and wait-and-see, contemplating the possibility of future actions should things turn nasty. If there is any hope at all of progress for the human race, it most certainly must consist in that the simple folks who tend the lands manage to free themselves from the shackles of ignorance, make their voices heard loud and clear and ready themselves to resist peacefully but with bitter determination any form of commercial exploitation of their ancestral lands. 

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