‘They failed us’: how mining and logging devastated a Pacific island in a decade

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    By Mike Puiai

    There is perhaps nowhere in the Pacific where the costs of extractive industries are as heartbreakingly clear as Rennell Island.

    The island, a tiny dot in the vast South Pacific that lies at the southern tip of Solomon Islands, is home to a few thousand people. And it’s starkly divided.

    On one side is pristine East Rennell, a Unesco world heritage site, which offers a glimpse of Rennell unspoiled. But in the last decade, West Rennell has suffered the triple assault of logging, bauxite mining, and a devastating oil spill from when a bulk carrier, hired by a mining company, ran aground on a reef.

    Logging companies arrived on the island about 10 years ago. Satellite images show extensive tree cover loss in the western part of the island and the scars of roads built to get the timber out.

    Locals in West Rennell, like Ajilon Nasiu, say that since logging and mining began there, the environment has changed.

    “Birds and animals here have moved out, probably to East Rennell. We haven’t heard the sound of birds in the morning,” says Nasiu, the former speaker of the national parliament in Honiara. He has been closely observing logging and mining activities since they started on the island. “The problems we experience are because landowners were not united to protect our forest and land or to confront companies.”

    Mining soon followed the logging, with leases covering much of West Rennell granted to companies eyeing the bauxite-rich soil. Bauxite ore is the main source of aluminium.

    Landowners and some officials estimate that since 2014 up to 50% of the bauxite-rich soil in West Rennell has been exported.

    While Solomon Islands government offers generous tax exemptions to mining companies operating on Rennell, companies do pay into government coffers. The governor of Solomon Islands’ central bank says that while exempt from paying export taxes, Bintang Mining Company, one of the major operators on the island, contributed SBD$142m (US$17.8m) in foreign exchange in 2020 and $131m (US$16.4m) in 2019.

    Businesses in West Rennell flourished during the peak of logging and mining activities. Children could buy mobile phones, shops opened and people had cash to spend.

    But even current and former government officials have conceded that the way previous governments handled the process of land acquisition and granted leases for the bauxite mining industry did not abide by mining regulations and has harmed the community.

    Former prime minister Rick Houenipwela told SIBC last year: “Sadly, Solomon Islands have not benefited from the Rennell mining operations.”

    Amos Tuhaika, from Avatai Village, told the Guardian their forest, gardens and sea have been destroyed by extractive companies.

    “We rely on the national government, provincial government and the police to protect us but they failed us,” he said.

    People in West Rennell say that the arrival of mining and logging operations also changed the fabric of social life. Shops selling alcohol sprang up in villages near mining and logging camps.

    In Lavagu village, Rosemary Tingi’ia said families had been destroyed by the impact of the foreign miners, who have had children to foreign mining workers.

    While some of the men proving caring partners who provided for their children, more often the experiences were far more destructive. Often the women were paid for sex, sometimes just basic food and shelter, and when the miners’ work had finished, they returned to their home countries, leaving the young women to fend for themselves and their children. There is deep stigma and shame in Solomon Islands for the women and their children in this situation. The children have no defined traditional role in the community where land is passed down patrilineally, and the women struggle to be accepted by their indigenous families or to find future partners.

    “These children now become fatherless without a house or a bank account,” said Tingi’ia.

    And then, in February 2019, Rennell Island was the site of the most serious man-made disaster in the country’s history. During Cyclone Oma, a bulk carrier, the MV Solomon Trader, carrying 700 tonnes of oil, ran aground on Kongobainiu reef.

    The carrier, hired by mining company Bintan Mining Solomon Islands, had been attempting to load bauxite from a nearby mine on the island. It spilled 300 tonnes of oil into the pristine bay.

    The water turned black, people reported being forced to drink rainwater, because their fresh water sources were contaminated and, unable to fish, were reliant on deliveries of food from Honiara, 250km away. At Avatai village, every chicken died a week after the spill and children suffered skin and eye infections.

    The owner of the vessel, King Trader, and its South Korean insurer, P&I Club, apologised for the spill in March 2019, describing the situation as “ totally unacceptable”. In a statement the companies said “although matters of liability are yet to be determined … [we] have expressed deep remorse”. The statement said they were “acutely aware of environmental damage” and were working as quickly as possible to bring the spill under control.

    According to a report by local and international experts into the spill, which was given to Solomon Islands government in 2019 and leaked to the ABC, the oil spill caused the direct loss of more than 10,000 square metres of reef and more than 4,000 square metres of lagoon habitat and economic losses of up to AU$50m. The report said the site could take up to 130 years to recover.

    Five months later, a second major spill hit the bay, when an estimated 5,000 tonnes of bauxite slipped into the water while it was being loaded on to a barge, turning the bay red.

    “It’s like a scene from the Exodus,” a source on the island told the Guardian at the time.

    The member of parliament for Rennell-Bellona province, Dr Tautai Agikimu’a Kaitu’u, said West Rennell landowners didn’t get what they should get from their natural resources.

    “Logging and mining in West Rennell, especially mining, has caused many problems to our communities and the environment… The situation here in West Rennell with regards these operations is a sad one,” he said.

    SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN/PACNEWS