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Judith Bennett’s epic 200-year history of how Solomons Islanders have used their forest wealth - Pacific Forest – ended in 1997. Since then, much has changed – a civil uprising in 2000 leading to ethnic war, a multinational intervention force designed to build the state, a larger and younger population, especially in the capital and ambitious public rituals with regional backing to heal past wounds and re-stabilise Solomon society for a new era.
But what new paths are possible? Ten years ago a commissioner of forests warned against the national economy’s continuing heavy dependence on timber exports but today it remains so.
Recently, noises about the decline of forestry, now said to be a sunset industry, have been heard in elite circles. Some Solomon Islanders express fatalism about the coming loss of their most prized resource. But what will replace it? Tourism? Mining? Plantation agriculture? And will resource owners be any better equipped to manage the wealth generated? For all the sensitivities over land in Melanesia, the massive scale of forest destruction in the Solomons has been – in most cases – authorized by indigenous landowners themselves, and did not result from land alienation. Customary landowners – or the influential among them – have done deals with logging companies and received a benefit in the form of royalty payments. With few options for cash revenue, empowered landowners have sold themselves and their clans short in unequal agreements, generating feuding within their own tribe, and bogging themselves down in endless litigation with commercial loggers and with neighbouring landowners.
Earlier this year, Telinga Media published a series of reports on its website (see below) dealing with disputes on land alienated in the colonial period in just one corner of one island province. This pitch zooms out to compare how three different landowning groups in three provinces see the end of large-scale commercial logging on their land. Are they looking beyond timber royalties? And does the central government – officially preoccupied with state-building – have a plan for economic transition that will strengthen the pillars of rural society where most of the people live?
The multimedia reports – to be published on telingamedia.com and elsewhere – will be of interest to Solomon Islanders themselves as they chart the transition as well as other Pacific nations who depend on forestry income. It is likely too that the reports will appeal to Australian audiences, who as taxpayers have made an open-ended, multi-billion dollar commitment to fund institution-building and ultimately, stable livelihoods for Solomon Island citizens.
Telinga Media is an independent media business covering the southwest Pacific. Its Brisbane-based owner – Steve Sharp – edits telingamedia.com and has 23 years experience as a journalist, broadcaster and media educator.
A series of multimedia reports & commentaries in a similar format to those already produced on my websites (links provided in pitch); the budget costings are based on my visit last year to the Solomons and travel to one outer province. A major component is travel - overseas airfares (X 3), travel to three locations, boat petrol, accommodation, local assistance, translations, company searches etc. There will be substantial research costs within Australia including some interstate travel.