Trees, turtles, and farewell to the Solomons

At first glance the Pacific Islands look lush, beautiful, and untouched. But people have lived on just about every tiny strip of land in the Pacific that is inhabitable. When we sail into a rainforest- lined bay, which from a distance looks like a wilderness, the outlines of leaf huts behind the first rows of trees always emerge. People have an impact on the environment, and here in the Solomons it has been interesting to learn about some of the prominent resource issues, and thankfully, still see some healthy forests and reefs. The human effects on the environment aren’t just a modern issue. Early Pacific Islanders brought food crops and animals with them as they moved eastward to settle the islands. In some places, like the Marquesas, those plants out-competed the native flora and, although the islands are still covered in dense, intriguing jungle, many of the unique, native plants are now rare. Similarly, European explorers introduced rats, bugs, and birds, some intentionally, and some as hitchhikers, that had a devastating effect on native birds. Then began the sandalwood trade in Fiji, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and New Caledonia. Boats from Europe and America came to cut sandalwood trees, which were, and still are, sold to China where the heartwood is used for incense. The traders treated the locals miserably and clearcut the trees. In some cases, the traders would kidnap islanders who were out fishing in their canoes. They would take their captives to enemy villages and trade people for trees, leaving the captives to be eaten by their enemies. In Vanuatu, one of the major sources of sandalwood, people are now replanting trees so that they can be harvested on a smaller scale by villages. In the Solomon Islands, today, sandalwood is not the main trade, but logging is a major industry. On these large, mountainous islands, there are still many stretches of big trees-valuable tropical hardwoods much sought after by the logging industry. Native trees include ebony, rosewood, ironwood, mahogany, and a white wood that locals use for canoes. Teak, though not native, has been planted for harvest in timber plantations. The economy of the Solomon Islands depends heavily on logging, but the Solomon Islanders themselves see few benefits from the industry. In fact, one study showed that, for every cubic meter of logs, a land-owning clan shares only $3.00, while the government takes in $28.00, and the loggers leave with $130.00 (prior to export). (Ron Crocombe, The South Pacific, p. 298). There are few regulations in place in the Solomons to minimize the effects of logging in a country where many villagers drink directly out of streams and depend heavily on reef fish for sustenance. Loggers must acquire the rights to log from traditional landowners. When talking with some folks on Isabel, an island with intensive, ongoing logging, we learned that companies generally acquire the rights through bribery. They’ll pay off the “big men” with trips, hotels, and booze, and pay out the rest of the landowners with small cash (people in Isabel were signing papers for the equivalent of about $2.00 USD). That cash gets used up quickly, and promised long-term benefits, like jobs, schools, clinics, and roads, never materialize. Where there’s trouble with landowners, the companies pay off government ministers with direct bribes or shares in stock, and most government ministers and members of parliament now own substantial interests in the resource extraction industries at work in the Solomons. When the Solomon Islands prohibited raw log exports-a great policy that would have required logs to be milled within the Solomon Islands, keeping more of the jobs and money in the Solomons-industry got upset and paid substantial benefits to the minister of forestry, who immediately offered exemptions to the rule, allowing companies to export freshly-felled tree trunks to Asia, where they can process them at lesser expense. Likewise, policies and contracts requiring companies to hire loggers locally have been ignored or set aside. Instead, workers are imported, so that villages selling rights to their land do not even get the jobs they were promised in return. Where bribery doesn’t work to get around the rules and buy rights, death threats are not unheard of. (Crocombe, The South Pacific, pp.297-99, 481-82). Just as serious as the environmental and health effects is the divisiveness within communities. Land ownership does not work the same way in the South Pacific as it does in the western world, and owners do not always have full title to a particular piece of land. There is much dispute over complicated land ownership, and every development proposal seems to result in litigation among different individuals claiming traditional rights. This seems particularly problematic given that many people here cannot afford to pay school fees, but when there is a remote possibility of making money from land, they raise money for litigation against friends and family who also claim property rights. A few weeks ago, some folks in a village on southern Isabel, a village that is facing both logging and mining projects, talked to us about some of these problems. This is a village that sees so few tourists that, when we first arrived, a 12-year old boy asked me, “What’s wrong with your nose?” Unaware that there was a problem with my nose, I consulted Rob. He looked at me, then laughed and explained, “She’s white! It’s sunburned.” The next morning, a girl of a similar age was paddling home from school when Rob, overheating in the sun, jumped off the boat. “I’m surprised you can swim,” she remarked, “I thought you would sink.” Now, facing a village divided over logging and mining, some of the big men in the village are trying to bring tourists in to provide an alternative revenue source. The men told us that the logging has already split the community. Only the landowner where the logging is happening right now is getting money. Some of the women from the village are employed cooking and washing laundry, but not everyone is happy with the project. Since the people in this village are not the landowners, they have no say in the project, even though the logging is happening right on the edge of their gardens. They were even more worried about mining prospects, as a company has been surveying on land owned by the village, and paying small sums to landowners to sign away rights. The men are concerned about their drinking water, and their reefs and fish, as well as tension within the small village. The village is having trouble getting answers to their questions, because the representatives of the company, a Japanese company, say they do not speak English whenever the people try to get more information. Because land owners wield much power, a few people might be able to sell the rights for a project that will have negative effects for everyone, exacerbating tensions that already exist. In the face of all of these pressures, it’s not surprising that there is a lot of logging in the Solomons. Marovo Lagoon, the jewel of the Solomon’s tourism attractions, has seen its share of logging. Once on the short list for designation as a World Heritage site, the logging has had its effects and it is no longer considered for a designation. But, the logging is not obvious from everywhere and the underwater scenery is still spectacular. Because the Solomons is rich in resources, there are still many stretches of virgin rainforest, and, from the water, the islands appear thickly clad in jungle vegetation. Underwater, we’ve seen healthier reefs and more abundant fish here than in most of the Pacific. In some cases, the landowners have managed to fight these pressures to protect their resources. One great example is Tetepare, “the last wild island,” and probably our favorite stop in the Solomons. The landowners of Tetepare moved off the island about 150 years ago, back in the headhunting days, and it has remained largely uninhabited since. A small island with gentle terrain, it is densely forested with giant banyans and buttressed, tropical rainforest trees. There has been, and still is, significant pressure to log the island, but the land owners have, so far, kept those interests at bay and, instead, created a conservation area and scientific research station. The research station receives some funding through grants, and all revenues from the eco-lodge go to the Tetepare Descendants Association, a non-profit organization that uses the income to pay staff and, when possible, to provide scholarships covering school fees for descendants of the Tetepare landowners. Things aren’t perfect, and there are a few disgruntled members who would like to see more cash in hand, but most of the Tetepare descendants we met on the neighboring islands were happy that we stopped at Tetepare. We thought Tetepare was one of the best conservation areas in the Pacific. We’d grown a bit jaded on local conservation areas after seeking out marine reserves in other places, expecting great snorkeling, in only to find lackluster coral and lots of fishing happening right in the reserve. Eco-tourism, it seems, is mostly a catchy label. At Tetepare, however, the rangers are serious about their conservation area and patrol to enforce the rules. Those we spoke with were excited about the results of their monitoring. In the water, they’re seeing more fish, and bigger ones. On land, they see healthier populations of coconut crabs, and are proud to report the number of critically endangered leatherback turtles they’ve hatched and watched return to the water (leatherbacks, until recently, were one of their favorite foods). We thought the snorkeling was fantastic. A swarm of barracuda as long as my leg circled around me while monster yellow-striped sweetlips schooled below me. We counted more than 10 enormous bumphead parrotfish, a 4-foot long algae-eater that looks kind of like a blue submarine. These are all popular table-top fare that we don’t see in big groups most places, and we were pretty impressed that people are resisting the temptation here. Unfortunately, we did not get to see two of the big attractions-dugongs and leatherbacks. Until recently, several dugongs lived in the lagoon in front of the lodge. Over the past few years, a lot of the seagrass in the lagoon has disappeared, and the rangers are not sure why. Dugongs eat seagrass, so they’ve not been hanging around as much. For the leatherbacks, we were just a big too early. In the 2007 tsunami that hit the Western Province of the Solomons, Tetepare lost a lot of the leatherbacks’ nesting beach. The turtles are still coming, but the rangers have to carefully relocate all of the eggs, a job they take seriously and exercise with great care. Guests at Tetepare are allowed to tag along and watch the turtles nesting and hatching at night, but the turtles hadn’t yet started nesting while we were there, so we did not get to see any of these rare giants. But, we did get to see creepy saltwater crocodiles lurking in the mangroves near our boat, awkward hornbills flapping their huge black wings above us, a tiny cuscus clinging to a vine in the dark (they’re like possums, but cuter), and the 3-foot long goana, or monitor lizard, sunning on the beach. It was pretty exciting to see the first non-bird-bat-or-rat land animals we’ve seen since the Galapagos (not counting all the goats, pigs, and cows, of course, or the land animals in New Zealand, which you are supposed to hate because they are not native, but I liked them anyway). These critters can be found on some of the other islands as well, but they are harder to find (and we had not seen any cuscus or goanas) because gardens and logging have destroyed their habitat, and, in some cases, because people eat them. In Tetepare, the people believed that the last people left on the island became the goana, so they do not eat them. They also used to worship sharks and crocodiles, so they did not kill them either Since we spend so much time in the water, just having an opportunity to go for a bit of a hike to see a few big trees and a few of the land critters was a treat. Disappointed at missing the leatherbacks, we next sailed to neighboring Rendova, where the rangers told us that the turtles were nesting on the weathercoast. There is no safe spot to anchor near the nesting beach, however, so we tried anchoring on the other side, hoping to walk over to the turtle beach. It turned out to be a long walk, complicated with tribal boundaries, the difficulties of convincing a local that some “waetfelas,” even women, actually can walk on a flat beach for more than 10 minutes at a time, and the fact that you cannot walk anywhere in Melanesia without a guide. We never made it to the turtle beach. But, we did manage a decent walkabout to “look-look place.” A friendly man led us from an old logging camp along the beach to the next village down. Along the way, we waded across two murky rivers. The second one, he assured us as he stepped into thigh-deep water, was not deep and had no crocodiles. We stopped to say hello to his dad, who asked if our legs were sore from the long walk. Then we started on the return trip, shortly after which our friendly guide picked up the pace considerably, and I wondered if he was in a hurry and I’d been rude not to take the cue earlier when he kept asking Rob if I was still okay. The reason for the sudden speed walking became clear when we hit the first river. While we’d been walking, a significant squall had passed through and the river had flashed. “We go easy-easy,” coached our guide, as he stepped into muddy water up to his neck. “Okay, now we go quicktime.” “Are we going quicktime because there really are crocodiles?” I whispered to Rob. “Definitely.” “And because it’s so muddly I can’t see my hand, or a crocodile, two inches below the surface?” “Absolutely. You stay right next to me.” “Okay, but I can’t reach the bottom unless you let go.” Right after we crossed, a couple of tiny 10 year olds on their way home from school shed their clothing and plunged in, swimming across the river. As far as we can tell, there’s a downpour at least once a day in this part of the Solomons, so the river probably floods about every three days. The only road to school goes right through the rivers, but it’s okay, because crocodiles only eat people if you bother them. We’re getting ready to leave the Solomons to head to Papua New Guinea now. I had hoped to post some photos from the Solomons before we go, but the internet in Gizo is so slow I gave up and decided to post from the ham radio instead, so I’m sorry for all the pictureless text. And if we’ve been slow to respond to emails from any of you, we’re very sorryÂ…there just isn’t enough internet to go around.

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