Logging and local communities

Drawing from the above story, let us now explore how the Solomon Islands forestry industry and the global forces associated with it interacted with local communities. In this exploration, it is important, as Lockwood notes in relation to the Pacific Islands more generally, to understand not only what motivates foreign interests, but what motivates local people ‘as they encounter globalizing forces, and how their particular cultural lenses shape the ways they choose to interact with those forces’ (Lockwood 2003: 10).

In most instances, what motivates many customary landowning communities to engage in logging (or any large-scale natural resource development) is the potential financial benefit that it brings. Those who allow logging on their land often do not have access to other forms of income generation, or other forms of income generation are too labour intensive, they do not have readily accessible markets, and have relatively low returns. Hence, for them it makes perfect sense to allow the extraction of timber in return for rent, even if that rent makes up for only a small percentage of the value of the log on the international market. Indeed, for many customary landowners the resource rents from logging constitute amounts of money that they would otherwise never have access to, or would never be able to make producing copra or cocoa, etc.

Hence, for people who struggle daily to find money to pay for basic needs such as clothes, kerosene, salt, sugar, soap and school fees, the decision to allow logging on their land is a rational one. It allows them to have access to and enjoy the goods and services that the global economy has to offer.

One of the reasons why policies aimed at reducing logging and anti-logging campaigns have often failed is because they have not offered alternative sources of income generation. Alfred Ghiro from Central Makira, for example, accused NGOs such as the Makira Conservation Foundation of trying to stop logging in his area without providing people with alternative sources of income generation (SIBC News, January 18, 2006). Because of people’s desire for goods and services offered by the global market economy, environmental conservation by itself is insufficient. It is easy to sit in an air-conditioned office, enjoy all the trappings of the global market economy, and tell people who struggle daily to find money to pay for basic needs that they should not sell their forests.

In contemporary Solomon Islands societies the cash economy has become an important part of people’s livelihood, and land, along with resources such as forests, often provides the only means to have access to it. This was, for example, aptly put by Enoch Sila from North Choiseul: ‘Lan ia sapos hemi stap nating, bae iumi no garem selen long hem ia’ (If the land stays idle, we will have no money from it) (Personal conversation, April 14, 1998). Land is therefore important, not only in the traditional sense as a source of food and a place of residence and identity, but as a potential source of income.

Another interesting development has been how local societies transform in order to accommodate logging and the money that it brings. Logging companies search for landowners for purposes of negotiating timber rights, and for the legal and corporate structures they need. They often expect landowning entities to fit into those structures. This influences landowning entities and how they organise themselves. Fa’anunu (unpublished) discusses how in North New Georgia, the Christian Fellowship Church organises its members into ‘blokos’ (blocks) as the social basis for planting and owning trees in forestry plantations. She explores whether this means changes in land tenure and, if so, how they work. Hviding (2000) discusses how the social changes associated with forestry in North New Georgia centre on the Christian Fellowship Church and the traditional butu butu (tribes), and how that has proven to produce positive outcomes in terms of the community’s ability to provide social services — education and health — for its members.

In some cases landowning groups have formed themselves into ‘companies’ to resemble the corporate industries that they are dealing with. Consequently, from the mid-1980s, we have seen the establishment of ‘local companies’. In 2005, for example, there were about 24 foreign companies, or contractors, working under contractual agreements with about 89 ‘local companies’, or licence holders. The formation of local companies has important implications for how landowning entities organise themselves. First, the structured nature of companies creates hierarchies and immediately excludes certain people, especially women and youth, from the affairs of the community. It is often the case that big-men and those who are formally educated take on active roles, and in time dominate the affairs of the landowning group, or local company. This influences the way in which the community relates to the land and to each other.

These changes in social organisation surrounding land are not unique to Solomon Islands, or to the forestry industry, and do not necessarily mean that they are ‘inauthentic’, or ‘unMelanesian’. Rather, they are interesting local reactions to the involvement of corporate powers in natural-resource development. Ernst (1999), Filer (1998) and Golub (2004) have discussed how mining triggered social changes and definitions of landowning groups in PNG.

In many cases, the demand for land and the injection of logging money often unwraps the complexities of local communities. As I said earlier, landowning communities are rarely homogeneous entities. They are made up of a dynamic group of people who have varying backgrounds, opinions and interests. Enoch Sila, a big-man of the Sarabani landowning group in North Choiseul, for example, said that his decision to sign a timber rights agreement was influenced not only by the Eagon Resources Development Company (SI) Ltd’s promise that ‘sapos iu givim kambani lan blong iu bae iu wanpala rich man’ (if you give your land to the company you will become a rich man), but because of pressure from other members of the landowning group. As Sila stated in March 1998:

… olketa wantok blong mi tu … Olketa sei, ei, bos, ma olketa olo olo blong iumi olketa onim lan ia olketa olo pinis ia. Ma sampala kolsap dae. Taem olketa dae hu nao bae tekem seleni. Ating gud chanisi olketa stil laev. Mekem olketa olo olo blong iumi tekem lelebet seleni bipoa olketa dae. Den mi sei, Oh no! nomoa nao! Olketa se nomoa iumi go. So, mipala go saenim (… it was my wantoks [relatives] who said, ‘Hey boss, our elders who own the land are now very old. Some of them are about to die. If they die, who is going to take the money? It’s good they are still alive so that they receive some money before they die.’ I said, ‘Oh, no! No!’ But they said, ‘Let’s go.’ So, we went and signed. (Interview, March 17, 1998)

This highlights the debates that go on within landowning groups and how decisions are made. In other cases decisions were made by a few who were able to exert control over the landowning company. In these instances, it often incites disharmony, as illustrated in the case of Lokuru on Rendova in the documentary film Since the Company Came. Much of the discontent within landowning groups often centres on the distribution of income, especially in cases where the big-man or those with formal education benefit more than women and the rest of the community.

Further, those who control the ‘local companies’ and the incomes accrued from royalty payments often become powerful individuals, creating new power dynamics within the community. We see the traditional big-man’s position being challenged, very often by younger and formally educated individuals who are more knowledgeable about the world outside of the local communities. One could argue that there is nothing new in the emergence of new big-men who challenge existing ones. That is the nature of politics in many Melanesian societies. The difference, however, is that the power of the new big-men is derived from the existence of logging operations and their accumulation of wealth from it. It is, therefore, often not in their interest to see the logging companies go, or the wealth from logging distributed equitably among members of the landowning group.

Logging money could also create dependency and reduce economic productivity because the landowning community becomes so dependent on logging rent it simply sits and waits for the money. The local saying ‘lif blong akwa nomoa tok’ (it is the leaf of the akwa tree that talks) implies that one does not have to work, but simply wait for money to come from logging rent — for money to fall from the trees.

Much of the discussion on forestry centres on the State, logging companies and the mismanagement of logging money. It is also true, however, that some of the money from logging is often used for traditional social obligations, or for individuals to establish themselves as big-men. Hence, from a capitalist point of view, such money has been misused because it is not invested. For the Solomon Islander, however, the money has been used to lubricate social relations and fulfil traditional obligations. This is an example of how global capital is used for local purposes. Of course, this was not always the case, and it is also true that income from logging is often misused.