Different visions of land use at heart of kastom dispute

Augusta2Augusta Ali Seo was a young woman in 1963 when the British colonial government was trying to take control of a large tract of her ancestral land on the southwest coast of Santa Isabel Island, Solomon Islands. Administrators from Honiara were looking for land across the archipelago to convert to forest reserves. They figured that once these ‘uninhabited’ areas were in government hands, the forests could be better managed, including for commercial forestry.

Government officials with local mediators succeeded in negotiating transfer of 75,000 acres from the customary owners to their control. The land - known as the Allardyce Tract – today retains the name of the company to whom its care was entrusted - the Allardyce Lumber Company.

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Isabel clan fights for land on two fronts

James KeraAn irony of the land feud at Allardyce tract on Isabel Province’s southwest coastline is that the vast majority of land being fought over has not come under landowner control for almost half a century.

How the colonial government actually took it over is not easy to decipher but according to an account by one group fighting for its return, in 1963 its custodian Andrew Kera unwittingly signed an English-language document which transferred ownership of customary land belonging to the clan to the colonial government. Kera had authority to speak for the clan but spoke neither English nor Pidgin. The fact that complete transfer was against kastom led them to believe there was an element of deception.

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Landholders Grow Rice

The boat trip from Kia village through the narrow passages between the mainland and Barora Ite Island eventually spills onto expanses of coral, sometimes too shallow to pass inshore. From the open sea, coconut groves line the ever changing water line, from mangroves to sandy beach and back to mangroves again.

First HarvestCompared to the north coast of Santa Isabel, this stretch on the way to the Allardyce tract is relatively free of log camps. Obscured by a small island, the camp at Ruruma is visible by the logs stacked at the water’s edge. But there is little activity. In March 2008 - barely a month after they had started their logging operations - Ruruma Development Company (RDC) and its logging partner Mega Enterprises were told to cease all logging in an adjacent area owned by the Isabel provincial government.

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