Forest Resources

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.

“Once under government control, decisions were made which were damaging to the landowners,” states a document commissioned by members of this group who claim ownership of large parts of the tract. “That is, in 1965 and again in 1993, approval was given to companies not equipped for sustainable forest resource development, to extract logs using crude techniques which bring about extensive damage to soils and to non-marketable trees.” 

During the earlier period, regulations prevented landowners negotiating directly with foreign logging companies. What the government takeovers of customary lands achieved was to lure foreign loggers into the rich forest estates and give them security on ‘government-owned’ land. If investors felt the government owned the land, they would be more likely to negotiate its commercial exploitation. But these ‘purchases’ were resisted in some areas. Where they succeeded, as in western Santa Isabel, resource owners - by contrast with resource investors - were left with uncertainty about their rights and insecurity of tenure. Was the government buying the land or just leasing it? What would happen to its title when loggers had finished with it?

Here the government acted as chief broker smoothing the clash between commercial investments and customary rights. But misunderstandings slid easily into opportunistic deceptions. The natural wealth of the forests belonged to their customary owners but once that wealth could be commodified as ‘timber rights’, there were incentives to fudge questions of ownership, especially where landowners were disorganized on contractual issues or simply trusted the government’s intentions.

If the late Sir Dudley Tuti is to be believed, Andrew Kera made a deal which was marked by a clarity at least in his own mind. The former Paramount Chief of Isabel and head of the Church of Melanesia signed a statutory declaration in 2004 which stated –

“At the time he spoke with me in the Zabana language and made it clear that he did not intend to transfer ownership of the land, but only the timber rights. This was correct according to the custom of the Zabana area of Santa Isabel. I know this because I am of the same language group, following the same customs as those that bound the late Andrew Kera.”

Point of DepartureBut for a long part of the industry’s history, lawmakers continued to generate confusion in the forests and litigation in the courts. In the 1980s, logging applications opened the way to endless disputes over who owned customary land. These quarrels were complicated by separate procedures for determining ownership of land and ownership of the commercially valuable ‘timber rights’. A judge’s interpretation in 1989 acknowledged that ”the right to grant the timber rights and the identification of the people with that right is entirely separate from any mention of the landowners”. It was an invitation to clans and tribes and the individuals within them to contest rights in order to seize control of land for their own purposes – capturing revenue, preserving parts of the resource or launching a business partnership with a rival logging company.

Judith Bennett in her history of Solomon Islands logging cites original terms at Allardyce as including an initial payment of 10 cents per acre and a 10% royalty payment for 25 years. As it turned out, Cyclone Ida put an end to Allardyce’s felling operations in 1972 when they moved to another province. But the tract was not returned to its owners at this time.

The colonial government policy was to establish a patchwork of state forests which it would hand over to loggers on short-term lease. It was not until 1984 that the national government - now run by Solomon Islanders - enacted laws that recognized provincial governments had a role to play in managing forest development ‘on behalf of the owners’. But in the hands of the first Mamaloni government of the early 1990s, the shift of control to the provinces was part of a plan to weaken central regulation by carving up the Forestry Division.

It was not until 1997 that the new government under Prime Minister Bart Ulufa’alu came up with a policy to hand back land alienated during the colonial period to the original landowners. However, in 1998, instead of returning it directly to landowning groups, title was transferred to provincial governments as trustees. The government believed that sorting out the true owners would be a task best handled by provincial officials.

Santa Isabel islanders waited for Ulufa’alu to implement his promised land reform but his government was forced out in the civilian coup of June 2000. The titles to these lands remain in the hands of the Isabel Premier to this day.

The Premier Reuben Dotho told Telinga Media in the province’s capital Buala that at the time of transfer several logging companies were seeking to purchase the Allardyce tract from the national government.

“The provincial government came in and said ‘no’. We’d like to take this back and look after the land for the provincial government of Isabel,” the premier said. “So that is how we got it back. It was not given back free. We had to purchase the land from the Commissioner of Lands.”

He says any transfer from his government to landowners must be handled carefully so the land is returned to the right people. But a larger issue delaying hand-back seems to be the province’s policy of requiring landowners to present development plans before return of title. In fact, the province is watching how landowners fare developing plots that have already been returned. This so-called registered land is at the centre of a dispute at Allardyce tract right now as family members assert different visions of how the land under their control should be developed.

Against the wishes of their cousins, sons of the late Andrew Kera have brought in loggers to coastal plots known as Sugouna and Ruruma. Through their Ruruma Development Company (RDC), they have established inland rice cultivation with the assistance of their logging partner.

RDC manager James Kera told Telinga Media that rice growing can lessen dependence on imported food: “The message I want to show is that more local people will grow rice and leave the sea resources so that we can work in agriculture way again.”

Such food growing is supported by the national government and is being monitored by officials in Buala.

premier_dotho“We do not dictate to landowners,” Premier Dotho explains. “What we normally say to the landowners is that if they would like to undertake certain developments on the land, they have to inform us. So they must specify what projects they would like to undertake so that it’s within their capabilities.”

Mr Dotho says his officials are waiting for a report on how Allardyce can be developed, especially for its agricultural and forestry potential. Consultations with landowners, he says, will involve inviting them to express what kind of development they prefer on those still unreturned areas.

In the meantime, logging is going ahead at pace, channeling royalty income to the provincial government, not the landowners. However, the premier points out that 5% of log royalties is going to landowners to help them start their own projects.

But another RDC manager Alan Nepia believes the Province has shown a “lack of good vision” in inviting logging companies without any development: “The company only come and harvest and go back.” This is why both he and James Kera say the Province’s deal with the Malaysian loggers Glengrow is purely a money-making exercise. Instead of doing deals with logging companies to harvest virgin forest, Nepia says, it should enter into partnerships with the landowners.

“The province should establish some agreement, maybe 50-50, with original landowners so original landowners can establish some project or go into economic development.”

The different approaches have been aggravated by the fact that the Buala government is pursuing RDC and its logging partner in the High Court for encroaching on the concession area awarded to Glengrow.

While seeking to protect its income from logging in the High Court, the provincial government is focusing on the bigger picture of attracting investors to Isabel. Like their colonial predecessors, the security of government controlled land is an incentive for winning large-scale private investments, something Premier Dotho and his staff have so far been unable to do. Nor does he believe Isabel is getting its fair share of projects from the national government.

This does not bode well for either side of Allardyce’s divided landowning groups. The historic return of alienated lands would likely make large-scale infrastructure projects less attractive. It is also unclear whether the provincial government (or anyone else) will assist with the rehabilitation of logged areas once they are returned to the customary owners. Such repair will be needed if Allardyce’s custodians decide to re-populate it with residents currently living as guests in overcrowded Kia village.

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