By Dr. Tarcisius Tara Kabutaulaka
In the logging industry in Solomon Islands, forest owners are relatively powerless. Their participation in and influence over policies and legislation is at best minimal. Logging companies are much more powerful. They have access and influence over politicians and civil servants and often manipulate processes and regulation to favor them. They are backed by the Solomon Forestry Association (SFA), an organization that is influential, not only in the logging industry, but also in politics.
Let me tell a story about what happened in Choiseul more than 20 years ago, but which is still relevant today. In 1992, Eagon Resources Development Company (SI) Limited started logging in Choiseul. It first operated in the areas around Moli before moving to north Choiseul and set up camp at Tarekukure. On October 11, 1995 representatives of the Sarabani landowning group signed a timber rights agreement with Eagon. The principal signatory was Enoch Sila, who had previously worked as ‘coordinator’ (middle-man) for the company. In an interview with Enoch on March 17, 1998, he said the company promised him and other members of the landowning group that, “sapos iu givim kambani lan blong iu bae iu wanpala rich man”. There was also pressure from other members of the landowning group: “Olketa sei, ei, bos, ma olketa 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. So, mipala go saenim”. However, the signing of the agreement was not witnessed by area council, provincial member or forestry officer as required under the Forest Resources and Timber Utilisation Act, and the landowners were not given a copy of the agreement. They therefore did not realise that they had signed an agreement which was not the same as the prescribed form provided by the Forests and Timber (Amendment) Regulations 1985, and which did not include five important clauses of the SLA – clauses 18, 21, 29, 31 and 34 – which provided for protection of the environment and landowners’ rights.
In late 1997, Enoch, acting on behalf of Lazarus Nalegolomo, David Lomimi, Jacob Valukama and Solomon Poloso (the trustees), took the matter to court. His intention was to declare the agreement null and void because it did not follow required procedures and was not on the prescribed form. On February 18, 1998, the High Court ruled in favour of Enoch and ordered that the landowners be entitled to either: (i) repudiate the logging agreement signed on the October 11, 1995 on the grounds that the agreement signed is not in the form provided for by the Forest and Timber (Prescribed Forms) (Amendment) Regulations 1985 (‘the prescribed form’) or (ii) substitute the logging agreement signed on the October 11, 1995, with the prescribed form logging agreement in its entirety including clauses 18, 21, 29, 31 and 34 thereof together with schedules relative thereto.
A representative for Eagon said it was an unintentional oversight. The Choiseul provincial officials and the forestry division agreed with the company. Enoch, however, thought it was intentional because the company wanted to avoid the responsibilities provided by the regulations. On March 2, 1998, Steve M. Watt, the lawyer representing Enoch Sila and the Sarabani landowners, wrote a letter to the permanent secretary of the Choiseul Province suggesting that the province be more careful in its dealings with logging agreements: “In future, before signing any Form 3 Certificates as required under the timber rights procedure, Choiseul Province should ensure that the logging agreement presented by the company is identical to that of the prescribed form. If the agreement presented is not, then the Province should refuse to sign the Form 3 Certificate”. But the company came out the winner. It’s logging licence was never revoked and it did not pay financial compensation. It simply shifted to nearby lands and continued logging. In 1998 Enoch told me he intended to take the matter to court to seek compensation for land logged using an “illegitimate licence”. But he could not afford the legal fees. Justice can be prohibitively expensive.