|The Goldridge Mine pit in Solomon Islands|
History records that the first European to come to Solomon Islands, Alvaro De Mendana, in 1568 gave the archipelago its name because he believed this area of the South Pacific was where King Solomon got the gold he used to build the Temple of Jerusalem. The Spaniards did search for gold during their exploration of the islands, but somewhat fruitlessly such that they left and never returned.
Over 400 years later, the search for gold is still on. In a span of less than five years, the Solomon Islands Government had announced issuing more than 60 prospecting licenses and two mining leases, one of which is the country’s only operating mine–Goldridge Mining Limited. Another company is prospecting for minerals on Vangunu, the largest in the chain of islands that make up the country’s biggest lagoon, Marovo, and on New Georgia Island of Western province. In the Shortlands group not far from the Papua New Guinea island of Bougainville prospecting for gold is underway, while in neighboring Choiseul and Isabel provinces nickel has been found.
Solomon Islands is a post-conflict country which for 10 years now been working hard to find ways it can prevent a recurrence of conflict. The social unrest of the late 1990’s to 2003 was due to a myriad of issues, one of which was failure by successive governments to equitably distribute the benefits of economic development.
Natural forest logging which has been the leading export for decades is projected to decline steeply by 2015 and the search for alternative industries that can fill the economic vacuum left behind by logging is becoming more urgent. With the increase in prospecting, the country’s emerging mining industry is likely to grow, hence the need to get landowning groups and would-be-affected communities to have a better understanding of what mining is about, and how it is going to affect them.
|The environmental impacts of mining is among Janet Vickers' concerns.|
A few months ago I asked Janet Vickers, a local who hails from the nickel rich area of Gao Bugotu in Isabel province, what her concerns about mining were. She indicated she worries about: “A lot of destruction to our land, rivers and sea. The companies would leave after making millions of dollars. Only a few people will benefit from the mining, but the majority of us will remain the same, if not worse. If we are not careful, members of the same family or tribe will fight over royalty payments, leading to potential conflict and even death.”
I then asked another woman, Mary Bollen, what concerns she has about mining. Mary is from Guadalcanal province where the Goldridge Mining Limited is operating, and several other companies are prospecting for gold and other minerals.
“A lot of $$$,” she said. “Like what we’ve already seen in the forestry industry, foreigners will come, make their money and ship out as quickly as they came. We the landowners are left with limited financial gain and a lot of environmental damage. Women will suffer most in terms of finding new land for gardening and travelling long distances to collect clean drinking water for their children.”
The testaments of Vickers and Bollen underline very deep concerns of Solomon Islanders about the mining business. The Solomon Islands government is well aware of the concerns and is taking steps to create awareness around the extractive industries and help people get the information they need.
|Women participated in the first national discussion about the mining industry in 30 years.|
Last month, the World Bank supported the government to stage a national mining and community awareness forum, in partnership with a local leading NGO, the Solomon Islands Development Trust (SIDT). Participation included officials from the Ministries of Mines, Energy and Rural Electrification; Finance and Treasury; representatives from mining companies, provincial governments, civil society organisations and mining communities from Guadalcanal, Isabel, Western and Choiseul provinces.
The forum created the opportunity for all those who attended to learn about how mining is being conducted and how the Solomon Islands government and the landowners could maximize benefits from mining operations. It was the first national discussion about the industry since the country gained political independence over 30 years ago. “We’ve seen people from companies who want to do mining come to our village. But we don’t know how we are going to benefit from it. This forum helped cleared a lot of our misunderstanding,” said Janet Vickers.
These are some of the key messages expressed by the participants at the end of the three-day event:
- The forum was an eye opener to the world of mining and to the fact that more information and awareness about the mining cycle and the role of government is needed
- We don’t want the country to make the same mistakes of the logging industry
- Capacity still needs to be built – the Ministry of Mines has insufficient staff and capacity to provide oversight
- Wrong decisions can lead to harm
- Communities and CSOs have a role to play in the mining sector
- Solomon Islands need to learn from the mining experiences of other countries like Papua New Guinea
The Minister for Finance and Treasury, Gordon Darcy Lilo, who attended the forum, announced a week later the Solomon Islands government’s commitment to adopt the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI).
Jenifer Wate from the NGO that co-organised the forum was happy for the collaboration with government and mining companies to engage in a conversation with resources owners about mining.
“The fact that half of the forum participants were women was a big achievement,” she said.