Logging in Solomon Islands: a background

In the past ten years, logging in Solomon Islands has attracted considerable debate, both nationally and internationally. The discussions have centred around (i) the unsustainable rate of log harvests; (ii) the country’s increasing economic dependence on log exports; and (iii) allegations of corruption—especially in relation to politicians and public officers receiving bribes from logging companies.

Large-scale commercial logging started in Solomon Islands over thirty years ago. From 1963 to the early 1980s most logging took place on government land or customary land leased by the government, and the industry was then monopolised by Levers Pacific Timber, which accounted for around 75 per cent of log production. However, from the early 1980s there was a shift from government land to customary land (which makes up around 87 per cent of the total land area in the country). This period was also characterised by an influx of logging industry multinationals, mostly from Southeast Asia. During the period from 1981 to 1983, the number of logging licences given to foreign companies increased fourfold (Fraser 1997:41). This sets to rest the argument that communally-owned land or customary land is less likely to guarantee security of access, and therefore less likely to attract foreign investors. The fact that foreign logging companies swamped Solomon Islands at a time when logging was mostly on customary land is an indication that they have established a means of acquiring ‘security of access’ and maintaining it for a period long enough for them to accumulate substantial profit.

The increase in the number of logging licenses issued to foreign companies resulted in a rapid increase in log production, and by 1981 it had gone beyond sustainable levels (Fraser 1997:42; Montgomery 1995:75). By the mid l990s timber was being exploited at a rate that significantly exceeded the potential sustainable yield, which in 1995 was about 325,000 cubic metres per year (Solomon Islands Government 1995). Log exports in 1994 and 1995, for example, were 659,000 and 748,500 cubic metres respectively (Central Bank of Solomon Islands 1996:16). This was more than double the potential sustainable yield at that time. Consequently, it has been estimated that if current levels of log production continue, commercial trees may be depleted in less than a decade (Fraser 1997:51; Dauvergne 1997:6).

The increasing log production was exacerbated by the fact that by the beginning of the l990s Solomon Islands had become economically almost entirely dependent on logging. In 1990, for example, timber contributed 34.5 per cent of the country’s total exports. This increased to 54.9 per cent in 1993. In 1994, it contributed 56 per cent of the country’s export revenue and 31 per cent of all government revenues (Montgomery 1995; Fraser 1997). In 1995 it made up for 49.4 per cent of principal exports (Central Bank of Solomon Islands 1996:16).

Furthermore, insufficient finance, and the lack of technical and human resources to monitor logging operations has meant that it is difficult to implement state forest policies, and in particular environmental rules. Consequently, many multinationals in the industry break the regulations and get away with it. The Solomon Islands Division of Inland Revenue, for example, does not have the financial, technical and manpower capability to prevent or counteract corporate schemes to evade taxes (Price Waterhouse 1995:78). Dauvergne also noted that structural defects in Solomon Islands’ forest management policies have enabled ‘multinational investors to operate with remarkably poor harvesting and environmental standards, and make windfall profits’ (1997:8). The problem was further exacerbated by the withdrawal in 1996 of the AusAID-funded Timber Control Unit. This unit, set up to monitor logging operations and the activities of corporate powers, had its funding withdrawn after relations between the Solomon Mamaloni-led government and the Australian government went sour (Solomon Star, 2 April 1996). This means that Solomon Islands lost out on millions of dollars worth of potential income from forestry. Further potential income was lost because of government policy to exempt some logging companies from paying export tax. In 1994 it was estimated that SI$34 million was lost through the government’s decision to exempt some logging companies from paying export tax (Duncan 1994:10). This was particularly the case for ‘locally owned’ companies such as the Prime Minister’s own Somma Ltd. Also, under-reporting of log volumes is estimated to have cost Solomon Islands SI$96 million in revenues evaded and foregone in 1993 (Duncan 1994:16). It is these situations in the forest industry that have raised widespread alarm both locally and internationally. However, so far, the campaign to slow down the rate of logging has been unsuccessful. Unsustainable logging continues unabated.

Hence, one is confronted with the questions (i) why is it that the unsustainable logging continues unabated despite evidence of its negative environmental, social and economic impact on Solomon Islands? and (ii) what is/are the solution(s)? So far, most literature on logging in Solomon Islands is either historical (Bennett 1995), or focuses on discussing forest as an economic commodity (Duncan 1994; Montgomery 1995). This is not surprising given that the logging industry was indeed viewed by the state and others as a resource of economic value to the country. However, the problem with such an emphasis on the economics of forestry is that often it fails to acknowledge the social factors that influence people’s decisions. It is, therefore, necessary to discuss (i) the impact of land tenure on sustainable forest management and (ii) how social organisations affect decision-making on logging.