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Opinion: Solomon Islands, The Quick, Easy Fix

Solomon Islands: The Quick, Easy Fix

By John Roughan

Solomon Islands most recent history of resorting to the quick, easy solution to its many deep, structural problems once again reared its ugly head in the proposed toxic waste dumping on Makira's Weather Coast. It is difficult for many, certainly for outsiders, to understand how national leaders could be so blind to the long lasting deadly effects of dumping wastes laced with heavy,disease-causing metals onto particularly fragile lands until the nation's brief 24 year history of independence is taken into account. Over the past two and half decades, national leaders have consistently, continuously and constantly reached out to embrace the quick, easy answer to difficult problems rather than facing the painful task of searching for the local and do-able response. A brief detailing of how the quick, easy fix has been a clear governance pattern may be of help.

1978 - 1986 Golden Era

During its first 8 years of independence, the Solomons made steady, if slow, progress in carving out for itself a place in the sun. The nation started out well. On independence day in 1978, for instance, there were no war wounds to heal--UK had handed over the country to its leaders in a peaceful and dignified manner; there was little if any ethnic strife among people of different islands, and the country's economy was basically robust, few debts hanging over its head. It was gently launched on its way with a $35 million dollar golden handshake from the departing colonial power, England.

Unfortunately by the early 1980s, the Solomons' cash crops of copra, cocoa and tuna fish were weakening on world markets much like other developing countries' products. Cyclone Namu in 1986 seemed to have been a turning point, however, in how the political elite governed the state. The major oil palm plantation and the rice venture, both on Guadalcanal, were hard hit. Rice growing, however, was given a death sentence which it never recovered from. In the eyes of many but certainly of political leaders, our development pace had been too slow. The country had experienced little progress in their eyes. Large scale logging practices heated up disastrously in the next dozen with a logging frenzy driving the country to an early grave.

1987 - 1997 Leaden Period

During this period the nation witnessed a significant cash flow through the sale of round logs, the forgoing of millions of dollars for the national revenue in the form of duty remissions to logging companies--$109 million from 1994 to 1997 alone--and members of parliament's use of their Constituency Development Funds.

Behind this massive 'Money Curtin' a few became rich, very rich, at the expense of many village and town people. Handouts, however, were used to retain loyalty of the many. Businesses, especially logging companies and those closely associated with them, were subsidised by government at the expense of rural based development activities. Although government was constantly informed that the rate of logging exports could not be sustained, those in charge felt it was the only way to access enough money to keep the system going. They were more than willing to destroy Solomons' tree wealth to keep the flow of money constant.

However the day of reckoning for the majority of parliament came during the national elections of 1997 when more than half of sitting parliamentarians were dismissed, the first time so many members had been thrown out of office in a national election. In hindsight it is evident that the 20th century's last national election was a wake up call to the nation: reform yourself, stop depending on the quick, easy answer or face the consequences. Unfortunately, the nation but especially its national leaders were so hooked on the quick and easy solution, that it became the wave of the future.

1998 -1999 Toxic Period

The Guadalcanal people were the first to rebel after waiting for more than 20 years for their grievances to be responded to. They had asked as far back as 1986 to have greater control over their resource base but their pleas fell on deaf ears. In spite of their voting in a new parliament, it turned out to be business as usual. As their political masters had taught them over a dozen years, they too chose the quick, easy fix--physically drive out all intruders on their lands--rather than dialoguing, discussing and talking about the issue.

The results were spectacular, in the short run; disastrous in mid-term and its lasting effects in the long term difficult to determine but real nevertheless. They, the villagers of Guale's Weather Coast and those inland which had suffered the most over the two decades of independence with poor schools and worse clinics were now in a worse condition than ever. The quick, easy solution had turned on them and bit them terribly.

2000 - 2001

Malaitan leaders' response, unfortunately, was no different. Blinded by the loss of life, the suffering of so many of their wontoks and a doubtful future if the trend continued, they too resorted to the quick, easy solution to deep rooted problems. The June Coup of 2000, much like the reaction of the Guale people, had spectacular results immediately . . . the Coup Masters controlled the State, dictated the Townsville peace terms and fattened on compensation claims and others methods to enrich themselves quickly and easily.

However, the mid-term consequences was to actually destroy the very thing they wanted to control the most, the State and its economy. Long-term, the destruction of a unitary State is now almost assured. They too, the ordinary villager and town folk, like the Guale people have become the biggest losers.

In the late 1980s and mid-1990s the political elite willingly destroyed the nation's tree wealth, now in the early years of the 21st century many of these very same leaders went a step further by destroying the State and its economy.

2002 - ????

Our present toxic waste solution to our deepening and fundamental problems but repeats the pattern of leadership and fellowship behaviour of the last 16 years . . . embrace the quick, easy way rather than wrestle with the deep rooted problems of over population, growing levels of poverty in a nation with many rich leaders, decline in quality education, weakening medical services, low morale of public officers, etc. etc.

Important as money is to the nation's basic health, our fundamental problem is, not lack of money, but one of the spirit. Until we, leaders and followers alike, give up our insane plan of thinking somehow that the rest of the world owes us a living, that money is the only solution to our deep seated problems and that the outside world that will save us, we will continue our search for the quick and easy.

Our list of the quick, easy solution whether Asian logging, force of arms, coup and now the importing of toxic waste are added to politicians' previous brainstorms of swapping our tree wealth for Saudi Arabian oil, bottling bush oxygen, manufacturing petrol from sea water, etc. etc. Previous leaders willingly destroyed the forests for quick results. Others followed by destroying the State for the very same end. Now the toxic importers are willing to destroy the very nation for much the same purpose. The list of the quick and easy seems endless! Only by studying and addressing the nation's structural weaknesses, as painful as this will be, will help bring back the Solomons to a responsible way of living.

- John Roughan

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