Solomons: LAND . . . is THE Issue!
By John Roughan
Solomon Islanders are deeply convinced that the land issue lies at the heart of the country's current problems. Our many national difficulties directly link back to the whole sensitive feelings about land. It's at that heart and centre that drove (and continues to drive) the last five years of Social Unrest. But exactly what is it about land that is the problem? Why are land-issues considered so fundamental that people drove former friends, sometimes relatives, away and at times hurt, destroy and even kill them.
First of all the issue is more, much more, than simply a problem about legal ownership. Even if each square inch of land were under the strictest clear title, recognized in law and backed up by the power of the state, the land issue would remain a matter of grave concern. In other words, the land issue is much more than a matter of legal ownership laws.
And the land issue is much more than a struggle for the basics of life . . . food, water, shelter, etc. As in many other aspects of Solomonese life, the word land acts as a code word. This short, four letter word carries enormous meaning for people. As early as 1893 when the British government took over the running of this small nation, land took on new meaning which were not present previously. A piece of land, not worth thinking twice about, became exceedingly important when that very piece of land became the place where government set up its shop. Tulagi, for instance, possessed great importance in the 20th century's first decades. But all that changed in 1945 when Honiara was born after World War II and it replaced Tulagi. Currently Tulagi's land-worth carries but a fraction of its value than it did in earlier days.
In other words, new wealth was created over night when government chose one place over the other. Rather than speak about land it would be more accurate to think about it as a resource. The outside world sees land more as a resource base, a commodity, something that is bought and sold. Land is something that can make profit, money. Solomon Islanders, on the other hand, understand it not as a commodity, not something that can be bought and sold but a reality close to life. As Aliki Nono'ohimae, the Are'are chief and co-founder of Maasina Ruru, stated: 'We don't own the land but the land owns us.'
But over the past fifty years, land as commodity has become the new dynamic. People now understand that certain pieces of land--coconut, cocoa, oil palm plantations, water sources, gold deposits, flat lands for airports and towns, etc.--possess much more value than others. In the minds of many, land has become a valuable commodity and people want what it brings . . . money, wealth, power. Henderson Airport's land, for example, is no more valuable than other sites on Guadalcanal's plains area. But with an international airport resting on it, this small piece of dirt is now worth millions and millions of dollars. Land owners see this small piece of land terribly valuable and know it could bring millions of dollars to themselves.
This clash of world views comes close to the problem. The investor--the person who invests the golden dollar, lots of them--demands the biggest return on any profit. He takes the biggest risk (could loose all his money) and therefore demands the largest return. But the landowner says no! It's his land and he should get the giant amount of money. Unfortunately for the landowner, that's not the way the world works. The guy who brings the gold (investment money) makes the rules. It's called the Golden Rule! That's the way the big, outside world works. If we don't like the Golden Rule, keep the investor out. But if he does stay out, and indeed he will, then all our land and resource base will simply stay the same for eternity.
Our current Social Unrest years is rooted in 1987 when politicians, the political elite and local land owners thought they could get rich over night. Easy! Bring Asian loggers in, let them rape the country's valuable tree wealth and money would easily roll in. Of course money did come but in small amounts compared to the millions that the trees were worth. Asian loggers paid landowners $35 a cubic meter while they reaped thousands of dollars from the same tree. When Solomon Islanders rebelled and did their own tree cutting, a cubic meter of timber could be worth more than $2,000. While villagers can harvest trees, it is hard to do the same at Gold Ridge. Mining needs millions of dollars of special equipment to do the same.
Yes, our basic problem is land but land meaning its worth in dollars. If Gold Ridge villagers, for instance, want mining to begin again, then a massive amount of education, awareness raising and information campaigns have to begin immediately. Will people accept the idea of an outside investor bringing in millions of dollars but taking out millions of dollars more than the landowner? How much money is a fair deal for land owners? Certainly the miserable amount Bougainville people received from the Panguna Mine--.25c in every $100 of profit--is wrong. But what is a fair amount for both the investor and the land owner?
That is why a many-year, well funded (by potential investors, less the state) program of bringing people up to a proper understanding of how the big world works is critical. Liken foreign investment to a football game. Our side can never win the game because the foreign investor owns the football (investment monies), makes the rules (so that the investor always wins big) and controls the referees (the law, courts and military might)! We have a choice, however. Play the game and work like mad to secure the best deal or keep the investor from our land and do it all ourselves.
We fool ourselves.however, to think that a cluster of new land laws, some political promises and a few getting rich solves the land issue. Massive education and awareness campaigns going on for years is the only road for people to understand and perhaps accept the outside world's unjust ways of acting. There's no guarantee that this will happen but I can absolutely guarantee that without a massive education thrust our land problems will only grow more difficulty. The basic problem is less about secure land titles and more about knowing the fundamental difference how local people understand land and how those with the dollar see land.