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Blame Them! Shame Them! And Then, Con Them!

Blame Them! Shame Them! And Then, Con Them!

By John Roughan
20 March 2004 - Honiara

Currently Malaitan landowners are blamed for holding back Malaita Province development. Public statements -- provincial-level pronouncements, Bigmen's observations -- have the effect of shaming landowners to give up the only protection they have: their land, their resources, their very means of continued existence.

Resource owners are publicly painted as being too traditional, too old fashioned, out of touch with the modern world. If only they would give up their land--thousands of acres for an oil palm plantation there, or an overseas shipping point here--then multimillion dollar investments would soon flood in and transform the province almost over night. The major reason why this is not happening, we are told, is there are too many land cases facing the courts, too many 'olos' who don't have the right attitude and who are not in tune with the 21st century.

But isn't this the time to examine carefully why the 'olos' are slow to give up their land? What lessons have Malaitan people learnt about development in past years that makes it impossible for them to allow their land to fall into the hands of others?

Malaita's basic development problem is simple as it is clear: too many mouths to feed, too little land to grow the much needed food and that both problems grow worse yearly. Once this basic problem--too many people on too little land--is solved, then freeing up land for development will take place. People are not stupid. They know in their bones that their land is the only resource that guarantees their own and their children's future. Rosy promises of future wealth, vast amounts of money and the easy life, remain that . . . just promises. Land is the basic reality. Take that away and Malaitans (and the rest of the Solomons as well) soon disappear.

Malaita's road to real development runs through the garden. A guaranteed food supply is the fundamental first step in development. Yet the Solomons, including Malaita, is in fast forward going in the opposite direction. National imports of rice, flour, cereals, etc. costs us more than $20 million yearly. Food insecurity grows yearly. Other countries--Australia, New Zealand, etc.--are more than happy to export food to us because they make big bucks. The Solomons food security has been in sharp decline since independence. Once Malaita achieves food security, then other advances are possible. But to think that landowners will give up their only guaranteed source of life--few have pensions, almost none have an NPF or bank account to fall back on, the wontok system is weakening--is foolish in the extreme.

The second step to transform Malaita's landowners is to get inside the mind of its people. While the rest of the world worries about the Information Highway, computer literacy, the Internet/email, etc. the Solomons literacy rate remains shockingly low . . . not more than 4 out of 10 islanders read or write. No nation will long exist with such low literacy rates no matter how much land it boasts, how brilliant its people and how bountiful its bush and sea. A major investment in a nation wide campaign of information, awareness building and education is critical to bring Malaita to its full potential.

The third advance which must be in place before landowners are willing and more importantly able to give up their most precious asset--their land holdings--is to help them focus knowledge on their resource base. For example, Malaita fishermen have a vast store of invaluable information about the surrounding seas, its sea life and much, much more. How then to use this information base to increase our food security! Our local medicine men whose knowledge of shrubs, bushes, tree bark and a host of other natural medicines is unsurpassed. Let us tap into this expertise. The world has entered into the Knowledge Age and we in the Solomons, using the islands' nature base, must travel the very same road.

Once Malaitans establish food security, fully grasp the need for deeper knowledge both of their own and modern world and apply that very knowledge to their resource base, then, and only then, will landowners feel free to involve their land holdings. Blaming, shaming and literally conning them to give up their most precious land can not work. Of course the three steps outlined will take time but in the end the island of Malaita will develop because its people will already be developed.


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