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Oil Palms for Malaita

Oil Palms for Malaita

By John Roughan - Honiara, Solomon Islands.

The Aluta Basin area in east Malaita is currently earmarked for major palm oil development. Malaysian investors as well as the Stabex Fund are seen as primary sources of much needed funding to get such a major project off the drawing board into the real world.

As Alfred Sasako, Minister of Agriculture, recently stated: 'There has been no major development project on Malaita since the Solomons gained independence in 1978'. In the minds of some, moreover, the lack of infrastructure and job creation on Malaita island is the root cause why its manpower journey across the nation seeking paid employment.

As hard as it is to attract the necessary investment millions, finding willing investors will prove to be the easy part. The hard part is much more home grown. Resource owners are publicly painted as being too traditional, too old fashioned and out of touch with the modern world. If only they would give up their land--thousands of acres for the oil palm plantation--then multimillion dollars would flow into the province. The thousands of jobs created by the palm oil industry would transform Malaita into a thriving and prosperous province.

The major reason why outside investment is not happening on Malaita, we are told, is there are too many land cases facing the courts, 'olos' don't have the right attitude and they are not in tune with the 21st century. But isn't this the time for all to sit down and examine carefully why many 'olos', women especially, are slow to give up their land holdings! What are the lessons Solomons people have painfully learnt about development in past years that makes it so hard for them to allow their land to fall into the hands of others?

Malaita's most pressing problem is both simple as it is clear: too many mouths to feed, too little land to grow the much needed food and 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. Villagers 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 just that . . . promises.

In the early 1990s a New Zealand forester, Ross Cassells, measured the forest's value in terms of food produced, water secured, fuel, building materials, traditional herbal medicines, and recreation from the forests. His study took place on Choiseul at the height of the Eagon company's logging extraction. The Kuku village people had been promised great benefits from their round logs shipped overseas.

The annual value of an untouched forest for a 7 person household, as worked out by Cassells, was more than $10,000 each year. The logging company, however, to get at the trees it wanted, destroyed garden land, nut trees, betel nut palms, sago palm and food and fruit trees. firewood, timber for housing, canoes, medicine,etc. and offered only a fraction of the forest's worth. The company's one time royalty payment to landowners didn't come close to what a family harvested yearly when there was no logging.

As with other landowners across the nation, foreign investors--logging companies, cash crop plantations and others--promise one thing and deliverer something quite different. Memories of profound loss lie deep within village people's hearts. Cassells' valuation of a Solomon's forest only slightly touched upon its full worth. The forest's true wealth--water protection, strengthening garden soil, villagers' recreation, wood products, etc.--are only hinted at. A palm oil plantation, if not properly conceived and implemented, could easily become a source of profound difficulty in the years to come.

Of course Malaita--and other provinces as well--need deep, significant and on going investment in villagers' lives. A palm oil plantation could be an example of a worthwhile investment but only if the dangers underscored here are addressed. A massive education program, face-to-face dialogue, theatre presentations, easy to read pamphlets, workshops and so on, all at the village level, are a vital part of preparing landowners to part with their most precious asset.

Unfortunately time is not on our side. This massive awareness campaign should already be in full swing. Finding an investor with deep pockets is less important at this stage than having village land owners fully on side.

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