BREAKING NEWS

‘OUR LAST SOIL POCKETS’ PART I

-“The Rennel bauxite mining operation was ‘messed up’ from the start. -“Who is going to feed our generations to come?” -“What’s left for us after mining?” #earth_journalism

West Rennell Landowner, Jimmie Festus Tsinahuitu|Photo: Charley Piringi #earth_journalism

The Bauxite Mining operation in West Rennell has been dubbed “Messed up” by the country’s highest mining official.

The new Director of the Ministry Mines, Nicholas Biliki told SIBC News that the process of land acquisition and the eventual granting of the mining lease to Asia Pacific Investment Development Ltd (APID),was done in haste.

“I have to admit here that the way the then government handled the process of land acquisition and granting the mining lease does not abide by the mining regulations. The whole process has been messed up from the start.”

While climate change continues to threaten the island’s lives, human-made disasters are just as costly, placing people’s livelihoods at stake. 

For Rennell people in the Solomon Islands, the ongoing logging and mining operations have over the years torn the rocky atoll apart.

A little kid looking at a bare rock left by bauxite mining in West Rennell.

The coral atoll has soil pockets scattered all across the Island where people do gardening for ages. The soils in those pockets are largely bauxite ore.

But, according to landowners and some officials, more than half of West Rennel’s soil (Bauxite) has been shipped out.

“For ages, our livelihood depends on soil pockets scattered across the island. Now, more than half of West Rennell has been shipped out. After mining operations, I don’t know how our next generation will survive,” said Ajilon Jasper Nasiu, former Speaker of the National Parliament of the Solomon Islands.

Logging operations have covered the entire atoll whilst mining concentrated at the Western end disadvantaged the majority of the population as only few people are benefiting. 

The two mining firms competing for bauxite in Rennell are the Indonesian firm, Bintang Mining Company Ltd sub-leased by APID and a Chinese firm, World Link Mining Ltd. 

Nasiu said the operations were rushed and his people will suffer the consequences once the mining operations leave the island.

Barren rocks left by the bauxite mining in Rennel Island.

The issue has sparked not only debate but divisions among Rennell people, said Chief Allen Toupongi, blaming successive governments for the mess.

“Our government has indeed forgotten us. What will be left for us once mining operations leave our shores?”

Former Solomon Islands Prime Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo defended his government for initially granting the mining lease to the Asia Pacific Investment Development (APID) in 2014, saying his government did the right thing.

“My government granted the mining lease when we were in caretaker mode. Where my Minister and Director of Mines back then acting under the Mines and Mineral Act powers vested upon them granted the mining lease. But we agreed on a 20% export duty tariff. Not until the next government took from us, they reduced the export duty tariffs to zero percent.”

But the questions resources owners are asking are:

“What’s the benefit for the country from the Rennell Bauxite mining?”

Or what is the environmental, societal and economic cost it has on the Rennell Atoll?

The government that took over from the Lilo-led government admitted that the Solomon Islands benefitted nothing from Rennell bauxite mining operations.

“Sadly, the Solomon Islands have not benefited from the Rennell mining operations,” says Former Prime Minister Rick Houenipwela.

While the blame game is flaring among government authorities, people who on the ground have already felt the pinch of top-level decisions.

 Jimmie Festus Tsinahuitu, one of the landowners whose soil pockets have been mined, regretted the decision he made in the first place.

“At the moment, I am planning to venture into Kava farming. Sadly, the soil pockets I should use for farming have been mined and shipped out.

Before signing up my land, the company promised that I was going to be benefitted once I signed up my soil pockets.

But now, I know that I am being fooled to have my soil pockets mined. After all, these are all years of struggles, even to get our small payments from the company.

Chief Allen Taupongi of Tingoa Community, West Rennell described the land acquisition as the ‘Cheapest negotiations’ he had ever seen.

“Look at San Jorge mining operations by the Australian Axiom Mining in Isabel Province, negotiations have gone on for almost 10 years now but the actual operations have not even started as yet. I mean that is how good that operation is.”

West Rennel kids playing with model mining trucks

He questioned the government, once the 25 years mining lease lapses, what is next for the people?

“Our ancestors have been using these soil pockets for hundreds of years and once these soil pockets are completely mined, who is responsible to keep supplying for our daily livelihood?”

Nasiu shared similar sentiments.

“Both the National and provincial governments have been making noises about agriculture here and yet they allow mining to keep digging up our remaining soil pockets. But once all these pockets are dug out, where else could we practice agriculture. Already we have left with barren rocks here.”

The remote atoll is becoming dependent on the processed foods from the shops due to a shortage of land to do gardening.

Also irregular shipping services to the atoll poses yet another risk.  

A mother, Meto Kaniko who spent most of her time gardening to meet her family needs shared her struggle.

“What we have now is that only a few middlemen are currently benefiting from mining.

Currently we have no place to do gardening. Our soil for gardening has been shipped out.

Ships are not regular here too. Sometimes once a month, otherwise once every two months. People are hungry here now and once the mining operation stops, there is no place for gardening and the people will face problems never seen before.”

The current Renbel Provincial Government has recently realized that they are losers in their land.

Renbel Provincial Premier Willie Tuhagenga said his government is in talks to halt mining operations in the Islands. 

“We are now discussing how we can put a halt to this mining operation.

Look at Nauru, it is a small island like us but during their phosphate mining operations, they have businesses and even purchased high rise buildings in Melbourne, Australia. But unlike our case here, even to put food on the table is still our daily struggle.”

A pro-miner, John Tsingi’ia whose soil pockets were currently mined said communities have been benefiting all along.

Continuous shipment of the bauxite ore in Lavangu Bay, Rennell Island

“Benefits are only for those of us who open our land to be mined. Benefits like development of our football pitch, housing materials, fueling our vehicles, and food supplies from the mining camps.”

But Nasiu reiterated, apart from food security issues facing the island, the barren rocks left behind by the mining operations will surely last for centuries to rehabilitate.

In addition, the environmental damage of the 2019 oil and bauxite spills on the marine ecosystem will also take ages to recover while landowners are still awaiting compensation for the damages. 

Former Renbel Premier Lence Tangosia who was behind the whole operation and lavishly enjoyed the miners footing his $4 million bills at the Heritage Park Hotel in Honiara some years spoke out against the operation.

“I call for oil spill compensation for my people. The government must act.”

But the former Minister for Environment Dr. Culwick Togamana said part of the oil spill challenge was that the Solomon Islands have yet to ratify the Bunkers Convention.

“Recently, we have signed the Bunkers Convention, which was just approved by the cabinet, and the next step was for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to ratify that. After that, we can have the power to hold those responsible for their reckless actions,” Togamana said.

MV Solomon Trader when it ran aground in Lavangu Bay, Rennel Island, spilling more than 200 tones of heavy Crude oil in the ocean. Photo by Australian Maritime Administration (AMSA)

The Bunkers Convention is the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Convention adopted to ensure there are adequate, prompt, and effective compensation available to persons who suffered damages caused by spills of oil, when carried as fuel in ships’ bunkers.

The Convention applies to damages caused on the territory including the territorial sea and in exclusive economic zones of States Parties. It was adopted on March 23, 2001 and enforced on November 21, 2008.

Many attempts by phone calls and visits to get comments from either APID or BMC offices remain unsuccessful. 

Officers at the APID and BMC Office in Honiara told SIBC News:

“Our Managers were still abroad due to COVID-19.”

But the World Link Company whose license was canceled for non-compliance with the mining regulations in 2017 accused the Solomon Islands government of favoritism towards APID and BMC.

The mining is almost a decade into full operation now but the operations left so many unanswered questions on West Rennell elders of what the future holds for its next generations.

“Who is going to feed our next generations after mining? Chief Taupongi asked.

The government is currently working on amending the Mines and Mineral Act 1969 which a lot of commentators saw as outdated.

At the same time, the government is also busy fast-tracking three additional mining operations to the country.

by Charley Piringi

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