“The Once pristine River, Chovohio is now a Lifeless Waterbody”
“Eat like a King, and sleep like a rat!” This is a common phrase in the Central Guadalcanal region, Solomon Islands.
Indeed, it’s a region where “milk and honey flow.” The fertile farmlands, the pristine river systems, the gold and earth minerals, and the rich unique cultures.
But alas! Some of these are only dreams of the past, especially environmental degradation and culture.
Chief Michael Kelly, a traditional Chief of the Turarana Cultural Centre of Central Guadalcanal, lamented his life experience of the worst environmental disaster in his home.
“Chovohio River is lifeless now, since the Gold Ridge Mining operations upstream. It’s a man-made disaster that causes it to remain milo as it is till now. I am just a kid when we enjoy swimming and catching fish along this river during its pristine days.”
The Turarana community has more than two thousand people, it was located inland of the Guadalcanal plains, along the Chovohio River. The Head of the river is Gold Ridge Mining and its river mouth is the Metapona area where the first European to explore the Solomon Islands, Alvaro de Mendana discovered a piece of Gold Bar, and thus he gave the name the Solomon Islands to this archipelago.
One of the community elders and chairperson of the Turarana Health Center Mr. Benjamin Rex confirmed years back, there was the worst disaster when the living creatures in the river died out due to mining activities upstream.
“Some years ago, we were talking about this issue, that Gold Ridge Mine should compensate us, but it never eventuated. I don’t know what happened. We experienced fish and other living creatures in this river die, also the river dried up due to high sedimentation.”
He added, the unfortunate thing to happen is their community has been divided over these issues.
In recent years, the village was taken by shock, when another mining company, Win Win Mining Investment Company Ltd entered Turarana for mining through a few individuals claiming to be representing the people.
An outspoken village elder, and Chairman of the Koehoto Landowners Association of Turarana, Mr. Joel Jackson expresses his disagreement.
“We already have a problem with Gold Ridge mining operations upstream. We lost our precious resource to it, our river. It’s a dead river now and is drying up! Our children keep experiencing illness and skin diseases from the poisoned river.”
He added, “Mining activities upstream continue to destroy our environment, especially sedimentation build-up and during flooding, it destroys our food gardens and even our homes.”
He said, “Unfortunately, this Chinese Alluvial mining firm, Win Win Mining entered from nowhere. What’s the government stand for us indigenous people?
Former Director for mines, Nicholas Biliki confirmed, the way Win Win Company’s mining leases were granted is questionable.
“Since they started operations back then, I decided not to give them export licenses for several reasons.
“Firstly, they didn’t meet the standard mining requirements, yet they were given the Mining Lease by the previous government and former mines Director.”
“Secondly, they cannot do mining in terms of finances, as well as technical know-how, and they won’t generate revenue and would rather make a loss.”
“And thirdly, the company has no independent body to carry out an independent environmental assessment, knowing pretty well the environmental disaster already happening there.”
“Therefore, my board decided not to grant them a mining export license.”
However, the Minister for Mines Bradley. Tovosia uses his discretionary power and grants them export licenses in 2021,” he said.
He said the bottom line is that we don’t have a serious government which creates a poor investment climate that scares away genuine and reputable mining investors.
“In mining investment, we have a sovereign risk, thus, reputable mining companies are afraid to invest in the country. That is why we have fly-by-night companies like Win Win which are coming in to exploit our resources. They will only squander our resources, and leave us with nothing.”
“As a former director for mines, how the mining industry was managed in this country is filthy and disgusting,” he said.
Security at the Mine sites
The mine site guards disallowed people to take videos or pictures, and even journalists to pass through their gates.
Last weekend, Win Win Company’s Managing Director Dan Shi was arrested by the police for using a firearm to threaten local people against his controversial operations. That’s how serious their security grips are.
But while waiting to grant the export license, years back, Mr. Joel Jackson uncovered interesting documents from the Solomon Islands Customs Duty.
“Although the company was not allowed to export gold, Chinese always have their way around when it comes to dealing with money, ” he said.
“We discovered from the Solomon Islands Customs that Win Win top officials have been using our local gold dealers to export gold, a pure breach of the Solomon Islands mines and mineral act.”
Millions of dollars worth of gold have been shipped off the Solomon Islands right in front of the eyes of local authorities by the Winwin Mining officials through local gold dealers.
The company has been using local gold dealers’ licenses to export gold from 2019-2020.
During this period, the duo Jeremey Rex and Primo Keni were found to have exported 17 shipments of gold worth more than 30 million Solomon Islands dollars.
Documents obtained from Solomon Islands Customs Duty have established the names of consignees who have used these two locals to export gold. The consignees include the Win-Win Mining Managing Director, Dan Shi.
Mr. Biliki, who has been vocal about the legality of the operation till he was forced to quit the top job under the guise of retirement age last year confirmed the exports.
“From May 2019 to early 2020, more than 70 kg of gold or with an approximate value of SBD 30 million was shipped out through a local dealer’s license. When I realized this, I decided not to renew their license when it expired.”
The consignment was exported mainly by Winwin Managing Director Mr. Dan Shi to Singaporean buyers.
Thus, Turarana landowners, the Guadalcanal Province, and the National Government were deprived of royalty, taxes, and community assistance payments.
However, on the issue of alleged illegal gold buying and exporting, Win Win Managing Director Mr. Dan Shi emphatically denied the accusation.
“It is not true. There is no illegal gold buying. There is no gold smuggling either. Sending Samples overseas for laboratory analysis is a normal part of exploration since the country does not have the laboratory facilities to undertake gold assaying. We always do things by the rules,” he said.
He added, “With the issue of gold buying when Win Win was granted a mining lease for the Turarana tenement, there were landowners who continued to do gold panning in our tenement. As title holders of the tenement, we have the right under the law to stop the people from panning for gold on our tenement; but it was difficult for us to stop them because it is their livelihood.”
He said they sought and received advice from the Ministry of Mines, Energy and Rural Electrification on the matter, confirming they have been giving money to the local dealers to buy gold.
“Given the difficulty of obtaining hard cash, especially for women and children doing gold panning, coupled with the high cost of transportation to Honiara to sell off the panned gold, we were given the ok to financially support a gold dealer from the locality to buy gold from the locals and export it to our buyer because after all, they were landowners and they need to survive,” he said.
“Win-Win applies the same standards when it comes to exporting gold. And the Minerals Division sat on our application to export gold for a year. It was frustrating but we are grateful that in the end it was given to us,” Mr. Shi explained.
But Mr. Biliki said, “We sat over their application for years because they do not meet the standard mining practices. We also have a standard mineral assaying lab here at the mines department. Why send it abroad?”
He added, “My board was neither given, nor allowed Win-Win to buy and export gold through and using local dealers licenses as its a reserved business for locals only.”
Local landowner and community Chair of the Koihoto Landowners Association, Joel Jackson confirmed the arrangements.
“We were suspicious about the deal, but after we carried out a thorough investigation, we found out that these Chinese were aiding these two locals to export gold out from the country”
“It is very clear that the miners have been giving money for the two named local cold dealers to pay from landowners, and later export for them.”
He added, just this month, Win Win told women panning to pan for gold and sell it back to them.
The Gold dealer, Primo Keni confirmed he was being used by the Chinese miners to buy gold.
“It’s not only Win-Win that exported through my License, I had other Chinese in Honiara also using my license. Win Win gave me money to buy from the local gold panners too.
Section 55 (1) b (iii) of the Mines and Mineral Act stated:
“Gold dealer’s license 55.
-(1) The Minister may issue a gold dealer’s license to (a) any licensed bank in the Solomon Islands; or (b) any person who – (i) is over twenty-one years of age; (ii) is a citizen of Solomon Islands.”
However, there’s a huge mismatch between documents from Solomon Islands customs and documents produced by Winwin mining company.
Win Win produced a document that claimed to have produced only 14.5Kg of gold from July 2019 to May 2020.
This is worth just more than USD 800 thousand.
Customs Comptroller Jim Sutton when contacted earlier for an interview could not comment on the issue, he rather referred the matter to the Permanent Secretary of the ministry of finance.
But during this September Parliament sitting, Minister for finance and treasury Hon. Hurry Kuma confirmed the illegal gold dealing with the Win Win mining has been dealt with administratively.
“Certainly Mr. Speaker carrying or smuggling of gold or exporting without licenses is a breach of our customs act but the customs act as well it allows them to seek an administrative settlement which they did through advice that can be done purely based on economic reasons at that time, company has just started working and given the important contribution of the company to the nation, especially during the challenging time of covid-19 pandemic we thought it would be sorted out administratively,” Mr. Kuma said.
Also, supervising minister for Mines Hon. Lanelle Tanagada said, “Win-Win despite not having a mining history, they have done due diligence to meet the standard mining requirement.
Leader of the Solomon Islands Parliamentary Opposition Mathew Wale said the company has been operating illegally and has had lots of breaches involving them which the government always overlooked. Win-Win is a company that continues to breach our sovereign laws without being prosecuted or even terminated. They try to smuggle gold, and they even export gold without having export licenses. This only exposes the weakness of the government. These mining officials must be held accountable.”
He warns, “The government must not repeat and inherit the problems experienced in the forestry sector.”
The Minister for Mines’s involvement
The Minister for Mines Hon. Bradley Tovosia’s involvement in the mining deals keeps influencing the Mines and Mineral Boards (MMB) decision, Mr. Biliki alleged.
“Whether the Mines and Mineral Board approves the Mining Lease application or not is not the issue anymore since the Minister has the discretionary powers to overturn any MMB decision, which he has been doing this practice over the years, since the Minister can solely overturn MMB decisions.”
“Currently the Minister has been issuing licenses to Winwin to mine alluvial gold within the Balasuna areas in East Guadalcanal, as well as a letter of intent to mine nickel in Isabel Province.”
The Balasuna Mining Tenement is currently under dispute.
“Win-Win did not have the technical capacity to mine the nickel deposits and also it did not follow processes, or not be a genuine investor.”
But when contacted earlier about issues surrounding the Minister for mines, Bradley Tovosia about his relationship with Win Win Mining, he said these issues have been ironed out.
“These are long-time issues that we have settled.”
Food security threat
Women and Children planning for gold confirmed Win Win has been buying gold from them through Primo Keni.
“We have no option but to sell our gold to them because at the end of the day we need money for our families.”
“This operation enters and destroys much of our areas for gardening, and so we have to pan for gold to make our living,” says one of the women panners.
A mother, Prista Leta said, “We pan for gold to make our living, this is our daily work.”
Chief Michael Kelly said the operation has put their livelihood at stake.
“Our livelihood is being put at risk. We have our river being contaminated by the Gold Ridge Mine, and now Winwin keeps expanding its operation.”
Mr. Jackson also shared similar sentiments.
“The only fertile area we normally do gardening is now being mined. Current operations have destroyed much of our garden, and when valued by the Ministry of Agriculture for compensation, the company has its way and decided not to pay for our gardens as valued by the Ministry. They pay for $1 per head of our crops instead of the $10 rate by the Ministry.”
A young girl from Turarana who wished her name withheld said, “What money I’m I looking for? I have gold here. I’d rather pan and earn money than go to school.”
This resonates well with a motto in the Central Guadalcanal Region, especially Gold Ridge and Turarana areas that goes: “Eat like a King, and sleep like a rat.”
“Gold will finish one day, our children need education the most,” says Mr. Joel Jackson.
“I am a school teacher, and seeing children just leave school and rather do panning for gold is a pity. Their priority is money, not education, and that’s a serious concern here. It pains me to see our children who should be sitting in the classroom daily, instead they stand by the riverside, panning for gold.”
Risolo Billy is one of the fathers who led his small family out by the riverside daily for gold panning.
“Here, our easiest way for gaining a few hundred dollars a day is to pan for gold. It’s easier for us, even women and children, to earn money for ourselves,” Mr. Risolo said.
“Sometimes my children go to school, and sometimes they help us pan for gold, but I’d rather have them help me pan for gold. That pays off.”
Gold panning dominates daily family work as it gives good returns.
Cultural values affected
Turarana community is a Cultural Center for the indigenous’s Guadalcanal people Movement called the Gaenaálu Movement. It has unique and rich cultures in the county and is now under severe threat.
Chief Michael Kelly who was the cultural leader of the movement said, “Whilst everyone is busy with mining and the money comes with it, culture is our backbone.”
Culture binds us together as people for ages and generations. Let’s not get carried away by the huge operations. They are here for a short time. We and our generations to come are here forever. We shouldn’t forget our unique cultures.”
Cultural elder, Chief Romano Maneni said Guadalcanal Island and the Gaena’alu movement are bound by eight pillars only known to themselves and as the founding principles of the movement established by their founding father, Chief Moro.
“I’m afraid these pillars are collapsing now. These young generations are poisoned by money and foreign influences.”
“They go drunk daily, causing all sorts of problems to themselves and the entire community. It’s a disgrace to our culture and our people.”
“Fighting ourselves isn’t part of our unity, now becoming common. It’s a sad thing to see happen among my people.”
An outspoken man, Joel Jackson said, “Our youth’s behavior and attitudes changed and our culture is soon to be forgotten. Now youths knew nothing about our culture. The young generations have lost their minds and are being brainwashed by lots of foreign lifestyles.”
Also, Mr. Joel Jackson alleged, the company paid for the grave sites for the people only SBD 5,000 per grave for their mining operations. Unfortunately, instead of removing the graves for another location, they only dug up the graves without properly burying them.
“The sad reality is that they didn’t re-bury the dug-up graves. This undermines our cultural value for the dead.”
Child labor, Human Trafficking, and exploitation
Mr. Joel Jackson raises concerns about child labor and human trafficking.
“Lots of our young women and girls have been exploited by the miners.” I might have no hard evidence, but seeing young single mothers with half-caste fatherless children speaks for itself. You don’t need a rocket scientist to give you an explanation,” he said. “It happens everywhere.”
Child labor and Trafficking are happening and are rampant here right now. Sad!”
“Our Association is currently talking about forcing the government to Stop this operation.”
Gold panning activities here as well as mining had given rise to child labor Mr. Joel said.
“Here, every child learns to pan and dig for gold as young as four years old.”
The Solomon Islands ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child on 10 April 1995 which promotes and protects young persons from all worst forms of child labor, and further ratified the Child Labor Conventions on Worst Forms of Child Labor, No. 182, in 2012 and the Minimum Age Convention, No. 138 in 2013.
The mess of gold dealing and mining will go on for years to come as the government continues to delay the tabling of the Mine and mineral Act amendment bill.
The Bill is proposed to be tabled in parliament’s next sitting in November this year.
Currently, the country only depends on the outdated Mines and Mineral Act 1969 which has too many loopholes that allow miners to exploit people and their resources.
By Charley Piringi and Fredrick Kusu
About the authors:
This article was Co-Authored by Charley Piringi when he worked for the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation (SIBC) with the assistance of SIBC’s Fredrick Kusu. The article was written with the support from the Earth Journalism Network (EJN).