19 Nov 2013

Forum says no to mining in Solomon Islands' Isabel

5:19 pm on 19 November 2013

Plans for mining in Solomon Islands Isabel province are on hold following a forum that aired strong opposition to the activity.

The meeting brought together more than 150 delegates from the church and the community as well as developers and government officials.

Annell Husband reports.

Nickel was discovered in Isabel more than 40 years ago and an Australian mining company, Axiom, has been eyeing the region's substantial deposits for several years. In 2011 the company signed a 50-year deal with landowners for a 45-square kilometre area estimated to contain nickel ore worth almost US$60 billion. The Solomon Islands government appears committed to exploiting Isabel's mining potential but the ministry was not available for comment. Now another company, Sumitomo from Japan, is also keen to start prospecting but delegates at the forum resolved that Isabel is not ready. The president of the Church of Melanesia's Mothers' Union says people are worried mining would increase existing social problems. Moira Dasipio says Isabel is already dealing with teenage pregnancy, alcohol abuse and domestic violence.

"MOIRA DASIPIO: There are lots of social issues. That's what we were really strong on - that we are not ready in mining. It's a big development and there will be many people from other countries or even different provinces in the Solomon will be also in here in Isabel."

Moira Dasipio says despite a matrilineal system in Isabel province, traditionally women have not been equal partners with men in making decisions about land use. She says women must contribute 50 percent to discussions on mining. But the paramount chief of Isabel in Solomon Islands says his province is not big enough to support mining operations. Bishop James Mason, who works for an Anglican diocese in Britain, says living outside of the country has reinforced for him how small Isabel is.

JAMES MASON: And we are vulnerable to many of these climate changes and if we were to mine these places then resettlement would be another disaster. Bishop Mason says the land tenure system in Isabel would not allow for the relocation of those displaced by mining activity.

But the environmental organisation that hosted the forum is not alone in claiming the Solomon Islands government isn't able to monitor effectively the one mine already operating in the country. Gold Ridge mine in Guadalcanal province is the subject of ongoing accusations over environmental pollution and breaches of the law. The Nature Conservancy's programme director for Solomon Islands, Willie Atu, says the government cannot oversee additional mining operations.

WILLIE ATU: We only have one mine in Guadalcanal and currently the monitoring and even going out there and having a ...The government lacks facility and capacity. So like if this happens on another island it would be heading on more challenges for the government.

Willie Atu says people also want a revision of mining legislation so benefits are shared more equitably. That's something on which the deputy premier of the neighbouring province, Choiseul, is calling for action. Alpha Kimata says companies are also eyeing his province for nickel and bauxite but their operations would bring little local benefit.

ALPHA KIMATA: Six feet below it belongs to the state. Therefore any rental of the land belongs to the Solomon Islands government, not the province. We only get money on licence, provincial licence.

But Isabel's premier says the region also needs lawyers experienced in striking mining deals. James Habu says while exposure to overseas communities' experience of mining would be beneficial to those in Isabel that would be affected by mining, the province lacks experienced negotiators.

JAMES HABU: We haven't negotiated for a mine in our experience. Most of our legal people here do not have the long-term attachment to the mining industry to be aware of how you negotiate benefits.

Premier Habu says agriculture and tourism are alternatives to mining - but the difficulty is developing them in time to make up the shortfall from logging's decline.