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Logging, Mining and Climate Vulnerability in the Solomon Islands

The Solomon Islands (SI) possess an eco-region with distinct rainforest and some untapped minerals. The archipelago is ranked one of the highest categories having been named 'globally outstanding’ in the 1998 global biodiversity analysis. However, uneconomical logging activities have been the mainstay economic sources for more than three decades. Aided by the influx of foreign logging companies and increasing issuing of licenses, the country has been logging at a rate 2 to 4 times more than the sustainable yields making the industry the largest generator of employment and dominant contributor to exports and government revenue. Based on World Bank data, net forest depletion in the country has been increasing at an alarming rate of five times each year in the last ten years. The Solomon archipelago is also highly vulnerable to climate change and the country had the first township in the Pacific to be fully relocated due to climate change threats.

Although logging exports have slowed down in recent years, commercial forest resources are expected to be exhausted, with the SI Forest Management Project (SIFMP) forecasting extinction by 2015. As forest exhaustion looms, extractive resources have emerged as the next viable economic sources. The SI have one operating gold mine at the Gold Ridge in Guadalcanal Province, while large scale mining exploration is underway across the country, mainly nickel mining in the Choiseul and Isabel Islands.  Although mining is at an infant stage, the expectation around its potential has appeared to be out of proportion. With efforts geared towards achieving these expectations, the social and environmental impacts have found less attention hinting at a repeated syndrome from the logging experience. In 2012, the Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining (CSRM) at the University of Queensland in Australia has had the opportunity to witness first-hand the social and environmental impacts of mining activities.

Commissioned by the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC), CSRM was tasked to evaluate the impacts of the SI’s first mining operation and in particular the resettlement process carried out by Allied Gold Ltd at the Gold Ridge mine. In the resulting series of monitoring reports based on field interviews, observations and meetings with all relevant stakeholders and in particular communities, a number of social and environmental issues were raised with recommendations. Given mining started to joint-account (with logging) for more than 40% of GDP, there has been massive livelihood shift into mining. The main social issues include land entitlement uncertainties, loss of housing and customary livelihoods, lack of capacity and background to adapt to new ways of living mainly gardening, issues with the newly erected resettlement housing, lack of water and schooling for children due to the added distance from the existing schools and water sources, and the danger of social conflict as a result of clustered community groups from various villages with varying cultures and norms.
The Gold Ridge mining has also been the cause for several environmentally damaging impacts on water sources and soil. The CSRM reports identified repeated cyanide spills from the tailings dams and their damaged tubes onto the downstream river (Metapono River) contaminating the waters and affecting their living organisms such as fish, which are sources of drinking water and food for the downstream communities. Acid drainage and removal of vegetation were highlighted as major environmental impacts killing all life (fish, animals and plants) in the river and the close-by land. This risk has been exacerbated following the heavy flooding in April 2014 which caused the volume of the water in the tailings dam to be beyond the environmentally safe level. As St Barbara, the company currently operating the Gold Ridge mine, left following the flooding which affected the mine and caused security threats, there is currently a dire situation whereby dangerous levels of arsenic and cyanide could overflow to soil and water bodies. The situation also threatens to cause social conflict and uprising. Developing the economy of the islands is important but the mining and logging operations need to be undertaken with far greater care and a long-term resilience perspective. Only with such a proactive approach will the SI and its half a million population can sustainably benefit from the resources that are historically believed to be king Solomon’s wealth.