The Solomon Islands in the Pacific Region is endowed with idyllic beaches and vast biodiverse rainforests. But beneath its picture-perfect scenery lurks a troubled reality.
The country already bears the brunt of climate change impacts such as rising sea levels and frequent typhoons of escalating intensity.
But perhaps what concerns its remote, Indigenous communities most is the extent of unsustainable and allegedly illegal logging that has begun to decimate their natural forests.
To uncover the rampant unsustainable logging in Solomon Islands, investigative journalist Ofani Eremae from the Island Sun Daily News Online sought to embark on a journey to Korona on San Jorge Island in the Solomon Islands’ Isabel Province – a region that is heavily threatened by logging activities.
Eremae applied for an EJN story grant through the Asia-Pacific Project and was awarded travel funds to make the trip in November 2020.
“The illegal logging in Korona was a gross violation of the country’s environmental laws. That’s really what drove me to investigate this issue,” Eremae said. His investigation exposed the illegal activity of two multinational timber companies on San Jorge Island – and brought it to a halt.
In 2017 alone, the country exported three million cubic meters of logs – nearly 20 times more than conservative estimates of what would constitute an annual sustainable harvest – according to a 2018 Global Witness study commissioned by the country’s ministry of finance.
The Solomon Islands has more than 2.2 million hectares of forest covering about 80% of its land area, which is spread over some 990 islands, but at this unsustainable rate, the study indicated that the country may be stripped of forest by 2036.
Travel to San Jorge Island is difficult and expensive. To visit the remote communities, Eremae had to get on a boat for an eight-hour journey from Honiara, the main island.
Once he arrived in Korona, Eremae was particularly intent on exploring the impacts of logging on tubi, a rare tree species protected under the Solomon Islands’ Environmental and Wildlife Protection Management Act. This tree species, he said, is only found in two provinces in the country: in Choiseul, to the country’s west, and around the Korona logging camp in Isabel, which spans an area of about 8,000 square meters.
Tubi, or Xanthostemon, is a rich, dark hardwood sought after mostly by Asian countries for furniture. It is advertised at US$2,300 (SBD$18,110) per ton in some online markets.
Landowners and Indigenous Peoples in the Solomon Islands have significant cultural attachment to the endangered tubi tree species, said the journalist. Villagers rely on these trees to make traditional medicine and to use as building materials for their homes. They are important for soil cover and are found in traditional hunting grounds in natural forests in the region.
“That is why the Solomon Islands government has placed restrictions on its export. Previously, there have been cases of illegal tubi harvesting in the Province of Isabel. But they were not at the scale and magnitude as what occurred in Korona,” he added.
EJN’s grant support was “well worth it,” said Eremae. “Similar cases like this one have been reported in other rural and remote communities across Solomon Islands and other countries in the Pacific. But no one is pursuing them, largely due to financial constraints.”
Story spurs action
After spending some time in the tightly guarded logging camps on San Jorge Island, Eremae published his story in March 2021 on how tropical timber, particularly the tubi species, is being harvested on an illegal and unsustainable scale, causing substantial environmental destruction in the region.
For his story, Eremae spoke to local environmental activist Lawrence Makili, who argued that foreign loggers who deliberately violated the country’s laws “must be deported.”
“Why are we still keeping these loggers here when they show no respect to our resources and laws?” Makili asked. “Loggers with a no-care attitude must not be entertained in the country.”
Typically, logging licenses do not include the felling of tubi; they are limited to other commercial species within the concession area. Yet, Ofani found around 10,000 cubic meters of Tubi logs, worth tens of millions of dollars, inside the logging camp.
After his story was published, the Solomon Forest Association (SFA), an industry organization that monitors the activities of its member logging companies operating in Solomon Islands, took action. The SFA suspended two of its members over their illegal harvesting of the protected tubi trees: the Malaysian logging companies Sunrise Investment Ltd and Mas Solo Investment Ltd. (Editor’s note: At the time of publishing this update, the suspension remains in place.)
Eremae recorded this impact in a follow-up story published in June 2021. By law, the government’s forest department grants felling licenses only to members of SFA. While the organization doesn’t have the authority to cancel felling licenses themselves, their action paves the way for the Ministry of Forestry to cancel the felling licenses of these two companies, SFA president Johnny Sy told the Island Sun.
Local environmental activist Makili, who has been following the case closely, said the suspension of the logging companies’ licenses is not enough. “These two companies deliberately felled the tubi trees despite knowing they did not have the license to do so. In my view, revoking their foreign investment permit is the right course of action. We need to send a message to others. I urge the government to do just that,” he said.
Although the Solomon Islands government has not acted yet, pressure from local communities is mounting.
“I believe the story would not have been reported on, and publicized in the way it was, had it not been for EJN’s support,” said Eremae. He vows to keep reporting on unsustainable and illegal logging activities in the Solomon Islands, for the sake of the environment and future generations.
Banner image: Korona logging camp on San Jorge Island / Credit: Ofani Eremae.