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Solomon Islands quandary
Betty Birsky has been an occasional commentor on Webdiary, but this is her first lead article. I've been pleased to see more articles on Webdiary about national politics in our region, especially on Indonesia and Papua. Betty has provided us with an introduction to another very close neighbour, the Solomon Islands, on the eve of their elections. Thanks Betty. I'd love to see more. Hamish Alcorn.
by Betty Birskys
Tomorrow, Solomon Islanders go to the poll. I hope they get a good government, they deserve it, but after only a short stay there I can’t help wondering if this is even possible, let alone probable...
A month ago a group of us, all whites, sat like survivors from some legendary colonial past, on a spacious verandah in the capital Honiara, overlooking the Pacific Ocean; sipping long cool drinks, while in the nearby kitchen local housegirls finished preparing dinner. (‘Local’ is the term now used instead of ‘native’).
In the house that night were representatives of many of the elements in the Solomon Island community: our hosts, long-term white residents, prosperous business people; expat administrators, one of them an officer from RAMSI, all paid at expat rates; expat volunteers paid at minimal rates but provided with housing; and back in the kitchen, the locals, cooking, serving, cleaning up.
A few nights before, we had dined at the Mendana Hotel, named for the Spanish explorer who made the first white contact with the islands in 1568. Local dancers entertained us as we tackled the famous Wednesday night smorgasbord, S$150 (about $A27) a head: a lavish feast, a full house, predominately white, only a few locals. Which was not surprising; most locals, even if employed, would be lucky to receive S$150 pay for a fortnight’s work.
In fact, between 70 and 80% of the Solomons’ population, which is around 460,000, still live a subsistence life style. Flying low over the sparkling blue lagoons, the green islands and atolls, you can see their isolated villages, clusters of traditional woven cane houses, along the beaches or - more commonly - back in the jungle, many with great red swathes cut through the trees - the loggers’ roads, often illegal.
Under the customary system of land tenure, land is administered not for the benefit of individuals but on behalf of families and groups. Traditional wantok (one talk) reinforces this relationship over land with strong obligations of sharing everything else with family, clan, community.
As in many undeveloped countries, young people drift off from isolated villages to the capital, ramshackle Honiara, on Guadalcanal - only to encounter severe unemployment. There is no Social Security, no free education; the newcomers fall back on wantok who have preceded them, and who are themselves usually established only precariously in the town. For most locals in Honiara, ‘home’ is somewhere else.
As on their traditional home islands, the locals cluster in villages, but these are not pleasant green settlements, with waving palm trees. The woven grass huts stand on dirt, for grass is said to encourage malaria-breeding mosquitoes. Few of the villages have electricity or running water. The roads, other than the main Mendana Road, are truly atrocious. Wharves, shops, Chinatown, are all like something out of Somerset Maugham. The look is bleak and poverty-stricken...
And here a little history and geography may be appropriate.
There are 992 islands in the Solomons, 347 of them inhabited. The locals are predominantly Melanesian. 87 indigenous languages are spoken; Melanesian Pidgin is common as a second language. The official language is English; the Solomons were colonised by the British in the 19th century. The natives, as they were then called, slaved on giant coconut plantations, which now stand degraded on many islands.
In World War 2, Japanese and Allied forces fought fierce air, land and sea battles over the islands; it was here that (later US President) Kennedy almost lost his life in PT109. Wartime wrecks (eg on Iron Bottom Sound) are now popular diving sites.
On 7th July 1978, the Solomons gained independence from Britain. The departing British passed on virtually no administrative or technical skills, and left little infrastructure or industry other than that built by the Americans during the war; Honiara was originally simply the largest American base.
In 1998, tribal rivalries over land and work erupted into hostilities on Guadalcanal, and in July 2003 Australia and its Pacific island neighbours launched RAMSI, the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands.
In colonial times, missionaries moved in with the planters and 95% of Solomon Islanders are Christians. Many define themselves by their particular faith.
One Sunday, we drove to a large Catholic Mission, a hundred years old, an hour out of Honiara. The road is truly dreadful, but the trip worthwhile: the ocean over to our right, occasional villages with people waving as we pass, green hills rolling into the distance in what looks like pasture (but is really tall bladey grass) and far over, great mountains looming, mist topped.
The Mission is green and beautiful: a village square, a large church, further up the coast villages, schools, all owned and run by the Mission. A dozen laughing children swim in the blue clear waters - it is like paradise...
Sister Conciliata, the Mother Superior, with traces of faded tribal tattoos on her cheeks, tells us that in ‘the tensions’ the Eagle Force from Malaita, the large island over to the east, landed on her beach. They did not molest the mission, but burnt down neigbouring villages on their way to Honiara.
RAMSI has stopped the violence and confiscated the guns, but below the surface the same issues of work and land tenure and powerlessness simmer.
The Malaitans are valued as good workers in the larger businesses already open or planned for Guadalcanal - tobacco, palm oil, gold-mining - but are currently banned from working because of ‘the tensions’ and under customary land tenure, have no land rights on Guadalcanal. Thus, development is held up by these same two issues: employment and land tenure.
Thousands of expats throng in Honiara - business people, officials, administrators, volunteers (AustAid, EU. Oxfam, you name it). The expats mostly live in white enclaves, behind two-metre high wire fences topped with barbed-wire, often patrolled by a security guard.
Our young volunteer hosts had to move out of a ‘local’ area, after being broken into one night by three drunken midnight marauders armed with machetes, into a safer, white area. Thus, ‘suitable’ housing is at a premium, and expensive, and must consume a large part of aid and administrative budgets.
RAMSI personnel are regarded by many, both whites and locals, as inclined to arrogance, as they speed about in their 4-wheel drives. Occasionally a local opens up enough to ask ‘How long is RAMSI going to be here? And all the other white people? When will we be ready to run our own affairs?’
A week ago, I heard an East Timorese leader say that his people are now poorer than they have ever been; there are some in the Solomons, both white and local, who say the same is true of their country. And in poverty other evils flourish.
Local women are being ferried out to ships in the harbour to sell sex to loggers, seamen, fishermen; lately, for the first time, children are being included in this traffic.
There is talk of corruption in government: Are ‘the wrong people’ in prison from the tensions - the foot soldiers rather than the instigators? Is the blatant buying of votes in the coming election, with favours and gifts, merely ‘wantok’, or is it bribery?
As I fly home, I read a story in the Inflight magazine, about ‘the growing number of local entrepreneurs running small businesses, women at roadside stalls, selling betel nuts and children at the airport, selling coconuts,’ and I wonder: Is this really the best we can offer these warm-hearted, resilient, supportive people?