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Mining a Better Future for the Solomon Islands

Audience Mining Forum 2013 Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Robyn James)
Audience Mining Forum 2013. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Robyn James)

By Ms. Robyn James, Conservation Director Melanesia and Barbara Masike, Country Program Director, Papua New Guinea, The Nature Conservancy

The Solomon Islands are facing dramatic and imminent changes from large-scale mining across the country. Without proper planning and access to information, developments like mining will jeopardize the natural resources upon which most Solomon Islanders depend. With 85 percent of Solomon Islanders living in rural areas, they rely on their natural resources for food, shelter and income. The negative impacts of mining could change their lives forever.

Large deposits of gold, copper, nickel and bauxite have been identified across the country. Despite strong interest and intense prospecting, there has only ever been one fully operational mine in the country, which means communities and government agencies have little experience working with the mining sector. In addition, the Solomon Islands government has highlighted their limited capacity to manage the complex demands of regulating, managing and overseeing the mining development process. While mining offers opportunities for economic development, without adequate management, it also poses direct and urgent threats to livelihoods, culture and social well-being.

The Nature Conservancy is working with community groups to hold workshops and provide information through a program called “What Is Mining?”. This has been designed to help Solomon Islanders understand the impact mining could have on their lives and their natural resources. We partnered with community-based women’s groups in particular to both ensure that women were a part of the conversation and to empower women to make their voices heard.

In collaboration with the Isabel Mothers’ Union, we have trained 40 community facilitators who are raising awareness about the importance of well-informed and inclusive decisions around big issues such as mining. To date, this work has reached over 12,000 people in remote communities, and their input is informing the national mining policy reform process.

The mining awareness work led to the first-ever national mining forum. The Conservancy facilitated the event that inspired the government, industry, the civil society sector, landowners and communities to work together to identify major opportunities and challenges around this industry. The event brought over 200 participants together to learn from past mistakes in the Asia Pacific region.

Participants from Papua New Guinea and Australia share their stories below.  

Barbara Masike, © The Nature Conservancy
Barbara Masike. Photo © The Nature Conservancy

Barbara Masike – Papua New Guinea Program Director. Barbara has been with The Nature Conservancy for 11 years working with governments, communities and partners to advance conservation in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

“I was honoured to be invited to speak at the Solomons mining forum, but I was also a bit nervous, because thinking about my experience with mining in PNG brings back difficult memories.

Mining came to my town when I was growing up, and it promised a lot of good things. But looking back, I wish we had a forum in PNG to understand the potential negative impacts mining could bring.

I am from Bougainville, PNG. The Panguna mine promised dream jobs with good conditions for us and for our children—lots of money and good homes and expensive cars to drive in. Ultimately, that mine caused a civil war with 20,000 deaths.

The conflict in Bougainville had grown and my hometown was no longer safe. In May 1990, my older sister died in childbirth because she could not receive adequate medical care as a result of the fighting. My sister is one of the 20,000 people who died during the conflict through direct confrontation with PNG authorities or the Bougainville Revolutionary Army rebels, or due to the lack of proper health services as a result of the conflict brought on by mining.

During the landowners conflict, I was covering the story first at the University of PNG in Port Moresby and then when working for the Post Courier, one of the daily papers in the country, I was harassed and feared for my life. When a story I covered about the conflict was edited incorrectly, my fellow Bougainvilleans threatened to sue me for defamation.

This is my story. I don’t think it deserves to be told, because there are thousands that remain untold—the stories and experiences of the women of Bougainville, many who suffered terribly, some who lost their whole family. My story and those of all Bougainvilleans will forever be a scar in our hearts and minds. It’s not only in our memories, we live with it today, as we continue to see the big crater that now lies in the mountains of Panguna. It will forever be a reminder to us, of the dreams that we had once upon a time, the fairy tale story of that paradise now in ruins and rubble.

Participating in the Solomons mining forum and sharing my story was a gift I could give to the women and people of Solomon Islands. It is critical that women share their stories and help one another. The Solomon Islands must learn from Bougainville with their mining industry or fall victim to the short-term benefits of mining and a lifetime of sad and broken hearts.” 

Robyn James. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Tim Calver)
Robyn James. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Tim Calver)

Robyn James – Melanesia Conservation Program Director. Robyn joined The Nature Conservancy in 2010 working on community-based conservation, and her work is increasingly focused on supporting gender equity in our programs in Melanesia.

“The mining forum was an amazing experience for me. I have worked for a number of years now with communities on natural resource planning in the Solomon Islands, and this was the first time I have seen all the players in one room working in a constructive way on this complex and often sensitive issue.

Our work in the Solomons and Papua New Guinea has always centered on community-led conservation planning. When we began to place a strong emphasis on women’s inclusion and empowerment, strong women began working hard to ensure that they could attend sessions and also encouraged each other to be active and vocal participants.

Now the Conservancy is engaging women by investing in strong leaders and diverse and inclusive work environments. This approach helps women create more prosperous and healthy futures for themselves, their children, their environment and their communities.

During the forum, it was fabulous to see so many of these women able to support women from other provinces in their quest to also understand mining and be more involved. The spirit of collaboration at the forum resulted in an endorsed set of resolutions. Twenty-six resolutions were declared and endorsed by more than 80 percent of participants. One of the most important resolutions is: “Ensure women have a voice in all negotiations, decisions and in the management of benefits.” This is a resolution that the women were already implementing during the forum itself!

I’m inspired to see how women and communities have grown and changed in such a short time to address this important issue. I feel incredibly privileged to work with the people of the Solomon Islands who are striving to have a say in their communities and creating better opportunities for their country as a whole.”

This work has resulted in the drafting of a new Minerals Policy for the Solomon Islands based on the resolutions agreed upon at the forum. In addition, an independent center to advise communities on important decisions around their resources has been proposed.

With good planning and management and meaningful inputs from communities and women, the Solomon Islands has a fantastic opportunity to pave the way for a more sustainable minerals sector.