Saturday, May 28

The Little Island That Won: How a Small Pacific Community Fought a Giant Mining Company | Pacific islands

When a mining company came to Wagina nearly a decade ago with a proposal to mine 60% of the island for bauxite, the resistance was swift and determined.

“I was in the group that went and physically stopped the machines that landed on the site behind this island,” says Teuaia Sito, former president of the Lauru Wagina Women’s Council.

“We don’t want mining, it’s simple,” says Sito, a mother of 10 and a grandmother of 19. “What good will mining do for us?”

The story of a giant company that comes to a small Pacific island to exploit it for its valuable resources is not unusual; what is unusual in Wagina’s case is that the Wagina people won.

Those in Wagina, a small island in the Solomon Islands, home to about 2,000 people, 1,700 km northwest of Cairns, fought hard to keep the mining company away because the memory of forced displacement is not a distant story passed down from generation to generation. but a living memory.

The people of Wagina have already been displaced twice. In the 1930s they were forced to leave their ancestral home in the southern Gilbert Islands (now part of Kiribati), due to land shortages and overpopulation, to a new chain of islands, the Phoenix Islands.

In the early 1960s, the British forcibly uprooted them again, apparently due to persistent droughts, but the community believes the relocation was related to British nuclear tests on neighboring atolls.

That time the families moved more than 3,000 kilometers across the Pacific, to Wagina, where they began a new life among Melanesian neighbors who watched and talked, ate and cultivated, celebrated and cried, differently than they had known at home.

Moving was a disorder that some could not cope with a second time.

Two ships carrying algae.
The people of Wagina have become the largest seaweed exporters in the Pacific.

“An old man committed suicide before we left our house because he was not happy with leaving things like the coconut trees he planted,” says a villager, Tetoaiti Amon.

But the people of Wagina have made their new island their home, building kastom and community ties and a new industry: they are now the largest producers of seaweed (for toothpaste, food, cosmetics, and fertilizers) in the Pacific.

Then, in 2013, Solomon Bauxite Limited, a mining company owned by two Hong Kong-listed companies, was granted a permit for an open pit mine in Wagina. Plans available to the public show that the mine would have affected 48 square kilometers – 60% – of the island, and involved the clearing of 2,000 hectares of virgin forest.

An airport would have been built (the island is now only accessible by boat), along with new roads, major excavations, and the movement of roughly 150 trucks loaded with bauxite every day for 20 years.

The business case was strong. The island is rich in minerals key to the manufacture of aluminum, which is used in construction, automobiles, aircraft, and consumer electronics. And the Solomon Islands is close, 10 days by sea, to China, the world’s largest bauxite importer. The mine was forecast to produce between 24 billion and 40 billion kg of ore over two decades, working 16 hours a day, six days a week.

The island from the air, with a line showing the proposed mining area.
The scale of the proposed bauxite mine.

But the islanders contested the case in a tough and onerous court fight that lasted four years and, in 2018, they were granted a suspension in mining until the proposal was further examined.

In March 2019, the islanders’ victory was reinforced when, in its first decision, the Solomon Islands Environmental Advisory Committee revoked the mining license, finding that residents had not been properly consulted and that the company’s environmental impact statement was “quite unscientific and inadequate” and had no legal validity.

A mining complex that covers 60% of a small island. it will have enormous environmental impacts on water quality, air quality, ecology and the marine environment, ”the committee said in its decision.

“It will also have a dramatic and probably irreversible impact on the more than 2,000 island residents who depend on the sea and land for their livelihoods… What will happen to the people of Wagina if mining occupies such an important area of ​​the island of Wagina ? ? Where will they get their materials to build their homes and the resources to support their livelihoods? “

That decision was appealed but last November the Environment Minister confirmed the decision.

But the fight is not over yet.

The harvested seaweed is dried on the docks of an islet off Wagina
The harvested seaweed is dried on the docks of an islet off Wagina

The mining proposal has been widely, though not universally, opposed at Wagina, creating fissures within a small community built on consensus.

This year, a group of eight villagers, calling themselves Maungatabu, or “council of elders,” signed a memorandum of understanding with Solomon Bauxite to continue mining.

William Kadi, Vice President of the Solomon Islands Environmental Law Association, has led the people of the Wagina legal battle. He says that while the MOU has no legal value and is fiercely contested on the island, residents still live with the threat of miners returning to their homes.

“The saddest part is not having the feeling of owning the land where you live,” he says.

“It is incredible that these people have been here for decades and still have not been granted new parcels of land on the island to serve a growing population and their needs, while a mining company can easily sign a lease to three-quarters of the island, it’s just absurd. “

Tebukewa Mereki, Wagina elder who led the legal challenge against the proposed mine
Tebukewa Mereki, Wagina elder who led the legal challenge against the proposed mine Photography: Supplied

The Guardian asked Solomon Bauxite Limited questions about the proposed mine, but received no response. In response to an Amnesty International investigation, one company director, Bruce Hills, wrote: “The Wagina bauxite project represents a significant development and financial opportunity for the Solomon Islands.”

“The directors… believe that it is essential that the Solomon Islands are in a position to attract mining companies that have the genuine skills and will to develop the mining industry in an environmentally and socially sustainable way.

We think this project is too valuable to all interested parties so that it does not develop ”.

But a Wagina elder, Tebukewa Mereki, who led the appeal to the environmental advisory committee, has spent years patiently arguing before courts and tribunals that the right of the Wagina people to live peacefully on their island outweighs any promised economic or development benefits.

“Wagina is our life,” he said. in your legal challenge. “If they destroy Wagina, we will have nowhere to go.”

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