Revelations of corrupt practices, especially in the growing mining sector, is an odour colour to the country’s image, according to research findings by Dr Graham Baines.
Baines has been in the Solomon Islands since 1981 and is currently a research fellow in the school of social science at the University of Queensland.
In his discussion paper titled, ‘Solomon Islands is Unprepared to Manage a Minerals-Based Economy,’ he said the transition into a minerals base economy from the previous logging scenario is a huge mistake if not planned well.
Political interference has become normal; politicians putting their greedy hands making up controversial issues, he said.
“…a former Premier of Renbel Province Lence Tango, when questioned about a $4 million hotel bill responded in a way that showed he was not at all concerned.
“When asked who was responsible to meet the incurred cost he said that the bill will be paid for by the Bintang Borneo Ltd which is interested in mining Rennell Island. ‘I was told to enjoy the privileges of the hotel. They will pay the bill’.”
Baines said the unabashed directness of this response reveals a deeper problem whereby bribery has become so mainstream that a political leader no longer recognises such a clear conflict of interest as being improper.
According to a survey on corruption carried in Solomon Islands in 2013 it reveals 56 per cent of people claim to have paid a bribe to help with a police issue; 42 per cent made such informal payments in relation to registry and permit services; and 49 per cent did so in order to facilitate land services over and beyond what was legally required to be paid.
It noted even allowing some survey respondents may have suspected corruption exists where it does not.
“The 2013 figures for people’s perception of the levels of corruption are very concerning,” Baines said.
It seems that members of the public believe that 53 percent of public officials and civil servants are corrupt; 19 percent of the judiciary; 25 percent of medical and health personnel; a massive 85 percent of police; 29 percent of education officers; and 52 percent of political parties.
Non-government organisations (NGOs) and religious bodies survived condemnation with figures of 11 percent and 3 percent, respectively.
And a startling 65 percent of respondents were of the opinion that corruption was actually increasing, he said.
This is exactly what is happening in the mining sector in Solomon Islands, he added.
Baines noted the current Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare in his remarks with the national broadcaster SIBC before becoming Prime Minister said:
“We should rule out mining unless we reform the mining sector itself to ensure that the landowners and the country benefit from the extraction of the minerals when you offset the wealth created with the environmental degradation associated with the development in the sector. This country can survive without mining …”
Living his words since the December 2014 election of Sogavare as Prime Minister, though not showing any sign of bypassing the mining option, his government has issued reforming statements.
This includes ‘An updated mining policy needs to be developed and put in place as a matter of urgency.
Environmental management also remains very important, as does the social impact of mining,’ said Dr Baines.
“But is genuine reform possible?” he questioned.
“The historical precedents are not encouraging.
“For instance, in late 1994 the then national government under Prime Minister Francis Billy Hilly, in attempting to introduce sustainable forest management measures, was overthrown and a pro-logging government installed, assisted by cash inducements from logging companies operating in the country.
“Solomon Mamaloni, the prime minister who replaced Hilly, was favoured by the loggers and refused to countenance any moves to rein in their activities.
“This is a stark example of the political power that can be exerted by foreign companies in a small country like Solomon Islands.
“They ‘do not function within the bounds of state and societal rules but persistently trying to bend these rules in their favour’
“There has been no strengthening of government agency capacity, or any preparation to avoid this type of exploitation by mining companies.
“Solomon Islands is quite unprepared,” he said.
Baines noted the previous government under Lilo made attempt to garner some international respectability in 2011 agreed to implement the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI).
“Yet the first audit report on payments made by extractive companies, one of the basic obligations of membership reveals serious shortcomings.
“So little information was made available to the auditors; that ‘we were unable to verify if the issuance process is compliant to the MMA and MMR,” according to Baines.
Perceptions of sovereign risk for investment in Solomon Islands are not eased by the weaknesses reported to the EITI, or by the unseemly legal struggle involving two companies seeking prospecting licences for nickel-prospective southeast Isabel Province, or the reported forcing of mining equipment onto unsuspecting communities in the Rennell and Wagina islands, he said.
A troubling uncertainty about how bauxite mining rights in Rennell Island were decided has recently been clarified by an Attorney-General’s report that reveals that advice and recommendations from the Mines and Minerals Board (MMB) not only had been ignored by the minister but that a mining lease had been issued to a company – APID despite no recommendation or advice from the MMB to the minister to grant this lease
He added logging companies likewise ignore the code of practice, and the Ministry of Forestry appears unable to penalise them for environmental crimes.
“It seems no different with mining. There are continuing uncertainties about the Gold Ridge tailings dam; the Director of Environment appears prepared to issue Development Consent for mining in Isabel Province.
“This is even when ESIA reports that are prerequisite to mining approval do not address all aspects as required by the Environment Act under which he operates,
“More so a court decision that criticised the Director of Environment for neglect of duty raises questions of competence and capacity.
“What more is left to paint onto that picture?
“The politicians and trusted public servants, landowners, the opportunists and off course the greedy investors pushing certain honest and loyal people beyond their comfort zone.
“All is done in the name of development.”
By BRADFORD THEONOMI