Rennell island, Renbel Province, is largely off the radar of potential investors for the last 30 years.
Although a Japanese mining firm, Mitsui Mining and Smelting Company, did prospecting on the island in the 1970s and found deposits of bauxite, it had not gone beyond that.
No other large scale commercial activity took place until lately.
Today, we have a mining company, Asia Pacific Investment and Development Limited (APID), on the island and two logging companies, Pacific Crest and Samlimsan.
A second mining firm, Bintang Borneo Mining of Indonesia, is on its way to claim a share of the island’s mineral resources.
We don’t know much about the bauxite deposit on the island.
So far, all we know, based on recent prospecting done by APID, is that the western end of the island contained more than 26 million tonnes of commercially viable bauxite deposits.
Enough for the company to start seeking a mining licence to extract the minerals.
To help us understand the island well and why the miners and loggers are finally heading there, we need to look at the natural make-up of the island.
The information provided below are extracted from an environmental report APID submitted to the Ministry of Mines and Energy as part of its application for a mining licence.
Rennell Island is basically an uplifted coral atoll which is part of the Rennell- Bellona and Indispensable reef system complex in the southern most part of Solomon Islands.
It is a long and narrow island with a length of 86 kilometres and an average width of 10 kilometres.
It is located about 180 kilometres south of Guadalcanal and is aligned in a northeast direction in that location just as most of the large islands of the Solomon archipelago do.
The island is a two lobed basin shaped atoll system with a total area of 840 square kilometres.
As an uplifted coral atoll, it is extremely rocky with almost 80 percent of its landscape dominated by a typical karsts limestone system.
The constituent parts of the former reefs and lagoon system can still be recognised in the present structure of the island: the outer reef slope, now forming the steep slopes on the coastal edges of the island; the rim, now forming the highest ridges encircling the coastal rim of the island; the inner reef complex, now forming the lowland forest of west Rennell and the old lagoon floor now forming the lake on East Rennell.
The two basins of Rennell Island; West and East Rennell, are well defined by the ridges that meet at the Kangava Bay area as well as the narrow waist or constriction formed by the existence of the bay itself.
The narrow constriction and the partitioning ridge actually provides some kind of ecological barrier between west and east Rennell.
The east Rennell basin is about 35 kilometres long and has an average width of 11 kilometres.
Its total area is about 370 square kilometres. The outer rim of the basin was influenced by sea level changes during its uplift and is therefore terraced.
The basin is also characterised by the freshwater lake Tengano which was the former lagoon.
The lake with a total length of 29 kilometres; a width of 10 kilometres; and an area of 155 square kilometres is the largest enclosed water body in the insular Pacific. (Lake Tegano was also listed as a World Heritage site).
The western basin, west Rennell, is 45 kilometres long and has a maximum width of 14 kilometres, with a total area of about 470 square kilometres.
The raised outer rim was also influenced by a series of sea level event or changes during its uplift and is therefore, also terraced.
The height of the rim ranges from 150 to 200 metres. As in a basin, the land surface descends gradually towards the central interior part of the island just above sea level.
The inland interior is generally flat but still irregular with high and lower very rough and sharp surfaces.
The lowland interior is characterized by lowland rain forests, swamps, rock pools sinkholes and depressions that contain the bauxite deposits.
The coastal areas are mostly inaccessible areas with steep slopes making access to the coral reefs and the sea generally difficult.
Surrounding the islands are fringing coral reefs. The coral reef system does not encircle the full island but is more extensive on the northern coast than in the southern coasts. The coral reefs are pretty narrow averaging with a width from the coastal land at 30 metres.
It is poorly structured and comprises mostly dead corals. Two significant bays characterise the island, the Lughughi and Kangava bays.
There are no rivers or streams on Rennell but there are numerous sinkholes and caves that do provide water sources.
The whole Rennell area is thought to have been initially deposited as coralline algal limestone and then dolotomized. This dolomitic reef complex is overlain by younger undolotomized reef limestone.
The recent structural evolution of Rennell is the result of post-dolotomisation uplift accompanied by block faulting.
The north west part has emerged as a discrete block to a height of around 200 metres and shows no evidence of tilting.
A major fault zone at Kagava Bay separates the northern and central blocks where the uplifted reefs have dropped vertically 30 metres. A major step fault also occurs across the northern part of lake Tengano.
The structure and geomorphology of Rennell and Bellona indicate that the Rennell Ridge on which they are situated is presently in a phase of active uplift following a long history of subsidence.
The thickness of the sedimentary pile above basement on the Rennell Ridge is at least 500 metres.
According to current theories of atoll formation, such a thickness of reef deposits could form only on a slowly descending basement platform. (Wingham, 1997) More relevant details of the geology of Rennell is contained in the geological report of this submission.
The forests of Rennell Island are surprisingly in good condition given the frequency of natural disturbance, especially of cyclones that frequent the island.
The forest or vegetation of the island are biogeographically unique and are markedly different from the forests of the main Solomon group.
They also show lower diversity than the larger islands in the group. There are no endemic tree species on Rennell but there 10 endemic plant species. Notably, most of the common species of the larger islands of the Solomon group such as Pometia pinnata, Vitex cofassus, Campnosperma brevipetiolate, Endospermum medullosum, Calophyllum kajewski, Gemelina moluccanum, Terminalia calamansai, T.brassii, Dillenia sp, and Parinari salomonensis are missing from Rennell.
The forest or vegetation of Rennell are basically of three types:
i) low or stunted mature forest of the karst ridge on the island perimeter;
ii) lowland tall forests of the island interior; and
iii) beach flora of the Lake Tegano margins which include mangroves
The forest of the karst limestone are located on the ridge crests and steeply sloping terraces and show similarities in composition and structure to both heath and upper montane Malesian forest sub forms but seem drier.
The cycad, Cycad rumphii is present in this forest type. These karst forest occur along the ridges encircling the perimeter of the island.
The figure 15 shows this type of forest at highest elevation (185 metres) at Lughughi point
The lowland tall forest occurs within the lowland areas and is the most extensive of the forest type due to the expanse of the lowland areas it covers.
The forest comprises tall trees with an average height of 20 metres but with emergents of mostly taller ficus species.
Dominant species are Endospermum molaccanum, Elaeocarpus sphaericus,Terminalia sepicana, Sterculia parkinsonii, Berkella obovata, Pallaquim amboinense, Alstonia spectabilis and Eugenia sp.
Within the lowland tall forests are depressions where the bauxite pockets are and are currently characterized by degraded forests or secondary forests probably caused by subsistence activities within those depression pockets as they are the only areas where good soils are.
There are also swamps within the lowland areas. These swamps are dominated by Macaranga tanarius, Pandanus sp. and ferns.
Sometimes these swamps are planted with swampTaro.
The beach forest define the inner edges of the Tengano lake and also mangroves which may have been trapped in the lagoon when the island was uplifted.
The smaller islands within the lake also do have the same vegetation. The beach forest is dominated by Pandanus sp. including endemic species.
The coastal vegetation of the elevated rocky coasts of West Rennell are characterized by Scaevola taccada, Macaranga tanarius, Pandanus, Intsia bijuga and Anacardium occidentale. In other areas these coastal beach zone has been replaced by coconut palm plots or plantations.
Asia Pacific Investment and Development Limited said it acquired the prospecting license to prospect for bauxite and other minerals in the West Rennell area (PL 04/08).
This license is still valid but has been renewed once in 2012 due to the global financial crisis.
This same resource was previously under the prospecting work of Mitsui Corporation of Japan who had already proven the reserves and had acquired a Mining License for it in the past.
“APID prospecting work however had proven once again the existence of the reserve and has now found it viable for its commercial extraction,” the company said in its report.
“All in all, APID has already proven a commercial reserve of about 26 million tonnes of bauxite and is now ready to go into mining.
“All of APIDs overseas analysis of the bauxite ore by various overseas smelters has proven a very high content of bauxite in the samples which now give it the urge to proceed on to a commercial mining operation, given the economic circumstances of the Solomon Islands right now.
“The APIDs prospecting programme has now identified and located enough ore reserve bodies or pockets and is satisfied that this is now viable for an immediate commercial operation.”
The company said it has been in constant contact with its key landowning individuals and group and is satisfied with the support rendered to it by the key landowning families and individuals.
“In fact APID has already advance negotiations with the landowners who have already signed on to the development of the resource. They have also urged APID to speed up work on the development of the mine.”
It continued: “It is probably appropriate to remind all as well that, the Rennell Island tenement had already been acquired for mining in the past by the government for the Mitsui Mining operation.
“There have even been trial Mining of some of the Bauxite pocket (at Tingoa) and all landowners or tribes and clans have already been identified during the Mitsui operation as far as the land is concerned.
“Since the mining technique and methods is so simple, APID is ready to proceed with mining immediately following finalization of relevant agreements.”
APID said the whole purpose of this bauxite mining development, in Rennell is to:
• develop a commercially viable bauxite mining operation on Rennell Island in an environmentally friendly manner and in accordance with the business objectives of the investors and wishes of the local people and their communities,
• extract and produce bauxite ore for the international market for use in the relevant industry
• work together with the national, provincial government and local tribes and communities in mining development activities.
• develop and maximize the economic and social benefits of the resource to the governments, people of Solomon Islands and Asia Pacific Investment and Development limited.
“None of such objectives will be achieved if the development project does not go ahead.
“One of the most obvious need of Solomon Islands is to diversify its economy and to move away from the narrow focus on agriculture and industrial logging.
“It has become so obvious that the Solomon Islands is too dependent on the logging industry which is now fast declining due to the depletion of the resource which will certainly run out soon.
“This now necessitates the development of new resources and it is hoped that the development of our mineral resources will hopefully take the place of the declining logging revenue due to the disappearance of our commercial forest.
“This is very important for the future security and sustainability of Solomon Islands as a sovereign independent nation.
“Without any replacement to the obvious lost revenue from the logging industry, Solomon Islands will face dire socio-economic consequences.”
The company added a number of significant development activities in Rennell has also been associated with what the local people say was the slow pace of developing the bauxite resource.
“The local people have already gone through the experience of the Mitsui prospecting activities and do know and believe that the resource is worth developing but has not been developed due to reasons not known to them.
“The consequences of these is that the local people have now turned to logging, which is more destructive than what is being proposed for this mining operation.
“The mining development will enable the resource owners to leave their natural forests intact but allow their pockets of bauxite to be mined for their benefit.
“This is already happening and the assessment work done for this report actually was told of this fact that many resource owners are now turning to logging because there has been no development in Rennell especially the development of the well known bauxite resource.
“It seems that the forest of Rennell will be decimated without the development of the bauxite resources or any other development alternatives.
“The development of the world heritage site in east Rennell was done with much emphasis on benefits from tourism from the heritage site.
“The local people have said that they have not benefited anything from the world heritage site and there has been very little tourism in Rennell.
“This means that tourism cannot be any answer to the non development of the bauxite as there has been nothing much developed in terms of tourism to develop the island.
“The local people and the province have witnessed this fact and have not seen any benefit from what they were promised about tourism in relation to the world heritage site.
“The non development of the resource will also mean a precious mineral which is important for the industry will not be made available to industry for its use and benefit.
“Solomon Islands should take part and does have some commitment to take part in international commerce and contribute to the development of humankind by allowing its resource to be used which at the same time can provide significant benefits to itself and its people.
“In the longer term, this development not proceeding will mean leaving the precious bauxite reserve which is already a proven reserve for the future generation of Solomon Islands. In such situation, the great opportunities for the country, the province and the landowners to generate significant revenue and promote the development of mineral resources for economic development for the present generation will not be realised and the country will need to develop other resources to take the place of such resource developments if it cannot go ahead.
“The benefits that this development could potentially bring about to the whole nation, the province and people of Rennell will have been lost or passed on to probably another company or to the next of future generation.
“As for the landowners and the local communities, there exist very little income generating activities in their villages which their livelihood depends on and not realizing this rare opportunity will deprive them of the new and increased benefits from their natural resources to increase their income and improve their livelihood and standard of living.
“Being a least developed country and a poor country, Solomon Islands cannot afford to lose this precious opportunity.
“There are other development activities that are attached to this development as a package of benefits to the local resource owners.
“These include development grants and small micro-projects grants for families, individuals and communities.
“The project not proceeding will deprive the families, individuals and communities of these increased opportunities for income and other development activities for their livelihood.
“One of the other major loss if the development does not proceed is that many of the infrastructures that will be part of the development such as improved roads, increased length of roads, improved wharf, and many other facilities which can go to the local people and the province after the end of the mining would not be there.
“These type of facilities do not come freely and quickly as you could have on such major developments and would have provided good opportunities for the province and the local people to have better and improved infrastructure and facilities for their continuous use well beyond the life of the mine.
“In situations where there are major new developments such as in mining, there are a number of spin off benefits that are stimulated by such developments.
“These include direct spin off benefits such as the provision of various required services to the operation by the local people.
“Many other indirect spin off benefits do come about and do stimulate a significant increase in commercial or business activities not only on site in the mining areas but in other parts of the province and country as well.
“Not proceeding with the development will consequently suppress any new opportunities for new related economic and social development activities that are usually associated with the mining operation.
“In such situations the landowners, the communities, the provincial and national government will not realize those other potential benefits that could be generated as a result of the mining development.
“A main road that was established by Mitsui Mining and Smelting company of Japan will be widened and have its surface improved for use in the operation.
“Connecting the main road to the bauxite pockets are hauling roads which were also established in the past by Mitsui. These will also be widened and improved to get the ore bodies transported to the stockpile area.
“The stockpile area will be paved with concrete to prevent water running to the surrounding areas.
“From the stockpile area the ore will be taken by conveyor system to the drying area where it will be sun dried to around 15% at least less than 20% moisture content before being loaded onto barges for loading onto the ocean going vessels.
“As the operation is large, there will be other facilities established to service the operation.
“One of the most significant one will be port where barges will load the dried ore to take to the ocean going vessels.
“There will be a fuel storage block for the marine vessels such as the barges near to the coast to serve the marine vessels.
“A camp site will be established to accommodate workers both for national and expatriate workers. The camp site will comprise of the following facilities:
• workers accommodation;
• staff accommodation;
• ablution blocks;
• fuel storages
• an office block;
• kitchen and dining blocks;
• storage blocks;
• food storage block;
• security blocks;
• vehicle parking park;
• water supply system: tanks or pumped up water
• waste management systems
“The roads will be improved with coronus gravel that characterize most of the island surface.
“Specific source sites are plenty and have been used in the past by Mitsui and the current logging operations.
“APID will identify other sources for its own uses which shall be included in its aggregate management guidelines.”
That’s what APID offers to do.
Indonesian mining firm
We are yet to know what plans Bintang Borne of Indonesia has for the island.
But a few days after the Renbel Provincial executive opened its arm to the Indonesian firm last month, Bintang turned around and promised to extend the island’s airfield at Tingoa.
With premier Lence Tango operating on an open-door policy for investment, it would not be surprising if more loggers and miners move onto the island in future.