It was 6pm on a day in March 1996. And Kevin Riria Malopo, a landowner at Gold Ridge, Solomons’ only commercial gold mine outside the capital Honiara, remembers it well.
He along with another landowner, Stephen Moffat, were the last hurdle in the development of Solomon Islands’ first commercial gold mine. Up to that point, both men had refused to put their signatures to the Head Lease Agreement unless their SB$3.5 million dislocation compensation was entertained.
Everyone—government officials and Ross Mining executives—waited.
For Malopo, signing the Lease Agreement would have meant allowing the company to mine Valebeabea ridge, which in effect is his village, he said in an interview with Islands Business in Honiara.
“I want the company (then Ross Mining) to say something about our claim, which is different from relocation costs. This claim is for the loss of rights to live here, the rights to perform all the traditional ceremonies of our custom and so on,” he said.
At exactly 6pm, the company made the move. It undertook “to look into the claim”, according to Malopo.
“I turned to Stephen and said, let’s sign it. So we did,” he said.
“The company then gave me SB$500 (about AU$75) and a similar amount to Stephen but he refused,” Malopo said.
“Stephen told the company he needs SB$2,500 so that he could hold a traditional feast with the people of the village since his signature has now given away their rights to live there. So the company did,” he said.
On his lawyer’s advice, the claim has been revised upwards and stands at SB$25 million (about US$3.6 million) based on new gold deposit finds in the area.
Sixteen years after the signing, Malopo is a haunted man. Now, he regrets having put his name to the Head Lease Agreement.
And for good reason. In June this year, Allied Gold Ltd, the new owner of the Gold Ridge mine, applied for and received a High Court Order to evict the entire Valebuti and Valebeabea villages to make way for its mining operations.
The villagers’ nightmare were confirmed when bulldozers moved in and began demolishing houses in the last week of May beginning at Valebuti village, as helpless villagers including women and children, looked on.
Then on June 6, it was Valebeabea—the bigger village’s turn. A blanket ban on the media and others ensured no one outside the area knew what was going on as the High Court eviction order was being enforced under the watchful eyes of the mine’s security personnel from Fiji, the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF) and RAMSI, possibly from the Police Participating Force (PPF).
Allied Gold sought and received the High Court Order after Malopo, his brother Charles Matia and their brother-in-law, John Tigiri, failed to appear in court to show cause as to why Valebeabea ridge should be spared.
In their claim, the trio had made it clear that unless the dislocation payment was made, no mining activities would be allowed on the Valebeabea ridge. The village would remain.
Their claim was based on the contention that the villagers would be dislocated, resulting in foregoing their rights, including traditional rights to hold customary ceremonies, feasting and so on.
Because the trio did not attend the June hearing, the High Court issued an eviction order that the ridge be surrendered to the company.
Malopo was even prevented from returning to his house at Valebeabea village while the company bulldozer razed his and son’s houses to the ground.
Malopo’s permanent house along with his son’s were among the first to be pulled down. Initially he was allowed to return to the village, but not in his two-tonne truck, which was prevented by security guards manning the gate to the area.
Eventually, he was banned from entering Valebeabea altogether—his home for the last 20 years.
“I am now a nomad in my own land. Now, there’s nothing to go back to as my home has been destroyed,” he lamented.
In many instances, home contents were strewn on to the roadside while in others women were forced to gather a few of their possessions as the bulldozers waited outside the door.
In photographs secretly taken and smuggled out, the scenes looked more like a tornado had just struck the villages with items of clothing, mattresses, and so on, lying everywhere.
A villager I spoke to revealed what took place on the first day the bulldozers moved in.
“Two houses were pulled down and buried with their contents. Their owners were away in town (Honiara) that day. On their return, they found their houses were gone,” the villager said.
The families spent the night in the open without a roof over their heads.
“It was fortunate there was no rain that night,” the villager said.
“It’s a very distressing and sorry sight,” is how one villager described the scene to me after the bulldozers went through the village.
“It’s man against machine—one minute the houses were here, the next minute they were gone. What can you do?
“Many of us were born and brought up in those two villages, and now we’ve been forced to make way for the mine. We simply have nowhere to go. The company has not provided us with alternative housing,” the villager said.
The first two weeks in June had been a nightmare for Valebuti and Valebeabea villagers, according to those I spoke to.
Since the destruction of their houses, they have been scattered all over the area and forced to live with other families in relocation centres such as Obo Obo, Bubulake, Buti and Tatauna.
Allied Gold Ltd has spent around AU$10 million in building relocation houses, which the Valebeabea villagers claimed have all been occupied by others.
“We simply can’t come in and force ourselves with families we don’t know,” one man said.
Some of the people I spoke to have refused to divulge their names for fear of reprisals.
In 1996/97 for example, Joseph Labu’s house at Valebeabea was burned down when he, as a landowner, gave an interview on Radio New Zealand International about the activities of the mine. Labu was formerly of the Weather Coast on Guadalcanal.
I asked Malopo why Valebeabea is so critical. What is so special about this ridge? Valebeabea Village sits atop a ridge that is known today as Gold Ridge, perhaps Gold Rich, is probably the appropriate description. It is the main mother lode, loaded with very high grade gold and the company wants to cash in on the current high price for the yellow metal, hence the rush to get the ridge.
It too is one of the three pits signed off to Ross Mining in 1996, which Allied Gold Limited has now inherited.
In fact, it is Valebuti and Valebeabea ridge that Allied Gold Ltd hopes to get much of the more than 200,000 ounces of super-grade gold once it starts production.
“It’s very high grade, says Mark Caruso, who anticipates obtaining 220,000 ounces of gold within the first 20 months,” according to an interview published by Islands Business, the regional magazine based in Fiji, a year ago.
At today’s gold price, that’s a cool US$355.3 million or about SB$2.6 billion return on a AU$160 million or SB$1.1 billion investment in just 20 months.
‘My company’s position is clear’
Caruso is the chairman of Allied Gold Ltd, the new owner of Gold Ridge. In the interview, he said what can only be termed as “prophetic.”
After presiding over a traditional chupu, the exchange of gifts of food including pigs and shell money as a form of reconciliation with the landowners, Caruso said in a published interview: “My company’s position is clear. We shall be decisive in dealing with these outstanding issues in establishing credibility and trust.”
One of the outstanding issues which Allied Gold has rejected outright, is the $3.5 million dislocation claim, first submitted to Ross Mining, the original operator of Gold Ridge, in 1996.
Caruso, the colourful West Australian who was described in the interview as holding much of the economic success or failure of the Solomon Islands in his hands, is certainly living up to his company’s pronouncements to be decisive if the enforcement of the High Court Order was anything to go by.
I asked one man whether the Member of Parliament for the area, Peter Shanel, Solomon Islands’ former foreign minister, was aware of what’s going on?
“No, he’s a director on the board of Allied Gold Ltd. As his voters, we’re disappointed, but we can understand his position,” the man said.
And our justice system?
“No, our justice system is the preserve of the rich and powerful, not for the small and grassroots people like us,” the man responded.
Alfred Sasako writes in the Island Business Magazine