AS a follow up of our article on the corrupt practices and conduct in logging industry, we here share some experiences of our clients.
Our laws requires that any person/entity who wishes to carry on business in the country as a timber exporter or sawmiller in regards to customary land, such a person/entity must seek the consent of the Commissioner of Forests to negotiate with the rightful customary landowners.
This consent merely gave applicants the permission to negotiate with the appropriate government, area council and customary landowners.
This consent must not be seen as a device to influence the due process of negotiating with landowners.
Once consent is granted, the Commissioner shall forward copy of the consent to the Provincial Executive and it is then the duty of the Provincial Executive to fix a time, date and place for the Timber Right Meeting between the customary landowners, members of the Provincial Executive and the applicant.
The notice of the meeting must be given to the people who reside in the area and appear to have an interest in the timber or land.
Transparency Solomon Islands has received frequent complaints about inadequate notice of Timber Right Meeting and justifiably so.
The process fails to recognize the need to put the notice in the papers and in the urban areas to ensure that tribal members and customary landowning groups residing outside of their villages are made aware of such Timber Right Meetings.
When the government processes, the logging company and corrupt officials failed and corrupt them, the absent tribal members could be of great assistance, had the notice been put out in the print media and radio.
They are likely to be better informed and would ensure or help the resource owners in ensuring compliance by the logging company, its agents, those who want their land to be logged the Provincial Executive, the forestry officials and environment official [all stakeholders].
They could argue, negotiate for a more equitable share of the benefit derived from the exploitation of their resources.
Transparency Solomon Islands is also aware that some educated middle man living in urban areas are also involved in corrupting the system to raise funds to maintain their lifestyle in the urban area.
At the end of the day it is the government, its systems, its corrupt officials and corrupt investors that are responsible for this state of affairs.
It is the responsibility of the government to ensure that the laws of this country are complied with and in looking after the interest of its citizen.
Application Process for felling Licence or Mill licence:
- Applicant submits Application for Consent to Negotiate with Landowners [Form1] to the Commissioner of Forests
- Provincial Executive gives public notice of the date, time and place of the Timber Rights Meeting.
- A Timber Rights Meeting is held. The Landowners, the logging company, the Provincial forestry officers talk about who the true landowners are and whether they want logging to happen.
- The Provincial Executive issues a Certificate of Determination [Form2] which lists the landowners’ representatives and what was decided at the Timber Right Meetings
If all landowners do not want the logging to happen or there is a dispute about who the landowners are, the Provincial Executive must recommend to the Commissioner that the application be rejected and the Commissioner must reject the application
- Any person who disagrees with the Certificate of Determination can appeal within one month to the Customary Land Appeal Court
- If there is no appeal or the appeal is unsuccessful, the company and the landowners’ representative enter into Timber Right Agreement [Form 4]
- If the Provincial Executive is satisfied with the Timber Rights Agreement, it issues a Certificate of Approval [Form 3] and sends it to the Commissioner
- The Commissioner can grant the logging company a felling licence or mill licence.
From complaints reaching our office, it is sad to note that the whole process of Timber Right is usually corrupted right from the beginning when an application is submitted to the Commissioner of Forests for the concession area.
1. Application for consent to negotiate [Form1] Regulation Requirement of Detailed Map
It is a requirement that the application must specify where the applicant wants to log, and the regulations requires a detailed map to be provided.
In practice many maps do not comply and often are only A4 photocopies of the 1:50,000 maps with a marker drawn on them.
There is no excuse for the loggers not to comply with the requirement and for the Commissioner of Forests for not demanding a detailed and clear map from the applicant for the area it is requesting concession for.
The Ministry of Lands can provide enlarged maps of areas to be logged at a larger scale showing ridges, valleys, and streams etc.
Such are the landmarks that Tribal Landowning groups most often used for their boundaries, between adjacent tribal lands.
TSI is aware that in practice the map that the Commissioner pens his signature to actually encroached into other tribal adjacent lands.
Although these issues of encroachment are raised by concerned resource owners, the loggers and the fundraisers, the “wanna be landowners”, the Provincial Executives, the forestry officials, those who allow their land for logging and the company totally ignored these cries drawing up their Harvesting Plans and the approval of it by the appropriate government authorities.
This lack of clarity in the maps of concession area, the questionable decisions of Timber Right Meetings, the failure of logging companies, forestry officials, the Chiefs hearing, landowners who have agreed to logging to spend time and resource to properly identify:
· who the true landowners,
· and true boundaries of the land they have concession to log,
amongst other issues has resulted in many disputes over boundaries, encroachment into other lands, fights, burning of machineries etc.
There has also been a noticeable increase over the years of a huge number of cases before the courts between people who have peacefully co-existed for years but are now fighting over known land boundaries that have been breached by logging companies having no regard for customary landowners.
Failure of the government to properly resource the courts has resulted in many complaints leveled at the courts on the number of years it takes before cases are listed for hearing.
Instead of spending huge amounts of funds to the tune of $1.6 million in the trip to Taiwan, the money could have been used to fund the Timber Rights Process, the Courts, especially the Local Courts.
Currently it seems that the accepted “norm” is that all Timber Right Meetings convened by the Provincial Executive is funded by the logging companies as is the Chiefs Hearing on disputes over ownership and other issues.
Where is the neutrality in this when the logging company (applicant) is funding these meetings?
2. The Abuse and Misuse of the Commissioner of Forests signed Concession Map
It is also a practice of logging companies, with their fundraisers [wanna be landowners] together with the pro-logging landowning groups to use the concession map signed by the Commissioner of Forests against Tribal Groups who dispute the boundaries and oppose logging on issues of land encroachment.
Complaints reaching TSI is that most often the disputing parties on boundaries, encroachment etc. are told by logging companies agents together with the landowning groups who want their land logged that the concession area legally belongs to the logging company because it is given by the Commissioner of Forests; that it cannot be challenged nor changed by anyone as it is a legal document.
They go on to say to illiterate landowners that because it is a legal decision by the Commissioner of Forests even the landowners who agree to log their land knowing very well that the operation is encroaching into other lands are unable to amend it.
This kind of sentiments has been echoed in Timber Right Meetings and neither the Forestry officials nor the Provincial Executive pointed out any differently to this wrong interpretation of the consent granted by the Commissioner of Forest to the applicant to negotiate with customary landowners.
There is no excuse at all for this and the only explanation for accepting that is corruption. The Commissioner of Forests does not own any of the customary lands in the concession map that he pens his signature to. He only has the right maybe to state-owned forests.
3. The Practice of Mapping of the Trees/Verses Mapping of customary land agreed to by Tribal owners to be logged.
It is also a practice that logging companies map out where the trees are instead of mapping out the trees within the land belonging to those landowners who allow their land to be logged.
Quite often, knowingly or not knowingly these are the maps that the Commissioner of Forests pens his signature to.
The Logging company, the Provincial Executive and the Commissioner of Forests and its officials based at the provincial level have no regard at all and nor do they make any attempt to ensure that the map they pen their names to is the correct one, agreed to by all interested parties for and against logging.
Had they done so they would discover that the concession map finally approved to be logged would exclude lands and trees belonging to other customary landowners.
Most often it is this concession map that has caused so many disputes.
It should have been amended and corrected through site survey for boundary identification to avoid that logging companies basing their harvesting plan on it.
Most times it is the Solomon Island agents that attend Timber Right Meeting and hear the issues raised and not the loggers themselves.
4. Concession Map signed by Commissioner of Forests and Landowner Map of area to be logged.
It is also the case that more than often the area to be logged or land to be logged as understood by those who put their land to be logged differs from those submitted by the company to the Provincial Executive for the Timber Right Meeting.
Most often the logging company map signed by the Commissioner of Forest in Form 1 is much larger than that of the landowners who agree to logging.
Clearly the Commissioner of Forest and his officials owe it to the landowning groups that this practice must not be allowed to continue.
The Commissioner of Forests should require logging companies assisted by forestry officials and landowning groups to map out the land belonging to resource owners who want to log their land as a pre-requisite to the Harvesting Plan.
The implication of the current practice of unclear maps must stop because its implication will continue to haunt Solomon Islands.
The likelihood that unscrupulous landowners will try to use this map to gain more land will continue to create conflict/dispute as tribes fight to ensure what is rightly theirs remains with them.
Many things can be read into this, but what is clear is that the logging companies, corrupt Solomon Islanders, both officials and wanna be landowners, Provincial Executive are not doing their job, are not strictly complying with the requirement of the Forestry Resource and Timber Utilization Act and regulations.
5. Availability of Timber Right Meeting Papers to all interest Parties.
In any Timber Right Meeting, the disputes that are raised are concerned with boundaries, genealogies, trusteeship composition, and types of land, properties, taboo sites, sacrificial places, subdivisions and ownership within the tribal land to be logged and with neighboring tribal land groups on boundaries between the two tribal lands.
Most often adjacent tribal landowning groups do so from a very disadvantage position where they are not provided with any of the documents before the meeting.
They relied heavily on their knowledge of the land to support their claim or opposition.
From information reaching TSI, it indicates that most often in the Timber Right Meeting those who object to logging on the need to identify and verify the common boundary with the land to be logged or on Trusteeship compositions, disputes on genealogy etc. are paid very little or no attention at all.
They often point out to the Provincial Executive Timber Right Meeting that the concession map might be overlapping into their land based on many past experiences on other lands.
They demand for boundaries to be surveyed before operation to ensure their land is not encroached into and they do so in the absence of any maps or documents being made available to them.
It is a practice in the Timber Right Meetings that the opposing or disputing parties are not provided with any of the documents for the Timber Right Meeting.
The only groups that are provided with the documents are, the Forestry Officials, the company, their agents, and tribal landowners who want to log their land, and the Provincial Executive.
This has made it almost impossible for disputing landowners and parties on ownership, boundaries, encroachment to prepare detailed submission to the meeting, in challenging the concession area etc.
Furthermore whilst landowning members that agree to have the customary land logged, are funded by the loggers to attend the Timber Right Meeting all expenses paid for, opposing tribal members and other disputing parties have to fund their attendance, and given that they are scattered only one or two manage to get to the meeting ill-prepared but trusting that the process will be complied with, only to find that this is not the case.
Furthermore the minutes of the Timber Right Meeting are often very poor and did not follow the sequence of input nor does it capture the submissions from disputing parties.
6. The Appeal Process Landownership verses other issues of equal importance.
Most disputing parties on boundaries, sub-divisions, on encroachment, on their taboo sites are left helpless and hopeless by the process.
There is no appeal mechanism provided for in the regulations for their particular issues, the way they see it.
The appeal provided for in the regulation is over ownership and their issues do not fit into that category.
Most recognize that the authority to dispose of timber right within a tribal land belongs to the said tribe and is something that opposing parties seldom dispute other than members of the same tribe.
Their issues are not on ownership but on boundaries, encroachment etc. and having failed to impress upon the meeting they are left frustrated and helpless.
This in some instances has resulted in the burning of machines and other unlawful acts as resource owners try to protect their land and the resources within.
Most of these unlawful acts happen, when the company has physically encroached into land they claim is theirs.
In all of this the forestry officials are of no help nor do they make any attempt to survey the land, report what is happening etc. Is this what they are paid for.
7. Forestry Officials attending Timber Right Meetings
Attending the Timber Right Meeting are the Forestry Officers, but most often they say nothing or very little.
They are there to provide advice to the meeting on the regulations and the process and take their own notes on the discussion, notes that should inform or alert the Commissioner of Forests of the issues and concerns raised during the meeting that could be used for policy and legislative reform to address issues of corruption in the logging sector.
According to information shared with TSI, these officers of the forest division do no such thing.
It is alleged that because their allowance is also paid by the loggers, they do nothing and are often seen as pro-loggers, maybe unfairly so but when they are accepting acts and conducts they know is not right what else can helpless resource owners say?
TSI has also been informed that, in some circumstances where there was an obvious disagreement raised during the meeting and there was no agreement reached by the landowners and the applicant, the Timber Right determination still came out in favour of the applicant, instead of having such an application rejected.
8. Ex-parte Applications to the High Court
A very disheartening issue that has been raised time and again by frustrating customary land owners with TSI is that, when disputing parties challenge the logging operation on the ground on issues of trespass, quite often instead of sitting with the disputing parties to sort out the matter, the logging company, their agent, the landowning groups who allowed for their land to be logged, rush to Honiara and filed urgent Ex-parte Applications in the High Court seeking orders against opposing parties.
The applications vary from case to case, but according to complaints raised with TSI, some Ex-parte applications against opposing landowners were to do with not disturbing certain logging operation, and to allow operations to proceed (even when the issue of ownership is under dispute).
The main reason normally given by pro-loggers is that the government will lose revenue and the opposing side is stopping the government from making money so they should be so ordered accordingly.
This practice in some instances is well justified but in cases over disputed area, it is uncalled for and borders on the abuse of the court system, by the logging company, their agents and pro-logging landowners.
In some instances, urgent applications are filed and are listed for early hearing.
Opposing resource owners are usually left with little to no funds at all to engage private lawyers to attend to their cases in court, or even be able to raise funds to travel from their village to Honiara.
In some instances, landowners were not able to raise enough funds at all and were not able to attend court hearings.
Again many of the issues affecting the logging sector in the country has been duly ruled on by our Courts and TSI believes that the Commissioner of Forests, his officials in the provinces should study these cases and the ruling on them to guide all interested parties in the logging industry.
This also should be the case with the Provincial Executive.
Understanding the rulings on these cases will help them do a better job.
Landowners Advocacy and Legal Support Unit of Public Solicitors Office has done good work and can do good work but they are under resourced as is the case with any institutions that look after the interest of the people and community.
As pointed out by the Registrar of the High Court, the High Court and other institutions need to be well-resourced to deal with the high number of outstanding cases and assist people to better understand their rights, and where they should go to get help.
If the government can spend $1.6 million on a single trip overseas, it can surely properly resource the High Court of Solomon Islands, cover the cost of local courts, and Timber Right Meetings.
Logging companies funding government processes [Timber Right Meeting, Chiefs Hearing etc.] is a conflict of interest and where the result is a foregone conclusion.
9. The Regulation of Logging in Solomon Islands – the Acts, Bills etc.
The principal act regulating logging is the Forest Resource and Timber Utilization Act.
The aim of this Act is to control and regulate the timber industry.
It was first introduced as Timber Utilization Act in 1969 and has been amended several times.
Major amendments were made in 1977, 1984 when it was renamed Forest Resource and Timber Utilization Act 1984, and in 1990.
Since then there have been several attempts to reform the FRTU Act and in 1999 the Parliament passed the Forest Act which received royal accent but was never gazette and never became law.
Again in 2004 the Forest Bill was drafted but again never passed by parliament.
Since then this Bill was superseded by Forests Bill 2012, a bill that is yet to be tabled in parliament.
This means that the FRTU continues to regulate the logging industry or is it being regulated by a corrupted version of it.
The government makes a lot of money from the forest resources.
How can it continue to ignore the cries of its people, rob them of their resource when their land is illegally logged through trespasses, encroachment etc. on the most important resource they own?
How can it continue to accept money raised corruptly from its peoples properties?
How can it sleep with itself and not passed the Bills that can better protect its citizens from these corrupt conducts?
As is the case with the Forestry Bills, is this the way our leaders are going to treat the Anti-Corruption Bill that is before them now but deferred from second reading tabling?
We want to know what you think.
Please contact us at TSI, Hyundai Mall Office Room 226 or phone 28319.
By TRANSPARENCY SOLOMON ISLANDS